Photos by Travis Dove
More than two decades ago, as he was navigating behind the wheel of his black Nissan Maxima from the University of South Carolina in Columbia to his Greensboro, N.C., home, college student Keith Wood couldn’t help but notice the Charlotte skyline, shortly before the halfway mark between his starting point and his destination.
The buildings he remembered seeing along that route seemed to have multiplied and climbed higher than ever. Skyscrapers — from the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center to the Duke Energy Center and the Hearst Tower — signaled how times had changed.
“It was the big city,” says Wood, “and now it was even bigger.”
Wood traveled Interstate 77 in those years from 1992 to 1996, but the evolution of an outer beltway, Interstate 485, was already taking shape back then, and, in the process, shaping Charlotte, which is sandwiched between mountains and the ocean and is attracting young residents like nowhere else. According to apartmentlist.com, the city’s millennial population increased more than that of any other U.S. city in 2016. By the time I-485 was completed in June 2015, Charlotte’s ascension as a sprawling, progressive Southern giant was difficult to dispute. One month before the superhighway was done, all roads led Wood there.
As Charlotte blossomed, so did Wood. Although he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at South Carolina, his time there had bred a new desire. During college, he’d worked at WildeWood Country Club (now The Members Club at WildeWood) in Columbia, pulling runners in bunkers with high school students when he wasn’t hand-watering bentgrass. The cause grew on him.
“I fell in love with the challenge of working with Mother Nature and trying to make it happen,” Wood says.
Wood, who started two years ago this past May at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, is certainly at the center of a truly happening place. As the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Quail Hollow, Wood is facing the ultimate challenge — hosting a major golf championship. When the first tee shot is struck on Aug. 10 in the 99th PGA Championship, Quail Hollow will cement its spot as golf king in the Queen City, becoming the first golf course in town to host a men’s major championship.
Quail Hollow Club superintendent Keith Wood (right) chats with intern Easton Davis.
Wood arrived at the club in 2015.
As Charlotte continues to prove it’s big-league, Quail Hollow — which will also welcome the 2021 Presidents Cup — is becoming to golf what Charlotte has become as a city: an emerging force.
“For me, I’m trying to stay grounded. It’s a golf tournament — with the best players in it and a lot of people watching,” says Wood, a 21-year GCSAA member. “I think the PGA of America realizes that they have something special at Quail Hollow.”
To help it reach that level, Quail Hollow sought out Wood, and on the eve of its finest hour, Wood appears to have arrived right on time.
“I said this the other day to our members: He’s (Wood) the best decision I’ve made at Quail Hollow,” says general manager Thomas DeLozier.
In 500 words, here’s what you need to know about Wood pre-Quail Hollow: Now 43, he was born in Augusta, Ga., the son of Richard (an Army veteran) and Leigh (a nurse midwife). The family briefly lived in Germany. His wife of nearly five years, Amanda, discovered early on that Wood had his act together. “He held the door open for me. And he listened,” Amanda says. He also produced on her first birthday together, finding his way to her heart through her stomach. “He grilled flank steak with mashed potatoes and lima beans. Just perfect,” Amanda says. The couple has two children, Grace and Alex.
Wood learned hard work early, when he would toil in the field during watermelon harvest. “We picked 25-pound Jubilee watermelons. You’d stand in a line, picking them and passing them. If you were next to the truck, you’d toss them up to the guy in the truck,” says Wood, who also mowed lawns for $5.
In college, Wood contemplated medical school, but observing then-WildeWood superintendent Kevin Redfern changed his mind. “He had a beautiful family. Was challenged, passionate about what he did. I said, ‘Wow, this is a life I could get in to,’” Wood says.
Wood earned a two-year turf degree from Rutgers University, landing an assistant job at WildeWood even before he secured his degree. He departed in 1999 to join Redfern, who had moved on to Greensboro resort Grandover, as his assistant. “It was high-end, had a convention center, jammed all the time pre-9/11. I oversaw 18 holes, so it was like I was a superintendent,” Wood says.
This is the first time the PGA Championship has come to Quail Hollow, and only the third time it has been played in North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of the PGA of America
Wood’s rise continued in 2003 when he got the job as superintendent at Florence (S.C.) Country Club. Redfern, a 34-year GCSAA member who is now director of grounds at Governors Club in Chapel Hill, N.C., received a phone call before Wood was hired. “The green chair called, asked me what I knew about Keith’s strengths. He emphasized he didn’t want to make a mistake. I told him the only mistake he’d make was if he didn’t hire Keith,” Redfern says.
On occasion, Wood would confer with Clemson’s Bruce Martin, Ph.D., who observed that Wood possessed an internal fire in heat- and humidity-ridden Florence.
“What I remember about Keith is he just refused to let bentgrass die,” Martin says. “He was interested in his work, all the time. Asked many questions. He would’ve made an awesome graduate student.”
His tenacity was no shock to those who know and have worked with him, such as Brent Gentel at Grandover. That time was crucial in Wood’s career, Gentel says. “He was able to study, dial in, on every aspect of the golf course. With him, days didn’t end at a certain time. It ended when we felt good about wrapping up,” says Gentel, a 15-year association member who is now the Class A superintendent at Starmount Forest Country Club in Greensboro. “He is smart. Dedicated. He always seems to be one step ahead of everybody else.”
Growth encounters of the Charlotte kind
Johnny Harris is among Wood’s cheering section, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with having him in your corner. If anybody understands how Charlotte, Quail Hollow and Wood operate, it’s Harris. He was raised in Charlotte, back when the population was only a few hundred thousand and the textile industry was flourishing. He also just happens to be the son of James Harris, who, in April 1959, hosted the meeting of founders that led to making Quail Hollow a reality (it opened in 1961).
Wood (left) and assistant superintendent Brandon Hicks check out the construction of a grandstand at Quail Hollow in the time leading up to this month’s PGA Championship.
Today, as CEO of the Charlotte-based real estate firm Lincoln Harris, Harris marvels at how far Charlotte (the population of the city proper is closing in on 900,000, with the metro area boasting more than 2.6 million residents) and Quail Hollow have come. NASCAR always has been a fixture (although its headquarters are in Daytona Beach, Fla., the NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Charlotte). Other professional sports entered the picture in 1988, when the Charlotte Hornets joined the NBA as an expansion franchise. Seven years later, the Carolina Panthers were added to the NFL in expansion. Currently, Charlotte is pursuing a bid to join Major League Soccer.
“Sports played a major role in the coming together of our community. Instead of being a regional hub, we made it clear we were going to be a community to be reckoned with,” Harris says.
Golf in Charlotte, particularly at Quail Hollow, got a boost when legend Arnold Palmer aided Harris’ father in luring the PGA Tour’s Kemper Open there in 1969, and it stayed through 1979. It was replaced from 1980 to 1989 by the World Seniors Invitational until the PGA Tour returned in 2003 with the Wachovia Championship. Since 2009, Quail Hollow has hosted the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship (because of the PGA Championship, the event was played this year at Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington). Things were taken up a notch in 2010, when Quail Hollow was awarded the PGA Championship.
“When I started here 33 years ago, I didn’t imagine something like this,” says Quail Hollow equipment manager Jerry Blackwelder.
On the clock
The Wood family: Keith and his wife, Amanda, are the proud parents of Grace and Alex, who was born 13 months ago when his father was deep into the restoration at Quail Hollow.
Wood, meanwhile, barely had time to prepare for his first Wells Fargo. Following a successful run at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship, he started at Quail Hollow less than a month before the Wells Fargo in 2015.
“My thought was just make one good decision a day. I was trying to gain the trust of this team at a high-stress time,” Wood says. “My thoughts to them were, ‘Let’s all agree it’s the right thing to do, talk it out, make good decisions, and that your input is valued.’”
Teamwork has never seemed as important as it has lately. Immediately following the 2016 Wells Fargo, Quail Hollow initiated a major restoration with guidance from Tom Fazio, who had overseen a 1997 redesign. The deadline? Eighty-nine days. And they didn’t waste any time getting started, either. “Once they (players) were out of the way, I was on the first green, and trees were falling all around me,” Wood says. “We were switching gears — pretty quickly.” Assistant superintendent Basil Lowell, a seven-year association member, says: “We knew the expectations. We just had to turn it up a little bit.”
Here’s a summary of what transpired: They cleared and graded 28 acres; 200,000 pounds of earth was moved and rearranged; 43 acres of sod were installed; three new holes were built (Nos. 1, 4 and 5); all 18 greens were resurfaced from MiniVerde to Champion G12 ultradwarf bermuda-
grass (Wood had timely experience in that area, having overseen the switch from bentgrass to ultradwarf at Sedgefield); approach areas, tees and collars were resodded with quarter-inch-cut TifGrand; and bunkering was re-edged and freshened with new sand — the same type used at Augusta National Golf Club.
Top: On occasion, Wood spends time out on the course with equipment manager Jerry Blackwelder (left) and Blackwelder’s assistant, Jason Vail. A veteran of the club, Blackwelder has been at Quail Hollow for 33 years.
Bottom: During the morning routine at Quail Hollow, Wood shares a laugh and a smile with intern Lara Arias.
Mission accomplished. Quail Hollow reopened on time on Aug. 6, 2016. “We won,” Wood says.
Wood’s triumphs began long before Quail Hollow, however, says PGA Tour rules official Dillard Pruitt. Pruitt knows him from the Florence era, when the club held a pre-qualifier for the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. “When he tells you he is going to do something, he does it. That’s a great quality in a person,” Pruitt says. “Keith has a high attention to detail, which makes him great at what he does and perfect for competitive golf tournaments.”
Neither Harris nor Quail Hollow green chair Bob Seymour were surprised when the 2016 restoration was completed on schedule. “Keith is impatiently patient. He’s like a racehorse. He wants to jump in and solve a problem, but has an ability to step back, be patient, and let nature do its thing,” Harris says. “He’s been able to translate his vision of the golf course to people who work with him. That’s pretty spectacular.”
Seymour adds: “He (Wood) always tells me the main thing is members playing golf. We need to give him and his staff time to get it in good shape, give them what they need to make it perfect.”
Quail Hollow assistant superintendent Shane Omann is eager to present their product. “This event is opening the door for Quail Hollow. Not only for Quail Hollow, but Charlotte too,” says Omann, a four-year GCSAA member. “Think of how many cities, countries, will have their eyes on Charlotte. The leadership of Quail Hollow definitely is up for the challenge.”
How? “It starts at the top. Keith is one of the strongest leaders I’ve ever been around,” says assistant superintendent Brandon Hicks, a seven-year association member. “He constantly focuses on expectations and how we can overachieve. Pretty good example to follow.”
There should be no shortage of followers this month at Quail Hollow, a private club where no tee time is necessary and the surroundings feature a parkland look, with trees, shrubbery and green grass — all of which, in many ways, resembles Charlotte as a whole.
“There is a tremendous love of golf in this area. Our (Wells Fargo) event has kind of set its mark, but a larger audience may not know or understand how special this place is,” says DeLozier, adding that a line in the club’s mission statement is “to be the best in class, whether it is service, presentation, product, or facilities.”
“A lot of people are going to see the brilliance of Keith and our team,” DeLozier says. “And a lot of people are going to talk about Quail Hollow that perhaps hadn’t heard of it before.”
When the PGA Championship is over, Wood’s pursuit of excellence won’t be done. Just as Charlotte and Quail Hollow have risen to new heights, he has every intention of continuing to reach for the stars.
“We’re searching for the holy grail of management. We’ll at least try,” Wood says. “We have a great team, which is what it all comes down to. We want Quail Hollow to be in the conversation when it comes to the best golf courses in the U.S.”
Now and then
If Keith Wood has anything to do with it — and he does — Quail Hollow Club will look much different next May than it does right now.
Wood, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Quail Hollow, says anyone who plays in or watches the PGA Championship Aug. 10-13 can expect the course to have some new wrinkles come next May, when the club will host the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship.
“For the PGA Championship, this will be the first time that they play on an all-bermudagrass Quail Hollow. It will be a completely different experience for them than what they are used to,” Wood says. “But, come May, it’ll be a completely different golf course with different grasses, mowing patterns and course presentation.”
Wood and his crew will overseed with perennial ryegrass and Poa trivialis following the PGA Championship, in preparation for the 2017 Wells Fargo. With the different grass types, mowing patterns and mowing heights, Wood expects the course to play much differently for the world’s best players, and hopes the change will showcase the versatility of Quail Hollow. “We can produce a championship golf course in two different lights and have each event set up differently,” Wood says.
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.