Scott Fowler

‘And now they’re gone’: At Quail Hollow, UNCC tragedy at forefront of golf tourney

In some ways, Thursday’s opening day at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte looked the same as it often does.

The golf course gleamed. The fans clapped. The birds chirped.

But it didn’t feel the same, because our city will never feel the same.

On Tuesday, during a 5:30 p.m. anthropology class at UNC Charlotte, a gunman who had once been enrolled in that class opened fire.

Two UNC Charlotte students – 21-year-old Riley Howell and 19-year-old Ellis “Reed” Parlier — were killed. Four more UNCC students were injured. The suspected gunman was captured – in part because of Howell’s heroics – and taken into custody.

The shooting occurred less than 20 miles away from Quail Hollow Club. It would be no exaggeration to say that thousands of people working or walking the golf course Thursday had some connection to the university – a family member who is a proud 49er student, or someone who works at the school, or a friend who is an alum.

The tournament and Quail Hollow wisely didn’t try to pretend that the Charlotte community isn’t reeling from this tragedy. Instead, they acknowledged it in a number of visible ways.

Ribbons that were colored 49er green were made available for the golfers to wear, and a number of them pinned those ribbons to their caps. The American flag in front of Quail Hollow’s clubhouse was lowered to half-staff.

There were memorial boards that read “Charlotte Strong” that fans could sign, and another board at the first tee for the players. Phil Mickelson wore a shirt that was 49ers green during his first round.

WellsFargoChampionshipGolf (2).JPG
Phil Mickelson watches a tee shot Thursday at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Mickelson wore a shirt Thursday that was similar to the Charlotte 49ers’ primary school color. Jason E. Miczek AP

For some golfers, like Charlotte resident Webb Simpson, the killings literally struck close to home. I asked him about it after his round.

“I have five kids,” Simpson said, “and I can’t imagine what those parents are going through… If you get your kids off to college, you kind of wipe your forehead that they’re doing well. They’re probably having the best years of their life. And now, they’re gone. I just – I hate it so much.”

Although the PGA Tour is a traveling circus with players from all over the world, there was an obvious understanding from many of those players about what happened Tuesday at UNCC — and how trying to hit a small white ball near a flagstick on Thursday was quite insignificant by comparison.

“It’s a shock, you know what I mean?” said Australian Jason Day, who won this tournament in 2018.

“We live in a very, very difficult world right now when people are taking other people’s lives … We don’t need to glorify the person that did this at all, we just need to think about the memory of the people that have moved on… Some young kids, that are just starting their lives, and the families that have to deal with the heartbreak.”

Golfer Martin Laird said he counts himself as “as a local” because he once lived in the Charlotte area. He wore a green ribbon during his round.

“I used to live about 45 minutes from here for six years,” Laird said, “so obviously it was horrible news to hear.”

Simpson, who lives at Quail Hollow, was glued to his phone late Tuesday due to the shootings.

“There was a text chain started as soon as the shots were fired,” Simpson said. “One of our pastors (at Oakhurst Baptist) — because we have a lot of UNC Charlotte kids at our church — he was trying to text as many people as he could to make sure they were safe.”

They were, but Simpson said he can’t imagine the void left in the families who were affected.

“My caddie and I were talking on the third hole today,” Simpson said. “We just don’t understand how people can do that. Don’t understand why it keeps happening … I can’t imagine what that would feel like. But wearing the ribbons is the least we can do.”

It’s true that wearing a ribbon, or scribbling a signature, isn’t much. But it is an acknowledgment of the world we live in, and the pain we are feeling.

And that, at least, is something.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.