Nicklaus' renovations have Valhalla ready to challenge PGA field
Valhalla Golf Club, 16 miles east of downtown Louisville, is an ideal venue for major championships. The course that the Gahm family created in 1986 as the city's first dedicated golf club -- distinguished from a country club -- has served golf well. The 96th PGA Championship will continue a tradition built on five previous events: the 1996 and 2000 PGAs, '04 and '11 Senior PGAs, and the '08 Ryder Cup.
The PGA of America bought the club in 2000, with big plans in mind. Valhalla's 438-acre tract easily accommodates 40,000 spectators, 6,000 support personnel, media compounds, corporate tents and merchandising. Vast parking fields about the property. A four-lane road delivers spectators to the front gates.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, at 7,458 yards and par 71, is a study in contrasting landscapes, with the front nine generally lowerlying through a vast, open meadow that doubles as a floodplain for Floyd's Fork. The back nine is markedly different: much more elevation change, through densely wooded, parkland holes.
Valhalla is indelibly stamped with a succession of strong par 4s. The long Nos. 5 and 6, both doglegs right will test the field. The 463-yard fifth hole offers a deep bunker flanking the inside of the dogleg and a green whose left side falls off and feeds the ball away. The brawny sixth, at 495 yards, will test a player's patience because a deep creek 300 yards or so from the tee is reachable, so most of the field will lay up, leaving a long iron across a ravine to a long, narrow green.
On the back nine, the stretch of Nos. 15-17 proves equally demanding, with the 435-yard 15th presenting a narrow, tree-lined fairway and a creek that runs right up to the side of the green.
The course culminates with a dramatic uphill par 5 (542 yards) with a split fairway option and a horseshoe green set in a vast amphitheater. In the final round of the 2000 PGA, Tiger Woods made a crucial birdie putt at 18 to tie journeyman Bob May and then beat him in a three-hole playoff.
The heat and humidity of the central Ohio River Valley make Louisville one of the country's toughest places to grow quality turfgrass. Thanks to a refined irrigation plan, enhanced drainage, turfgrass and greens renovations and improved air circulation via tree management, Valhalla features dense, consistent and firmer putting surfaces. The new greens feature a T1 bentgrass that's more heat and drought tolerant than the previous surfaces. The roughs, predominantly tall fescue with a touch of Kentucky bluegrass, are stern yet manageable.
The extensive renovation, undertaken by Nicklaus and his design team in 2011-12 in conjunction with course superintendent Roger Meier, ensures excellent conditions for the PGA Championship.
"We made the golf course look better, play better," Nicklaus said.
It should hold up even better to the strain of another major championship. With Valhalla, Louisville finally has a major-league franchise.
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