The man behind Valhalla

Valhalla Golf Club, host of the 96th PGA Championship, has become a Louisville landmark with plenty of stories behind it.

Valhalla Golf Club: A Louisville landmark

By Jody Demling

It began, innocently enough, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s. Sitting in his Kitchen Kompact offices in nearby Jeffersonville (Ind.), with his oldest son, Louisville businessman Dwight Gahm was bemoaning his inability to get out on his regular country club at any time without having to scramble for a starting time. Then it dawned on him. Gahm owned 486 acres of property in the eastern part of Jefferson County.
Louisville needed an upscale golf course and the land would be just about perfect for it.

“We had been saying, ‘What can we do with the damn place?’ ” recalled Gahm.

MORE: Offical 96th PGA Championship program

Most of the property the Gahm family owned once was a quarterhorse farm and another segment housed a Boy Scout camp.

One proposed development for the land included some 2,200 housing units, various commercial properties and a very nondescript golf course. Those plans went awry when an easement for power lines was increased. So Gahm thought some more about his new plan. Not long after that gloomy day, the Gahms got in touch with Jack Nicklaus and the ball started to roll on what would eventually become Valhalla Golf Club.

Opened in 1986, the Nicklaus-designed course has become a popular championship venue. The PGA of America, which purchased the club outright in 2000, has visited Valhalla to play what is now known as the PGA Professional National Championship, a pair of PGA Championships (1996 and 2000), the 2004 and ’11 Senior PGA Championship and the 37th Ryder Cup in 2008. Now the course Gahm built “just to be able to play” will be the center of the golf world’s attention again this week.

“It’s kind of an unimaginable dream,” said Walt Gahm,

Dwight’s oldest son, about Valhalla, a course named after the great hall in Norse mythology in which the souls of slain warriors were enshrined.
Added Dwight Gahm, “All we knew is that we wanted a golf course that would be enjoyable to play. There’s been a hell of a lot going on between then and now. I guess we just got lucky.”

Dwight Gahm took on the project with the help of all three of his sons — Walt, Gordy and Phil.

Dwight Gahm said his lucky streak started with getting Nicklaus to design the course, but many around the family patriarch point to choices made well before that decision. And it was mostly hard work, not luck that was involved.

A proud and persistent man, Dwight Gahm moved to Louisville from Portsmouth, Ohio, as a 16-year-old kid in 1934.
He had started carrying a few bags around the golf course at age 8 and would use his earnings to pay for his golf later in the day.

After graduating from Male High School, Gahm earned a football scholarship at Indiana University.

He was the center and linebacker and was named the team’s most valuable player for the 1940 season. After getting out of the Army, Gahm ran a successful diaper service back in the early ’50s. He then sold his interests to a partner and in 1955 bought Kitchen Kompact, at the time a small manufacturer of kitchen cabinets. When

Gahm made the purchase, Kitchen Kompact was manufacturing 20,000 cabinets with annual gross sales of $300,000. He transformed the company into one of the nation’s top producers of kitchen cabinets.

So the Gahm family was used to success. The golf course venture was going to be tougher. The first hurdle to get over was trying to land Nicklaus as the designer.

“We knew you don’t just pick up the phone and talk to Jack Nicklaus,” Dwight Gahm said. “I’m sure he’d say, ‘Who the hell is this?’”

But the family had a connection. Walt Gahm had played football at Purdue University with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese, who, in turn, was a friend of Nicklaus and got a message to the Golden Bear at the PGA Tour’s Doral Open in Miami. A few days later, Nicklaus called.

“Can we do a tournament here and do a PGA Championship on it? That was the first day I was on the property,”

Nicklaus said of the expectations that Gahm had for the course. “I said, ‘Dwight, I think that we can do it.’”

And they did. It was almost eight years from the initial contact with Nicklaus, but the first dirt was moved in 1984 and around 100 members were signed up when Nicklaus hit the first shot on the course in ’86.

“Jack did a hell of a job for us,” Dwight said. “He made it perfect for us. I told Jack to take all the land he needed. I wasn’t interested in building homes unless I was going broke. I told him, ‘If I’m going broke, then I will sell.’”

Nicklaus liked the terrain. There were some hills in the area and he initially said “it has a lot of potential.”

During the construction process, Nicklaus made upward of 10 trips to the site. But Dwight Gahm tried to keep his hands off.

“Dad’s concept was that he wasn’t going to tell Jack what to do,” Walt Gahm said in an interview with The Louisville Courier-Journal in 1996. “It was like, ‘You don’t tell me how to make kitchen cabinets and I won’t tell you how to design golf courses.’ But the three boys, we would always try to get our two cents in. And then the old man would look over and give us a dirty look, so that was where we’d stop.”

Now the Gahm family had a course that was receiving the praise normally accorded to the best layouts in the nation. It was honored as one of the top new courses in the country in 1987. So what about that tournament
Gahm wanted to have?

A courtship with the PGA of America lasted several years, and during that time the Valhalla contingent sent

Louisville Slugger bats with the slogan, “Bring the PGA Championship to Louisville and you will hit a home run,” to every PGA of America board member.

Jim Awtrey, then the chief executive officer of the PGA of America, visited the city for the 1992 Kentucky Derby and later that year, Valhalla was awarded the PGA Championship for 1996.But the plot thickened in 1993. As Gahm and Awtrey walked the course one afternoon, Awtrey asked if Gahm might be interested in a permanent relationship with the organization. The club’s membership approved the deal in late 1994 and the PGA took over 25 percent of the club.

It was the first course the PGA had ever invested in, with the Association assuming 50 percent ownership after the ’96 PGA Championship. In 2000, The PGA exercised its rights to purchase the remaining interest in Valhalla.

“A marriage made in heaven,” Gahm said at the time. “Valhalla is an ideal place for major championships,” said Awtrey, who retired from the PGA in 2005. “It has been an ideal relationship for the PGA of America.”

Valhalla has come a long way from the quarterhorse farm, which Dwight Gahm said came with “an old cowboy and a few horses.”

“How in the world could anything like this happen?”

Dwight asks. “It really has been a miracle for us.”

Jody Demling formerly covered golf for The Louisville Courier-Journal.