LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Valhalla, 19 miles due east of downtown Louisville, is one of those private courses that doesn’t sit still, so to speak. It’s only 28 years old, yet it already has an impressive championship history – having thus far been home to PGA Championships in 1996 and 2000, the Senior PGA Championship in 2004, and the Ryder Cup in 2008.
The PGA of America bought the club in 2000 for good reason. Valhalla’s 438 acres easily accommodate 40,000 spectators, 6,000 support personnel, media compounds and 22 acres of corporate tents and merchandising. Vast parking fields abut the property. A four-lane road brings spectators right to the front gates.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course: Par 71, measuring 7,458 yards, is a study in contrasting landscapes. The front nine generally is lower lying through a vast, open meadow that doubles as a flood plain for a creek, Floyd’s Fork. The back nine is markedly different: much more elevation change, through densely wooded parkland. There’s no doubt this is a tough course, with a whopping 77.6 rating and a slope of 152 from the club’s back tees. And that’s for a par-72 layout measuring only 82 yards longer than for the PGA. If there were measurements for this week’s championship tees, both the rating and slope would be higher.
The heat and humidity of the central Ohio River Valley make Louisville one of the country’s toughest places to grow quality turfgrass. Credit to superintendent Roger Meier for the quality stands of turfgrass here: bentgrass greens and fairways, framed by dense roughs, predominantly turf-type tall fescue with a touch of Kentucky bluegrass. Course presentation was helped by a major renovation in 2011-12 that improved greens agronomy, opened up some overgrown tree corridors, upgraded drainage, and created cleaner lines of strategy.
The last PGA Championship here, in 2000, was a legendary duel between upstart Bob May and eventual winner Tiger Woods – then at the apex of his playing prowess. Valhalla, with its long, testing par-4s and its very birdie-able par-5s, should provide an exciting stage for the last major of the year.
A relatively gentle opener, this steady dogleg left provides a chance for bold players to cut the corner over trees on the left with a high draw or a shot carrying 280 yards played into the prevailing light breeze. The wind here is not, however, a major factor, averaging 7 mph out of the northwest in mid-August and barely enough to offset even partially the traditionally steamy heat. The approach shot here, ideally played left to right, is characteristic of Valhalla in that you can’t work the ball onto the putting surface from a flight path that is outside of the fill pad. In other words, you can’t use the side slopes to get enough bounce to hold the surface. The approach has to be played on a tight line from within the outer edge of the green’s periphery. It’s a course designed strictly for aerial golf.
Hole No. 2: Par 4, 500 yards
For championship play, this members’ par 5 is set up as a gut-wrenching par 4. The drive plays to a Barbie-doll waist of a fairway pinched to 22 yards across, with sand right and a steep falloff to the creek on the left. It’s 280 yards to the bunker, 305 yards to clear, and with the watery slope looming left it won’t be unusual to see players lay up short off the tee here and leave themselves a second shot from 230 yards out. The green, well defended up front and canted diagonally, offers less depth in the target zone than most par 4s at Valhalla. It’s a hole that players, even of this caliber, will approach very defensively.
Hole No. 3: Par 3, 205 yards
It’s impressive how basic and solid Nicklaus can design holes when he’s not trying to trick folks up with gimmicky green "quadrants." There’s an elegant flow to this hole, especially as viewed from the slightly elevated platform tee across the creek at the base of the wooded hill. A very deep bunker flanks the entire right side and tends to draw golfers away to the left – where the green tilts ever so slightly away from the line of play. The point here is that players have to commit to a middle iron that starts off closer to the right edge than their instincts would prefer.
Hole No. 4, 372 yards
Now we’re out on the vastly open, naturally level flood plain, where Nicklaus and Co. had to work really hard to create all of the contour. The fourth hole is strictly lay-up off the tee, as there’s no incentive or potential reward for a bold drive. The fairway is interrupted 310 yards out, where it spills out into rough, heavily broken ground. Even the far corner of the fairway landing area is heavily protected by bunkers. So it’s a long iron off the tee or some sort of fairway metal/rescue for the guys. The play is to a distinctly contoured green with a plateau right and quick punchbowl fall-off to the left. This is a definite birdie opportunity.
Hole No. 5: Par 4, 463 yards
Now it’s hold-on-for-dear-life-time again, thanks to a relentless dogleg right with very steep bunkers flanking both sides of a tight driving lane. From there, It’s a short- or middle-iron to a putting surface that slides right but kicks the ball back out left if it comes in just a little too far on that high side. If there’s any wind, it works against cutting the hole short off the tee. The one obvious no-no here is coming up short and right on the drive.
Hole No. 6: Par 4, 495 yards
This is the most awkward hole on the course – virtually a compendium of how not to design a par 4. Let’s see: reverse-camber dogleg right to a fairway tilting to the left; a forced layup off the tee since the fairway ends at 300 yards and tumbles off into a steep, watery ravine; trees on the right side that block out a view of the second fairway on the far side. The hole is a nightmare for average golfers – for whom the angle of the tee shot gets progressively worse as the hole gets shorter. Even for these guys in the PGA Championship it’s a knee-knocker of a hole because they’re all facing an approach in of 210-240 yards. Players who miss the fairway on the right off the tee will have no option but to pitch out short of the ravine, leaving themselves two bills in. There’s some relief and bailout short and right of the green, but hit it left and the ball will disappear down a steep embankment.
Hole No. 7: Par 5, 597 yards
The hardest thing in modern course design is to build a par 5 with a viable second fairway option. Here’s an example: a massive par 5, played from a deep launch pad, with two options staring you in the face. There’s a long emerald road down the right side – a seemingly rational path studded with sand on the left side of the tee-shot landing area and on the right side protecting the second-shot zone. And then there’s this little island of repose, virtually dead flat, rimmed only by rough, 1 acre in size and offering a considerably shorter helicopter pad of a fairway for someone who drives the ball 300 yards and straight. To say this island of a second fairway leaves you somewhat isolated is no exaggeration, especially if you miss it. But it is tempting, especially for a player who can then fly his second shot 250 yards over the odd combination of marsh and exposed rock that protects the flyway into this putting surface. The right side is certainly more mundane, but it does pinch down options such that a third shot in following a layup is very awkward because it poses threats both short (sand) and the length of the left side (water). Let’s just say this will be an exciting hole to watch, given the rather startling range of options and the likely gamut of scores, from 3 through 8.
Hole No. 8, 174 yards
Thank goodness for this prosaic interlude, a straightforward little hole played from platform to platform, with lots of shape and contour to the putting surface. The well-sectioned green demands precision on a hole where the trajectory of the short iron will be influenced (somewhat) by the prevailing downbreeze from the left.
Hole No. 9, 415 yards
There’s an awkward and time-consuming walk from the eighth green to this tee, and once there it’s obvious why the hole is called "The Rise." It rises. A lot. Five very intense bunkers squeeze 100 yards of the tee-shot landing zone and are decidedly in play for wayward drives. Many players will opt for a lay up short and left, leaving themselves 160 yards into a green that must be 50 feet over their heads and falls precipitously from back to front. The problem with perching a clubhouse on a dramatic outlook is that eventually you have get back to it. This more than anything defines this hole.
Hole No. 10: Par 5, 590 yards
If you ever want to find out how good these guys are, just set up shop to the left of the 10th green and watch them stop shots on a fall-away putting surface. The hole plays shorter than its scorecard yardage, thanks to firm ground and a light breeze helping over the left shoulder. Players who avoid a huge bunker on the right side off the tee (307 yards to reach, 337 yards to pass) can challenge the twisting, double-dogleg ground (right to-left; then left to right) of this second shot. The trick is a green set down below, protected up front by a very steep bunker, shallow in the approach line and tilting back and to the right. There’s a small lane left for a run-up shot. The odds are tougher for a bold second shot flying to the green and holding it. Somehow, a few will manage.
Hole No. 11: Par 3, 210 yards
This hole looks like it was scooped out and settled here – not entirely naturally, so that its modern look feels a bit manufactured. Whatever. These guys won’t care and TV won’t notice. A middle-iron shot heads to a green set diagonally from front right to back left, suspended over a very deep bunker left. The more demanding recovery is actually from behind, where a small bunker leaves a very tough downhill shot from up top.
Hole No. 12: Par 4, 467 yards
I’m all for hole names, but not when they’re lifted from Charlton Heston films. You figure at a club called Valhalla there’d be a hole named "Odin’s Revenge." Enough said. It’s actually a beautiful par 4, very tough all the way thanks to a narrow driving zone carved left-to-right through a tree-lined chute and leaving a long second shot uphill over a cleaned-out ravine. There’s great spectator viewing from behind this hole. Most players will lay up off the tee rather than risk running through the fairway (310 yards to the edge, downhill) or missing it altogether.
Hole No. 13: Par 4, 350 yards
Here’s more proof, as if it were needed, of my axiom that at any course, the much-vaunted "signature hole" is the least characteristic on the grounds. This memorable short hole is an inventive twist on the now-cliched island green. The bunkerless putting surface here is actually a rock-walled island in a moat, approachable only via an aerial shot after a lay-up tee shot. The hole unfolds from the foot of the clubhouse – dramatic enough – but commits the unpardonable sin of blocking a view of the green from the tee because someone left a dopey stand of trees on the inside left of the dogleg. Why not just clear things out and let golfers gawk – as they do anyway – of the seemingly elusive target? At least one day of the PGA they’ll move the tees up and see if someone is reckless enough to go for it on their drive (attention, John Daly and Bubba Watson). There’s just not enough support in the contour of this 4,000-square foot putting surface to hold a tee shot that’s not perfectly parachuted in – in which case, even from the moved-up tees the smart players will hit middle iron/wedge and play the hole to an average score of about 3.6.
Hole No. 14: Par 3, 217 yards
Good, solid, simple hole to a well-bunkered green canted diagonally. There are three distinct tiers here, each one progressively more difficult to access, with the back one (top right) protected not only by sand but by trees.
Hole No. 15: Par 4, 435 yards
Valhalla has a fine collection of par 4s, and this one starts a great three-hole stretch of them. The drive through a tree-lined chute is one of the tightest at the club and requires a careful right-to-left swing to avoid sand right (294 yards to reach, 313 to carry) and dense woods the entire left side. From there, the short-iron approach is to a green that’s been nudged down towards a rocky creek bed, with the right side of the putting surface hanging over the water. The tendency is to tug the approach shot left, but that brings into a play a bunker pitched back toward the green and a slope that carries the ball toward the water.
Hole No. 16: Par 4, 508 yards
This starts the run of playoff holes from the 2000 PGA when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their epic showdown. It was here at the 16th green that Tiger did his finger-pointing moon walk of a 20-foot birdie putt – an image that will be oft-repeated this week, and rightly so. This shapely dogleg right plays very narrow thanks to trees looming right and a left-to-right sloping fairway. The green, rebuilt since Woods’ famous birdie putt, is perched and runs off in all directions a la Pinehurst.
Hole No. 17: Par 4, 472 yards
Few holes at Valhalla offer a starker example of the advantages enjoyed by sheer power off the tee. The hole runs steadily uphill and calls for a clear option off the tee: a modest drive to the right, leaving a semi-blind approach of 185 yards, or a dramatic carry of the upswept bunker on the left, 320 yards away, leaving a straightforward, readily visible short-iron shot.
Hole No. 18: Par 5, 542 yards
A great closing hole for a championship (and for member play, for that matter). The green here forms center stage on a vast amphitheater that’s ideal for spectators and players because they can see every inch of the way from tee to green, including the split fairway options on the second shot. A horseshoe green wraps around a deep central bunker and creates two distinct putting areas bridged at the top. The drive is relatively generous yet the fairway is heavily defended wide left (grass, sand and gnarly trouble) and wide right (rocky lagoons the length of the hole). This is one of those ingenious, multi-option holes that makes lots of sense in the field and provides the drama and emotional rush that majors are all about.