Future PGA Championship Venues are Mixed Bag of Masterpieces, Old Favorites, and That Laughable, Ludicrous Valhalla Mess
—by Jay Flemma, Golf News Net—
PITTSFORD, NY – How wonderful to see Oak Hill polished to its highest shine in perhaps a century or longer. It may never have played better for any major championship. Better still are the broad smiles and upbeat good cheer of the upstate New York locals. Fiercely loyal to Oak Hill, they braved blustery winds and frost delays for four days this week, but finally the clouds have parted, warm breezes have chased the last of winter away, and now the weather finally matches their buoyant optimism and hospitality. Well done, Rochester. We look forward to visiting you again, soon and often.
Moving forward, except for the Pacific Northwest, it seems all points of the compass are being targeted by the PGA of America for their flagship event. Close to 70,000 people a day can attend the PGA Championship, depending on how much additional space is available at the host club for the massive infrastructure required. The line-up over the next few years provides a broad cross-section of courses not only from across the country, but also of architectural styles. Breadth is fine, though I’d trade it for a little more depth of architectural integrity. Let’s take an in-depth look at where the PGA Championship will be contested over the next few years.
2024 – VALHALLA GOLF CLUB, Louisville, KY
Frequently the PGA of America likes to visit Golden Age masterpieces, venerable courses steeped in history with long legacies deeply, indeed inextricably intertwined with the history of golf in America itself.
Then there’s Valhalla: a joke, indeed an insult to major championship venues everywhere, amusement park rides masquerading as golf holes. Trying to find a true strategic shot at Valhalla is like trying to find a virgin in a maternity ward. And no less than a minimum of four holes completely jettison strategic golf for carnival barker tomfoolery.
Less tomfoolery, more Tom Pirozzi! (Click here for him playing seven bass guitars at once…)
Designed to more resemble a video game or fantasy golf calendar, Jack Nicklaus built such head scratching holes as:
—a par-4 featuring a driver or 3-wood though a tunnel of trees, then a 90-degree right turn for another 3-wood uphill to the green. This was somehow perceived as an “improvement” on the prior hole, which was just 100 yards shorter, but featured the same awkward and dictatorial dog-leg;
—a par-5 cape hole (the seventh) around a water hazard, but featuring an island fairway shortcut that nobody takes. When the course was originally built in the mid-1990s, the “floating island fairway” was intended for longer hitters to cut the chord off the arc of the regular fairway, and in doing so gain a clear stroke on the rest of the field.
But in a moment of “play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” the whole plan went kablooie because the angle to the green was all wrong and they only gained 50 yards of distance, and if they missed the tee shot, it was double bogey or worse. Nobody took the shortcut. It sat there sadly like a kid with no date for the prom.
What’s the point of a hair-brained, half-baked scheme if no one falls for it?
So they moved the whole fairway 25 yards at singularly great expense. It worked about as well as the Black Hill spruce at Inverness in 1979, although where that move didn’t stop anybody from taking the shortcut, the change to the seventh at Valhalla continued to entice no one. The penalty is just not worth the risk. That means the architect’s idea was based on a flawed premise.
Then there’s the back nine, where at 13 you get a green surrounded by a moat. What is this? Dungeons and Dragons? What UK links or Golden Age marvel did you copy that from, Jack? Have you been cribbing ideas off Desmond Muirhead’s work? More gaudy and needlessly ostentatious than Donald Trump, at times Valhalla seems like the kind of place that would benefit from some bronze statues. I’ll start: Gandalf on the 13th green holding out his arm while keeping the Balrog at bay.
And then at 18 you have the “Flying Green” with its wings nobly outstretched to take flight into golf infamy. A three-tiered monstrosity, it’s designed to look-like the club’s logo.
Trading how it looks for how it plays, Valhalla is the reddest of major golf’s red-light districts. Yet the PGA of America sometimes has blinders on when it comes to a course, and they occasionally go temporarily insane when handing out PGA Championship bids…that or they really like money.
But isn’t Valhalla getting repetitive, Tiger Woods win in 2000 or no? Really, guys? This again? Between 1996 and 2014, the the PGA of America forced this over-designed travi-sham-ockery down our collective golf throats with three PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. We’re back again next year for more bourbon and branch water and fried green tomatoes.
Not for nothing, but why can’t we go to Winged Foot four times in 18 years?
2025 – QUAIL HOLLOW CLUB, Charlotte, NC
Where the issue with Valhalla is architectural integrity, the problem some have with Quail Hollow is familiarity and low scoring. After all, Rory McIlroy torched supposedly fearsome Quail Hollow to the tune of a Stradivarius-like 61. There were concerns that could happen again and embarrass the members and the PGA of America.
Those fears were laid to rest with the successful 2017 PGA, where Justin Thomas held off a star-studded leaderboard, winning with a score of 8-under. Just 12 players broke par and 21 came in at EVEN par or better – not all that satisfactory if it were a U.S. Open, but quite fine for an exciting and competitive PGA. The familiarity with the course also made logistics smooth and easy.
For the 2017 PGA, the Bermuda rough was grown long and deep, the fairways were tightened and yes, the pressure of a major made the tournament more dramatic for the fans and nerve-wracking for the players. “Plus those last three holes are really difficult,” explained Gary Woodland in an earlier interview with your author. “16 and 18 are hard driving holes, and 17 is as tough a par-3 as we play anywhere all year.”
Originally designed by George Cobb and modified by Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio, it’s hosted Kemper Opens, Paine Webber Invitationals, and Wells Fargo events, but it’s more known for lavish parties and player-friendly perks than for being a truly great golf course. Still, the glitterati will preen for the cameras, the swag will flow, the parties will be great. Still, for my money, Shinnecock does all that far better, and there’s the ocean to boot.
2026 – ARONIMINK GOLF CLUB, Newton Square, PA
Finally! Another Golden Age treasure designed by an icon of the craft. Aronimink, is one of two museum-quality examples of A.W. Tillinghast’s work in the Philly area as an architect. The other, of course, is Philly Cricket Club, which should also be considered for a PGA Championship of its own.
Aronimink makes its second major championship appearance after a successful run on the FedEx Cup. It’s previous major, the 1962 PGA, was won by Gary Player. Additionally, the U. S. Amateur was held at Aronimink in 1977, where Oregon’s John Fought won the crown. Aronimink member Jay Sigel a practicing attorney as well as a golfer, lost to Fought in the semifinals.
This 1928 Donald Ross has been painstakingly restored and updated by Gil Hanse,
“We wanted to put Ross back the way Ross had it,” said Hanse.
The tumbling terrain features fascinating elevation changes and routing challenges. Shaped roughly like a bowl, the center of the course (holes 6, 7, 15, and 16) is the bottom of the bowl, while other holes ring the perimeter, or play towards or away from it. Several fairways are canted to one side or another. Uneven lies are the order of the day. Additionally, the bunker count on the golf course went from 74 to 174, restoring what Ross had originally designed. There are several bunkers that require forced carries.
“I’m sure some of the members curse us about that,” Hanse jested.
Aronimink should prove a quintessential venue for the PGA. Player’s 2-under total in 1962 held off Bob Goalby by one shot and Jack Nicklaus by three. Seems like a U.S. Open leaderboard; birdies were on the endangered species list that week. As Aronimink has held several different PGA events and other premiere golf events, the PGA of America should have no difficulty setting the course to play as hard or easy as they desire.
2027, 2034 – PGA FRISCO (EAST COURSE), Frisco, TX
Hosting its first tournament in three weeks, the Senior PGA Championship, we should know much more after then about how the flagship course at the PGA of America’s new headquarters will play. The Women’s PGA Championship comes to the East Course in 2025. Public play on the West Course begins May 2 and on the East course after the Senior PGA concludes.
2028 – OLYMPIC CLUB, (LAKE COURSE), San Francisco, CA
Perhaps the most underrated of the quintessential American major golf venues, Olympic Club proves you don’t need majestic vistas or ubiquitous water hazards to have a dramatic golf course. Like Winged Foot and Oakmont, it relies on fairway and green contours and shot-shaping requirements off the tee and into the greens to defend par admirably.
Throughout its history, Olympic Club has anointed shotmaking plodders, journeymen, and grinders over superstars. Jack Fleck defeated Hogan in an 18-hole playoff after birdieing two of the final four holes in regulation, denying Hogan his record fifth U.S. Open title. Thinking no one could catch him, Hogan had even given USGA president Joe Dey his golf ball, saying it was for their golf museum.
Then, in order, Arnold Palmer flushed a seven-shoot lead with four holes to play in 1966, letting Billy Casper catch him and force a playoff which Palmer lost after leading late once again. In 1987 Scott Simpson denied Tom Watson a second U.S. Open title. In 1996 Steve Jones, outlasted Payne Stewart. And finally, Webb Simpson got to the clubhouse early with a 1-over 281, then watched as player after player plummeted down the scoreboard, culminating with previous U.S. Open champions Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and Jim Furyk of the U.S.
Olympic Club is most feared for its opening holes and its closing stretch. Then USGA President Mike David called the first six holes so difficult, he stated before the 2012 Open won by Webb Simpson, “if you finish the first six holes 2-over, you’re doing well.”
Then Davis wrestled Birdman off the stage at the trophy presentation. Still no word who was asleep at the switch and let him get anywhere near the dais…
2029 – BALTUSROL GOLF CLUB (LOWER COURSE), Springfield, NJ
Perhaps the best pedigree of the courses presently set to host future PGA Championships, the golf course bears the name of Baltus Roll, a Dutch oxen farmer brutally murdered by thieves seeking to steal his secret fortune,
Baltusrol has given us a mixed bag of winners – either golfing immortals win there, journeyman pros, or puzzling strangers. Still the only club to have more than one course on its grounds host a major championship; the Upper Course hosted the 1936 U.S. Open won by Tony Manero, while the Lower Course has crowned Willie Anderson, J.D. Travers, Ed Furgol, Lee Janzen, Jack Nicklaus (twice), Phil Mickelson, and Jimmy Walker, (the golfer, not the actor).
Obviously, Anderson (who won four old time Opens, including three consecutive), Nicklaus, and Mickelson are immortals. (Though Mickelson’s image is now forever stained by LIV Golf and his treachery against he PGA Tour.) J.D. “Jerome” Travers, who won four U.S. Amateurs and a U.S. Open in a span of ten years between 1906 and 1915, was also an immortal, his final major victory coming at Baltusrol.
After that, it’s less feast, some famine. Tony Manero who won the 1936 Open with a record aggregate, (at that time), of 282 was unknown to everyone except final round playing partner and good friend Gene Sarazen. Journeyman pro turned club pro Ed Furgol won the Open in 1954 when it returned to the Lower Course. Furgol’s left arm was withered from a childhood accident; he fell out off of a playground set of parallel bars, and the doctor who set his arm did so incorrectly.The other Tour players nicknamed him Wingy. Furgol is renowned for his hitting a tee shot on the 72nd hole into the 18th fairway of the adjacent Upper Course. He played his next up the wrong fairway, then struck a towering iron shot over the trees and onto the green to secure a two-putt par and a one-shot win over Gene Littler.
Nicklaus won the next two U.S. Opens contested at Baltusrol and collected nearly every major scoring record as well. In 1967 his final round 65 – at that time a record U.S. Open final round – to leave Arnold Palmer a distant second by four shots. Then he opened his Baltusrol defense in 1980 with a major championship record 63, ultimately edging Isao Aoki of the weird putting style, (the toe of the club in the air), by two shots. Nicklaus also claimed the US Open aggregate scoring record of 272 that week, a feat equaled in 1993 by Lee Janzen, who fired four rounds in the 60s to edge Payne Stewart by two shots.
Baltusrol’s habit of passing out low scores at majors like candy on Halloween may ultimately prevent it from hosting the U.S. Open for the foreseeable future; it’s one thing when Nicklaus breaks the scoring record, but when Lee Janzen does it, “Golf’s Toughest Test” tends to lose its meaning. Still, the PGA of America was happy to scoop up the hallowed club as a major venue, and they were even more elated when Mickelson claimed the Wanamaker in 2005. Jimmy Walker proved a popular winner in 2016 as well.
2030 – CONGRESSIONAL COUNTRY CLUB (BLUE COURSE), Bethesda, MD
Like Baltusrol, Congressional surrenders low scores, especially to Rory McIlroy in the 2011 U.S Open where he toed or broke the scoring record for every round except the first, including lowest aggregate and lowest score to par.
Congo, as its referred to, is a nightmare to deal with. Traffic is so bad in DC, it takes as much as two hours for me to drive the 14 miles to the course. On the course the insistence of ending on the island green that once was the 17th hole creates massive foot traffic and congestion all across the golf course, but has its worst impact in the pace with the largest crowds, the clubhouse area.
Moreover, Congressional’s Blue course was once a Devereux Emmet-designed masterpiece. Now it’s been diluted to the point of homogenization and cookie-cutter penal architecture. Rees Jones always gets the course in outstanding condition, and challenges the players stoutly, but fairly. Still, I’d love to see Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Stephen Kay, or Coore and Crenshaw take a whack at restoring Emmet’s ideas.
NEED TO NAIL DOWN
Finally, the PGA of America should run, not walk to book Southern Hills, Bethpage Black, Oakland Hills, and Whistling Straits for future PGAs. Each one of the four held tournaments there were runaway successes. Additionally, they should see if they can poach the Country Club; last year’s U.S. Open venue, (2022). Holding the Open there was a masterstroke, though it would require a smaller footprint and fewer on grounds tickets.. And for a potential offshore PGA Championship, there is no better choice than Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. Pete Dye’s instant and forever classic deserves its close-up.