Golf-course architect Tom Fazio at Hasentree, a Wake Forest club that opened in 2007 and was acquired three years later by luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc.
By Lee Pace
Before the first ball is struck at the two most prominent professional golf tour events in North Carolina this year, the leader in the clubhouse is Hendersonville’s Tom Fazio. It’s a special year for the famed course designer as two of his Tar Heel projects will be in the professional-golf spotlight, with the Wells Fargo Championship making a one-off trip to Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington May 4-7, and the PGA Championship, one of pro golf’s four major tournaments, visiting Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club Aug. 10-13. The Wells Fargo, originally the Wachovia Championship, has been held at Quail Hollow since 2003 but is making a one-year relocation because of the Charlotte event three months later.
It hasn’t always been so easy for Fazio, 72, given the economic ebb and flow that can easily ignite a spurt of work or quickly swerve the golf business into the muck. “I’ve been through, what, four or five recessions in my career?” he muses. “The only one that really hurt was the first one — the 1974-75 recession. We were just trying to get started, and it was a tough go. After you’re established and successful, they don’t hurt as much.
“But that ’74-75 recession was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was no work, so I got married and had six wonderful kids. Now, those kids have given us 14 grandkids. How great is that?”
Fazio’s firm has designed some 200 golf courses over four-plus decades, including a Japan course that will host the 2020 Olympics. He and his wife, Sue, became enamored of the North Carolina mountains in the mid-1980s while Fazio was crafting Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers and thought it a better environment to raise their family than Palm Beach, Fla. His résumé includes 18 courses in North Carolina — from Pinehurst No. 6 that opened in 1979 and jumpstarted his career to The Hasentree Club in Wake Forest, which opened in 2007.
“This state has been so incredibly good to me,” says Fazio, who also has designed 22 courses in South Carolina. “From the mountains to the coast and everything in between, you could call that course list a career and be very satisfied.”
Quail Hollow was the brainchild of Charlotte real-estate and insurance investor James Harris, who was frustrated in the late 1950s with the crowded tee sheet at Charlotte Country Club. He believed a parcel of family land on what was then the city’s southern edge would be ideal for a golf club. He hired Greenville, S.C.-based architect George Cobb, who helped draw plans for two dozen Tar Heel courses between the 1940s and 1980s, including Quail Hollow, which opened in 1961. Harris died in 1985, and 11 years later his son, Johnny, now the club’s majordomo, brought Fazio in to shepherd sweeping changes.
“Johnny said, ‘I want to have a major championship at Quail Hollow; what do we need to do with the golf course?’” Fazio recalls. “It’s been an ongoing process, one project at a time. We started rebuilding the back nine and, just this year, finished with the front.”
Over two decades, Fazio has added length and adjusted angles. He’s moved some greens to create space for corporate hospitality and upgraded all the playing surfaces to modern standards. More than 1,000 trees were removed last year as part of a switch to a new Bermuda grass better able to handle hot Carolina summers. Replacements included strategically located rhododendrons, hydrangeas and trees including crepe myrtles. He’s expanded the practice facility and tweaked the three-hole finishing stretch, which has become known as “The Green Mile” for its proximity to water hazards and great risk-reward challenges.
The basic routing remains the work of Cobb. Everything else is Fazio. “Tom has touched every hole on the golf course, most of them significantly,” says Wells Fargo Championship General Chairman Mac Everett. “Between Johnny’s vision and drive and Tom’s design skills, Quail is now one of the top courses on the PGA Tour, year-in and year-out.”
At the same time Fazio was beginning to retool Quail Hollow, Greensboro textile executive Billy Armfield asked him to look at a site just north of Wilmington for a golf-only club: No tennis, no pool, no real estate. Eagle Point opened in May 2000. Since founding member Bobby Long also has been the moving force behind the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, it made sense to use his expertise when relocating the Wells Fargo this year.
Long remembers walking the Eagle Point site with Fazio, Armfield and the club’s other two founders, Greensboro manufacturer John Ellison and former Morgan Stanley Co. Chief Executive Officer John Mack, in February 1998. (Armfield died last July at age 81.) It was a cold, blustery day, and the site had been ravaged by recent storms.
“It was a mess — there were trees everywhere,” says Long, who became a key Triad civic leader after selling his insurance business in 2002. “It’s raining, it’s 45 degrees, it’s miserable. And Tom is smiling and saying, ‘Man, this is great.’ He’s describing where everything will go. I’m thinking, ‘This guy is certifiably nuts.’”
Told of that description years later, Fazio smiles.
“It’s just what I do,” he says. “Bobby Long can look at a balance sheet and it makes sense, and it’s Greek to me. I look at a piece of land, and it makes sense.”
Today, Fazio splits his time between offices in Jupiter, Fla., and Hendersonville and homes in Florida and Lake Toxaway. His son, Logan, 40, runs the day-to-day operation of Fazio Golf Course Designers. The family has invested in the planting and harvesting of miscanthus, a tall grass deemed to have a bright future in the biofuel industry. “I have a lot of grandkids. I’m looking to the future.”