Guardians of the game
September 1, 2022
How Charlotte’s Harris family built Quail Hollow Club into a championship venue.
by Ron Green Jr. | portraits by Peter Taylor
Johnny Harris and his son Johno are sitting in a glass-walled conference room in the SouthPark offices of Lincoln Harris, a commanding view of the Charlotte skyline behind them.
They are talking about golf and life and Charlotte and the intersection of those things that define both of them. Those things — the game, the men and the setting — are inseparable, and it’s not a stretch to say golf has helped frame their world views.
Enter their offices on the eighth floor of the Piedmont Row building, and the evidence is clear. The Golf Channel plays on the wall-mounted television in the reception area. Books about the game and its places lie on a coffee table.
There is a photograph that gets to the heart of all of this, and Harris goes looking for it. His office is a few steps from the conference room, and its walls are cluttered with art and photographs, many showing Harris smiling with friends at golf destinations around the world.
The photograph he is looking for isn’t here. It’s at home, because that’s where most of us keep the things that matter the most. It shows Harris standing face-to-face with Arnold Palmer, and the great man has his blacksmith-strong hands wrapped around his friend’s neck. The image is as intimate as it is enlightening.
“Every time Arnold decided to get serious, he would get in front of me and put his arm around my neck so you couldn’t move. He was a bear. He was so strong. He’d hold me and talk to me like that. When he had something to say, you better listen,” says Harris, CEO and chairman of Lincoln Harris, one of the region’s dominant commercial real estate companies.
There are people who will tell you they knew Arnold Palmer, and they did. But precious few of them knew Palmer like Harris did, traveling the world together, bound by golf and the bonds it can create.
It was Palmer who supported James J. Harris (Johnny’s father) when he decided to build Quail Hollow Club in the early 1960s, telling him that if Harris would build it, Palmer would make sure professional golf was played there. They delivered on their assurances to each other, and six decades later, the Presidents Cup is coming to Quail Hollow, building on a legacy that has shaped not just the club but, to some degree, Charlotte itself.
Harris, the club’s president, has nurtured and cultivated what his father created, managing to build Quail Hollow into a global golf brand while maintaining the relaxed exclusivity of a club that has fewer than 350 members. Get him going, and Harris has an evangelist’s gift for bringing people to him. While his son is more introverted, the principles and passions have been passed along like the family’s DNA.
“We say it all the time: Golf has become an important part of the fabric of this community. Sports always has been,” says Johno Harris, president of Lincoln Harris.
“When we talk about the fabric, we talk about bringing people together. We think about the First Tee and what Champions for Education does — how important that is to grow the game of golf for everyone.
“Having the HBCU event (honoring Charlotte native and golf Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford on Aug. 29), as excited as people are about the Presidents Cup, I have talked and heard more about that event than I have about the week of the Cup.”
It would have been easy for Johnny Harris to keep Quail Hollow locked away behind its guard gate, a sanctuary for its members, many of whom operate at the highest levels of business nationally and internationally.
While the club still values and protects its privacy, by hosting large-scale events such as the Presidents Cup it has also become a shared part of the city, a place where golf brings people together. It’s why creating the Wachovia Championship (now the Wells Fargo Championship) in 2003 was critical, allowing the club to grow into more than Harris’ father envisioned.
It can’t be accomplished alone, not on the scale Harris and Quail Hollow have achieved.
“It’s an unbelievably special place,” says Johno, who credits the club’s members with supporting events like the Wells Fargo Championship; the PGA Championship, which the club hosted in 2017; and now, the Presidents Cup.
“It’s a group of members coming together realizing that hosting the best players in the world is not just about Quail Hollow or south Charlotte, it’s about the community.”
When the conversation turns back to playing golf, as it inevitably does, both men downplay where they are today.
“I play badly twice a week,” Johnny says.
“I play in spurts,” Johno says. “I can’t remember the last time I went to Quail on a Saturday and played golf.”
Don’t be confused. They still find time to play, often at some of the game’s most prestigious places. When they tell stories about playing golf together, they are often set at Augusta National, Pine Valley or Seminole. They’re not dropping names, just offering windows into their world.
Eventually, it comes back around to Palmer, a guiding force in their lives. In their many hours together, Harris and Palmer discussed many things. When there are decisions to be made, Harris still relies on Palmer’s counsel, even though he’s been gone since 2016.
“Every time I feel like we’re pushing the envelope a little bit and gotten a little aggressive, I think about Arnold,” Johnny says.
Years ago, the Harris family was in Florida to be with Palmer, who was playing a senior event. Palmer beckoned young Johno to take a seat on the range near him.
“It’s one of those times in my life that I still go back to. As he was working on his clubs and hitting balls, he talked to me about the integrity of the game and what that truly means, honor and trust,” Johno says. “He talked about if you decide to be part of this game, what you take on and your responsibilities toward growing the game and making sure you play it right and treat the people around you right.
“Unquestionably, the game has rounded me.”
One of these days, Johnny Harris will step back from his role as president of Quail Hollow, but he’s not ready to do that yet. Ask him if it’s becoming Johno’s time to lead, and he’s quick to reframe the question.
“Are you trying to say I’m old?” he asks.
Does he at least take a moment to look back on all that has been achieved, driven by his father’s initial vision and Palmer’s inspiration?
That’s not the Harris style. There is more to be done. The road ahead is open.
“I must admit it’s very unusual for me to even think about looking back. It’s just like the Presidents Cup — it’s going to be great, and I’m going to be real excited and I look forward to being a part of it and watching it. But I promise when it’s over, it’s like the  PGA Championship. I never thought about it,” Harris says.
There is more professional golf to come at Quail Hollow. The Wells Fargo Championship is booked through 2024, and there have been early discussions about extending the relationship. The PGA Championship will return to Quail Hollow in 2025, and few places have the infrastructure to support golf at its highest level like Quail Hollow has.
It’s the game that matters to Johnny and Johno Harris, not just for the rounds of golf they play but for what it is and what it can be. They have forged some of their closest relationships through golf, and they have seen the game reach into communities, providing resources and opportunities that are vital to a region’s growth.
They are guardians of the game. On a rolling piece of property where the Harris family and friends used to hunt quail, the world has found a gathering place, bigger and wider than James J. Harris ever imagined but driven by the eternal flame he lit. SP
Read our Presidents Cup coverage, including what to expect at Quail Hollow and more about the U.S. Team.
Photograph courtesy Getty Images/PGA TOUR
Quail Hollow Club tops the North Carolina Golf Panel’s 2022 rankings for the Charlotte Metro region. The club ranks fifth overall on the panel’s top 100 course rankings, behind Pinehurst No. 2, Grandfather Golf and Country Club (Linville), Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (Southern Pines) and the Country Club of North Carolina – Dogwood (Pinehurst). Founded in 1995 by Charlotte public-relations executive Bill Hensley, the panel comprises golf professionals, journalists, active amateur players, businesspeople and others.
Charlotte Metro Regional Rankings for 2022
1. Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte
2. Charlotte Country Club, Charlotte
3. Myers Park Country Club, Charlotte
4. Trump National Golf Club, Mooresville
5. The Club at Longview, Waxhaw
6. Gaston Country Club, Gastonia
7. Ballantyne Country Club, Charlotte
8. The Club at Irish Creek, Kannapolis
9. River Run Country Club, Davidson
10. Carmel Country Club (South), Charlotte
11. Cedarwood Country Club, Charlotte
12. Providence Country Club, Charlotte