Valhalla Design

Valhalla: Ambitious modern golf design

By Bradley S. Klein 

In a sports town, that didn’t have a traditional golf club, Valhalla Golf Club fills a niche. The private club was envisioned at the outset in 1986 by its founders, the Gahm family of Louisville, as a members’ club that would also devote its calendar to championship golf.

The 96th PGA Championship continues a tradition at the venue that includes the 2008 Ryder Cup, PGA Championships in 1996 and 2000 and the Senior PGA Championship twice (2004, ’11).

MORE: Official 2014 PGA Championship program | Things to do in Louisville

The PGA of America bought the club in 2000 for good reason. Valhalla provides ideal logistics for major events. A four-lane secondary highway links the site to downtown Louisville, 16 miles to the west. Valhalla’s 438 acres easily accommodate 40,000 spectators and all the space needed for merchandising, media and corporate hospitality purposes.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course was always big and brawny. A major renovation in 2005-2006 lengthened it by some 300 yards, to 7,458, a par 71 for the PGA Championship. It normally plays as a par 72 for members, but the dogleg left second hole, with water in the form of a creek, Floyd’s Fork, down the entire left side, is being shortened slightly to play as a very demanding par 4.

Valhalla is a study in contrasting landscapes, with the front nine generally lower lying through a vast, open meadow that doubles as a flood plain for that creek. The back nine is markedly different: much more elevation change, through densely wooded, parkland holes.

Nicklaus, always a strong believer in the test provided by bold par 4s, has outdone himself here, even on the two short holes. The 375-yard fourth is strictly a layup off the tee and a second shot to a small, well-contoured green sitting amidst tall rough grasses.

The famed 13th is a sharp dogleg left to a fortress green perched on rock and surrounded by a moat. It’s 350 yards on the card, to a small green (4,500 square feet) that offers little chance to hold a long shot. If, as rumored, the tees are moved up to 290 yards for a round or two, players might try flying the ball 270 yards across the dogleg to the front. But this is an extreme risk with only modest reward.

Valhalla is indelibly stamped with a succession of very strong par 4s. The long fifth and sixth, for example, both dogleg rights, surely will test the field. The 463-yard fifth offers a deep bunker flanking the inside of the dogleg and a green whose left side falls off and feeds the ball away. But the long sixth, 495 yards, really tests a player’s patience, since a deep creek is reachable off the tee, 300 yards away. Still, it’s long iron across the ravine to a long, narrow green.

And on the back nine, the stretch of 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. Valhalla ends on a dramatic par 5, 542 yards and uphill to a horseshoe-shaped green that is well within reach in two — providing the drive threads a pinched-in landing area with a rock-strewn pond and a deep bunker on the left. It was on this green that Tiger Woods and Bob May settled their epic overtime battle at the 2000 PGA Championship.

The heat and humidity of the central Ohio River Valley make Louisville one of the country’s toughest places to grow quality turf grass. Thanks to a refined irrigation plan, enhanced drainage, turf grass and greens renovation and much-improved air circulation due to tree management, Valhalla features dense, consistent and firm putting surfaces. The new T1 bentgrass greens are more heat and drought tolerant than the previous surfaces. The roughs, predominantly tall fescue with a touch of Kentucky bluegrass, are both stern and yet manageable.

An extensive renovation, undertaken by Jack Nicklaus and his design team in 2011-12 in conjunction with course superintendent Roger Meier, ensures excellent conditions for the PGA Championship. As Nicklaus said, “We made the golf course look better, play better.” Valhalla, always a stern test, now is also a more attractive one, with a lovely palette of playing textures and tones that will hold up in the steamiest weather.

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: Returning nines, with the front side looping counterclockwise over open ground and the back comprising twin clockwise circuits on hillier, more wooded terrain.

2. Quality of feature shaping: Lots of earth moving involved, with every fairway landing area and mound scraped out and shaped.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: Everything works up to and off the dominant hill at the center of property on which the clubhouse sits, along with first and 10th tees and ninth and 18th greens. A power line across the site never intrudes upon play.

4. Interest of greens and surrounding chipping contours: Shot-making options generally are limited to approaches flown into the green; from outside the shoulder edges of the greens, it’s rarely possible to work the ball onto the surfaces.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: There is a predominance of mid-iron shots, with little opportunity of very short irons or long irons/fairway metals. These greens are heavily sectioned off internally — none more so than the newly rebuilt eighth green.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: Here’s the strength of the golf course, with holes running the gamut from a pair of short, possibly drivable ones (Nos. 4 and 13) to three of some 500 yards (holes 2, 6 and16) with water variously in play and dangerous in the extreme.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: An unusual collection. The double-fairway, dogleg-left seventh hole offers a risk/reward alternative fairway line. The double dogleg 10th hole offers a tiny perched green that falls away steeply behind. The uphill 18th hole, with water down much of the right side, is easily within reach in two and only taxing by virtue of its horseshoe green that wraps around a steep middle bunker.

8. Basic conditioning: Heat and humidity make it one of the country’s toughest places to grow quality
turfgrass. Thanks to a refined irrigation plan, enhanced drainage and much improved air circulation due to tree management, golf course superintendent Roger Meier and his staff have achieved dense, consistent coverage of bentgrass greens, Pennway bentgrass fairways, zoysia bunker faces, bluegrass intermediate rough and fescue tall rough.

9. Landscape and tree management: Extensive thinning on the back nine has now integrated the two sides of the golf course and created a distinct sense of one site. Previously, the transition from the wide-open front to the parkland back was somewhat abrupt.

10. “Walk in the park” test: This is not exactly an easy walk given several long transitions, but a trip around Valhalla is an enjoyable and scenic one without arduous, uphill slogs.

Overall: Valhalla embodies an ambitious moment in modern golf design, when a championship-quality course created a whole new platform for the game in a region previously devoid of a major venue. It is included among the top 100 courses on the Golfweek list of best modern courses (those built since 1960).

Bradley S. Klein writes about golf course architecture for Golfweek magazine.