Getting down to business in the Queen City

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Ballantyne ResortCHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a 24-year hiatus, the PGA Tour is finally back in Charlotte. The inaugural Wachovia Championship, held at the Quail Hollow Club, gets underway Thursday with a strong field and a $5.6 million purse.

Despite the absence of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, the event will thrust the Queen City into the national television spotlight for four straight days. Viewers not familiar with the area will discover what the majority of long-time residents have known for years - this city oozes golf.

There are close to 70 golf courses within a 45-minute drive of downtown, the majority of which are available for public consumption and are easy on the wallet, to boot. An 18-hole round with cart on a weekday runs about $30-$35 at most local courses and about $50-$55 on weekends and holidays.

Stonebridge Golf ClubSans the cart, a $25 weekday round at a respectable course is quite normal, albeit something of an economic phenomena for metropolitan area of more than 1.6 million people. To the shock of many visitors, walking is actually a viable option on most Charlotte courses. Some, like the Stonebridge Golf Club and Charlotte National were designed with walking in mind. Others, like the Donald Ross/George Cobb designed Fort Mill Golf Club, were wrought well before the advent of the buggy.

With no beach, no mountains and only one 18-hole resort, Charlotte will never be mistaken for a golf destination. However, as the second largest financial center in the U.S., the Carolinas' largest city ranks among the country's top stops for golf and business. Should you find yourself strolling the city's oak-canopied streets this week for business, or perhaps to catch the Wachovia Championship, consider a trip around the local links.

Top Tier

Regent Park Golf Club: This Ron Garl designed course south of the city rocked Charlotte's daily fee world upon opening in 1995. The course's owners gave Garl carte blanche to craft a course that consistently ranks among the most arduous in the area. Large bunkers, hazards galore, extensive mounding and extremely sloped greens are the M.O. at this modern layout. In defiance of the plug above, carts are required.

Skybrook Golf Club: John LaFoy designed this sublime semiprivate track situated 15 minutes north of "Uptown" Charlotte. The course claims to be located in the "mountains" of Charlotte. While obviously a play on geography, Skybrook makes good on the concept. No course in the area boasts more elevation changes, and few courses are as playable. Skybrook is an enjoyable collection of elevated tee boxes, bowl-shaped fairways and greens you could park an airplane on. The course conditions are commensurate with what you'd expect from the area's most expensive pay-for-play facility.

Stonebridge Golf Club: Stonebridge was designed by Richard Osborne, a former associate of the aforementioned Garl. If you enjoy courses with two distinct sets of nines, then Stonebridge is made to order. The parkland style front nine is routed through some stately Carolina hardwoods and features some of the courses most aesthetically pleasing holes. The back nine is wide open, windswept and linksy with some of the courses most memorable holes.

Ballantyne Resort: If in town for the Wachovia Championship, the resort course at Ballantyne is just a chip shot south of the Quail Hollow Club. Ballantyne is Charlotte's only "golf resort," and you are just as likely to find a fairway full of business travelers as you are the local gentry. To the shock of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the course was actually designed by a committee of local "experts." To the relief of regulars, the layout is enjoyable, challenging and worth the stiff weekend rates.

Waterford Golf Club: This Hale Irwin designed circuit is located 25 minutes south of Charlotte in scenic Rock Hill, S.C., but manages to pull legions of duffers from the lucrative Charlotte golf market. The course is set along the banks of the Catawba River, which comes into view on the par-5 second hole. Waterford peppers golfers with elevation changes, memorable holes and pristine conditions.

Rocky River Golf CLubRocky River Golf Club: One of Charlotte's newest daily fee courses, Rocky River is also one of its most talked about. Pinehurst-based golf course architect Dan Maples designed the course, which is often described as a unique fusion of the Sandhills, beach, and Piedmont regions. The most talked about hole on this talked about course, is the par-5 fifth. The construction crew uncovered a Flinstone-esque boulder when shaping the hole, and Maples opted to leave the thing smack dab in the middle of the fairway.

Charlotte National: This no-frills, Russell Breeden designed course on Charlotte's east side is as popular with the locals as BBQ and basketball. Low handicappers dig the 7,200-yard brawn of the course and a finishing stretch that holds its own with any in these parts. Average golfers relish the room off the tee and the open green fronts.

Birkdale: This ultra-popular Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay designed course in Huntersville is considered by many to be among the region's best. Birkdale is a first class operation - from its country club like service to its state-of-the-art practice facilities. The price, however, is prohibitive for many locals (over $60 on the weekends) and traditionalists will not be thrilled with the number of homes and condos lining most the holes. Excellent expense account fodder.

Olde Sycamore Golf Plantation: Superior service, picture-perfect bentgrass greens and a killer weekly coupon in the Charlotte Observer make Old Sycamore solid second tier shoe-in. The layout, however, is a matter of personal preference. Tom Jackson throws golfers more doglegs than a greyhound race, and a stretch of holes on the front nine seem to have been shoehorned into tight residential area.

Verdict Ridge: Former Charlotte mayor Eddie Knox designed this upscale, semiprivate offering 30 minutes northwest of downtown. Verdict Ridge runs up and down hills, through forests, and can generally wreak havoc on the average player's scorecard. A few of the holes leave design critics scratching their heads, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more successful marriage of scenery and difficulty in the entire area.

Where to Stay

Hampton Inn Charlotte Uptown"Uptown" Charlotte is a bustling downtown area filled with skyscrapers, bars, nightclubs, museums and galleries. Business travelers covet the proximity to the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport (about a 10-minute drive west) and traveling golfers appreciate the average travel time to most local area courses (about 20-30 minutes). The Hilton Garden Inn is a brand-spanking-new, Panos Hotel Group owned property with a lavishly adorned lobby, a cozy indoor pool, and 181 spacious guest rooms and 39 luxurious whirlpool suites. Its sister hotel, the Hampton Inn Charlotte Uptown, is a stylish, art deco property with 149 suites and rooms geared towards the business traveler. For reservations, call (877) 49-PANOS.

Wachovia Championship

Unless you already have tickets in hand, you're out of luck. The tournament was sold out as of last week, but it never hurts to just show up (just in case). Check out the tournament website, www.wachoviachampionship.com, for directions, weather information, and tournament updates.

Business Golf Tips

Ride in the same cart as your primary business contact and take the power(driver's) seat.
Establish the format up front and shy away from large wagers.
Always play the same tee as the guest.
Put the cell phone away and keep your golf tips to yourself.
Avoid cursing at all costs. If you are off of your game or simply don't have one, make light of it and keep the pace of play brisk.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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