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PGA Championship Preview of Valhalla, Same as it Ever Was – Terrible


[Author’s Note:  As we all know, the PGA Championsbip is next week at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky. As we also all know, Valhalla sucks. We will all be playing better golf courses next week than the pros will. So while I search for houses in Idaho, I leave you in the capable hands of Ryan Ballengee to handle things over at Golf News Net and here. In the meantime, enjoy my preview from the last time we were at Valhalla for a PGA with a few minor edits for this year’s playing…as David Byrne sings, “Same as it ever was…”]

The PGA Championship at Valhalla – Amusement Park, Video Game or Both?

I’m all for quirky golf courses, but there’s “Quirky Interesting” and then there’s “Quirky Stupid,” and although it’s a fine a line between the two, you know the difference when you see it. It’s unmistakable. Sometimes just a matter of millimeters, like the difference between a beautiful woman and a plain one, or the difference between, “the false and the true,” as poet Omar Khayyam put it so eloquently almost a thousand years ago.

Things that are “Quirky Interesting” include false front greens, center-line bunkers, and reverse camber of fairways (where the hole turns one way, the land slopes the other). These are unusual, but solidly theorized design tricks that make the golfer think twice before he hits the golf ball. Many features seen on Golden Age golf courses like the wonderful tilted greens of St. George’s on Long Island, or the criss-crossing fairways at Perry Maxwell’s Old Town, or the kidney shaped greens at Crystal Downs, or the reverse camber fairways of Olympic Club have been called “quirky,” but used to describe such courses, the term is a compliment.

“Quirky Stupid” on the other hand is usually just some vapid trick that tries to intimidate the golfer and “look cool” simply for the sake of “looking cool.” It’s merely eye candy: The hole may be visually arresting, but when one tries to play golf on it, the visual novelty wears thin quickly because it plays so strangely. Hare-brained, half-baked contraptions like island fairways in the middle of water hazards or island greens on par-4s completely encircled by moats are examples. They have no strategic value, but are, instead, just some fantasy golf calendar drawing come to life, more meant to create a “buzz” than elevate the craft of golf course architecture. It may be thinking “out of the box” but it’s more frequently out of its mind.

Sadly for this year’s PGA Championship, Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville falls into the latter category.

Some unlikely private clubs tend to host major championships for reasons totally unrelated to the quality of the golf course itself. Some get chosen by default such as Medinah – there’s nothing in Chicago big enough to host a major other than Olympia Fields, and that got torn apart to the tune of record numbers. So we’re stuck with Medinah until someone builds something better close by. (Please, Good Lord, soon¦)

Some, such as Hazeltine National, get chosen for sentimental and ergonomic reasons – a PGA of America past president wanted to bring a major to his golf-loving home state of Minnesota. Plus, Hazeltine is remarkably easy to get set up for the tournament. It can fit 70,000 fans and workers on the course, and all those people around the property easily. Once you park your car in the lot, it’s a two minute walk into the venue. There’s none of that horrific “shuttling people to the course from off-site parking” like that blighted Kiawah Island and Torrey Pines.

Some courses, like Atlanta Athletic Club, have no explanation for staging a major, especially with Georgia hosting the Masters every year.


Valhalla is another of those major venues that makes you scratch your head wondering “Why?” There are some good holes and interesting ideas – mostly short par-4s like one, four, and 15. Also, the greens are quite good, containing some of Jack Nicklaus’s most interesting internal contours. But all too often there is a cacophony of over-the-top, nonsensical design experiments that clash abrasively with the natural terrain and say nothing of golf architectural value. Jack cared too much about what the golf course looked like, and paid too little attention to how the golf course played.

The most blatant examples appear at six, seven, and 13.

The sixth hole was a poor effort when it was created back in 1986. Originally a short par-4, it was penal and dictatorial in nature. Hit a centerline lay-up shot with a fairway metal or iron to a sliver of fairway flanked by water on the right, trees on the left, then turn sharply to the rights and hit another target-style golf shot uphill to the green.

So how did they “fix” the hole? They added 100 yards of length, so that now it clocks in at just under 500 yards, while both shots are still dictatorial in nature.

“Now it’s 3-wood, 3-wood,” groused one angry pro, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Thanks for nothing.”

He’s got that right. It’s a good thing they’re not doctors.

Then there’s the carnival barker lunacy of the par-5 seventh, a cape hole wrapping around a water hazard, but with a “floating” island fairway meant 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. Nicklaus couldn’t have been more enamored of his creation than Dr. Frankenstein was equally proud of his Monster – “It’s alive! It’s alive!” There was only one problem – hardly anyone took the shortcut. 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.

What’s the point of a hair-brained, half-baked scheme if no one falls for it?

So after due consideration, they moved the entire island fairway left by 25 yards, and turned it slightly so the angle of approach is more favorable. The only thing missing was the PR folks falling back on the tired old Tom Fazio excuse of, “Oh, we just decided to re-perfect it.”

Yeah, right. Like the time Nick Faldo’s college-age girlfriend re-perfected the body of his snazzy sports car with a 5-iron when she got mad at him, but I digress.

The whole point of a risk-reward par-5 is to tempt the player into trying a shot just on the edge of his talent so that he either succeeds or fails spectacularly. (See the par-5s on the back 9 at Augusta for the textbook example.) But number seven at Valhalla is nothing more than eye candy. You also have to wonder if Jack was copying off Arnold Palmer’s drafting desk, because we see this identical wacky hole at Arnie’s par-5 sixth hole at King’s North in Myrtle Beach. It’s almost like Jack told a design associate, “Hey! Get me one of those too!”


Then, trying to mine the same empty vein as he did at the sixth hole, Nicklaus gives us 13, a hole memorable for its controversial nature, but not its architectural integrity. Again you have a dictatorial tee shot – a hybrid or fairway wood to a point, (avoiding trees on one side and a creek on the other) – then you turn sharply and play to an island green set on a pile of rocks.

I’ve never looked at a golf hole and said to myself, “You know what this green really needs to defend par is a moat.” When Nicklaus drew that up, he must have set off every Dork Alarm in Kentucky. The only thing missing is the long-haired damsel in distress on the green guarded by a fire breathing dragon, or the Black Knight, or maybe Gandalf surrounded by Hobbits, holding out his staff and shouting, “You cannot pass!” It’s a video game come to life, but no true golf architect worth his ASGCA credentials would try to pass that off as a serious golf hole.

“If I ever build anything like that, I’ve gone mad with Alzheimer’s. Shoot me,” quipped one architect, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Nicklaus wraps up the course with a ghastly 3-tiered monstrosity of a green at 18. Again shoving golf course design principles to the side, he once more opts instead for physical appearance, this time trying to make the green resemble the winged logo of the club. Whatever, Jack. Just because you can build something like that doesn’t mean you should.


“There’s too many long walks between holes [the course sits on just under 500 acres of land] – I almost got lost trying to find the 10th tee last time I was there – the power lines are ugly, the holes are zany, and there is little to no classic design to the place. It’s the opposite from the kind of course that should host a major championship,” stated our anonymous Tour pro.

“Anything is better than Valhalla,” added laconic Dan Jenkins, arguably the best golf writer in the history of the game and a World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, pausing to draw the last puff off his Capri Ultra Slim then casually tossing the butt over his shoulder, along with Valhalla.

As Jenkins also likes to say, screwy golf courses usually produce bizarre winners. (Take for example the aforementioned Atlanta Athletic Club.) In two majors at Valhalla we’ve had one off-brand winner, (Mark Brooks in 1996, who’s so obscure even his wife has to ask who he is at breakfast), and we came a controversial hairline from a club pro winner, Bob May in 2000.

“Wait a minute!” you shout. “Tiger won that tournament!” Well never forget the strange and unexplained way in which he did. His tee shot on 18 mysteriously vanishes into some rough-covered hills – bogey country even for Woods, then miraculously shows up far off the last-seen line of flight in a perfect lie. (After all; we can’t have Tiger in search of a “slam” of sorts losing to the likes of Bob May. That would be as bad as Tiger losing to Michael Campbell or Lucas Glover. Oh, wait!)

However it happened, club pro (Club Pro!), Bob May still played “major championship venue” Valhalla the last three days like a Stradivarius, to the symphonic tune of 66-66-66. Had Tiger not had what some consider his own Diego Maradona, “Hand of God Moment,” May would have won over a leaderboard that also featured such scintillating luminaries as Greg Chalmers, Scott Dunlop, Thomas Bjorn, Franklin Langham, and J.P. Hayes. I haven’t seen so many no names since Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” skit. Meanwhile, May disappeared never to be seen or heard from again.

But that’s what happens when you trade solid golf architectural principles for amusement park rides. “Oooooh! Let’s go on the roller-coaster! Then let’s play the moat hole! Ooooh let’s do the tilt-a-whirl, and next let’s take the island fairway. Looky! A green with wings! Coooooooooooooool!”

“Tomfoolery!” as my school-marmish old Aunt Rose used to say, angrily putting her hands on her hips, and giving us her fiercest scowl, and she’s right. Only a Mickey Mouse golf course like Valhalla this can produce such Goofy winners and leaderboards as Valhalla. It’s great fun on your Xbox or PlayStation though. It also makes for good match play venue, with so many “half-par” holes and strange hazards to negotiate.

As such, expect another puzzling stranger or, at best, a journeyman to win here. For those trying to pick a winner, take players that not only haven’t won their first major, but might not win another. Remember, of all the majors, the PGA has most often given us “one and done” names such as Jeff Sluman, David Toms, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady, (WAYNE GRADY!), Bob Tway, Y.E. Yang, (who dresses like he’s sponsored by Garanimals), and Jerry Barber.

So take a side trip to Churchill Downs, try the fried green tomatoes, (they fry everything in Kentucky), take a walk by the river, visit Lincoln’s birthplace, sip some bourbon, check out some blues music, and wear your white linen suit and razor-thin tie like the ol’ Kentucky Colonels would. The PGA Championship is coming to Louisville, and Kentucky has so much more to offer than amusement park rides masquerading as golf holes, you’ll have a better time than the big name players will this week, that’s for certain.