Senior PGA Championship
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2004 Senior PGA Championship Preview

Bluegrass Beckons

Golden Bear hopes to follow Tigers paw prints at Valhalla

By Roger Graves

Tiger Woods has used Jack Nicklaus as his career blueprint for success, even creating a chart to hang in his room as a teenager in Cypress, Calif., detailing the Golden Bears major achievements. But in a classic reversal of roles, it will be Nicklaus hoping to follow in Woods footsteps when the 2004 Senior PGA Championship unfolds at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

This time, the Golden Bear hopes to replicate Tigers major paw prints at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. And Nicklaus, who designed Valhalla in the heart of bluegrass country, will have the home-course advantage when The PGA of America-owned facility hosts its first Senior PGA Championship on May 27-30, 2004.

"Despite being a relatively young course (opening in 1986), Valhalla has proven itself as a challenging venue for major championships," says Nicklaus, referring to Valhallas staging of the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships, The 2002 PGA Club Professional Championship, and looking ahead to the 2008 Ryder Cup Matches.

"For my sake, I hope they take it easy on the older guys for the Senior PGA Championship. I say that because I know how difficult and challenging Valhalla played in the 2000 PGA Championship," remembers Nicklaus, who fought bravely at the age of 60 at Valhalla in 2000, before missing the 36-hole cut by a single swing at 148 (77-71) against the young lions of the PGA Tour. "Actually, Valhalla is a tremendous venue for the Senior PGA Championship because it requires you to hit virtually every club in your bag and the greens will test your patience if you put it in the wrong position. I think The PGA of America has taken positive steps to play all of its championships on great golf courses, and Valhalla will certainly distinguish itself as a major challenge. I'm not sure you'll find four better finishing holes in senior golf."

Valhalla became synonymous with scintillating drama while hosting the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships. Mark Brooks and Kentucky native Kenny Perry inaugurated the theatrics in 1996, when Brooks birdied the first hole of sudden death to secure the Wanamaker Trophy. Then, in 2000, Tiger and Bob May, who competed against each other in the Southern California junior golf ranks, engaged in a memorable back-nine shootout on Sunday at Valhalla. Woods birdied the final two holes of regulation and ultimately outlasted May in a historic three-hole playoff, making Tiger the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three major titles in one year.

"I'll never forget Valhalla; that was one of the all-time great head-to-head duels," says Woods.

PGA, VALHALLA PARTNERSHIP IS PERFECT FIT FOR MAJORS

It wasn't love at first sight. But for The PGA of America and Valhalla Golf Club, it was love at first walk, resulting in a unique marriage that has given The PGA a major venue on which to conduct its national championships. In 1992, when Valhalla Golf Club was announced as the site for the 1996 PGA Championship, PGA of America Chief Executive Officer Jim Awtrey walked the course with Kentucky businessman Dwight Gahm, the gentleman who commissioned Jack Nicklaus to design Valhalla on 486 acres of rolling greenery in Louisville, Ky.

When Gahm told Awtrey of his lifelong dream to see Valhalla establish a tradition of hosting national championships, Awtrey shared with Gahm The PGAs desire to own and operate a few crme de la crme golf facilities capable of staging major events such as the PGA Championship, Ryder Cup Matches, Senior PGA Championship, and PGA Club Professional Championship. That is when Gahms vision merged with that of The PGA.

"A marriage made in heaven," says Gahm, who built Valhalla with his three sons. "By partnering with The PGA of America, Valhalla has been able to grow to great heights and establish a tradition of hosting major golf championships. It has been a tremendous relationship great for golf and great for Valhalla."

In November of 1993, an agreement was drafted allowing The PGA to purchase 25 percent of Valhalla. After the 1996 PGA Championship put Valhalla on the majormap,The PGA assumed 50 percent ownership in the club and announced it would return to Valhalla in 2000 to conduct the 82nd PGA Championship. In 2000,The PGA of America exercised its option to purchase the remaining interest in Valhalla, and the rest is majorgolf history.

Today, the 45-foot clock tower standing sentinel over the 17,500- square-foot Valhalla clubhouse has become a golf landmark. The natural amphitheaters surrounding the scenic 17th and 18th greens can accommodate 8,000 and 20,000 spectators, respectively, and will serve as viewing locations as the games greats come down the homestretch during the 2004 Senior PGA Championship.

"Valhalla is an ideal venue for major championships because of its diverse terrain. It is a challenging golf course and extremely spectator friendly," says The PGAs Awtrey. It has been a great fit and partnership for The PGA of America. The success of the two PGA Championships (in 1996 and 2000) demonstrated that Valhalla is capable of challenging the finest golfers in the world while providing the utmost in hospitality. -- Roger Graves

Don't expect Valhalla to be softened for the 65th Senior PGA Championship next May.

The course may play slightly shorter for the elder statesmen, but eight new fairway bunkers have been added since the 2000 PGA Championship and two additional bunkers have been enlarged. The second hole, previously a 535-yard par-5, has been shortened slightly and will be played as a par-4 during the 2004 Senior PGA Championship, reducing the Nicklaus design to a par-71 layout. Fairway bunkers have been added down the left side on the par-4 fifth hole; three new fairway bunkers accent the par-4 ninth hole; one new bunker has been added at No. 10, and the 18th hole now features a narrower fairway and an enlarged bunker that has cut the landing area to approximately 28 yards wide.

"The most significant changes to the golf course have come on the 18th hole," says Valhalla Golf Club Head Professional Keith Reese. "There will definitely be more of a premium on accuracy on 18 now. The landing area has been narrowed from about 40 paces wide to 28 paces. It will play at about 535 yards, as it did in 2000 for the PGA Championship. But if you want to reach the green in two, you will have to hit the fairway. All in all, the changes have strengthened a few points on the golf course, but they havent made the course impossibly difficult. It will be interesting to see how the senior players do at Valhalla. It was interesting to see how the players approached the course in the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships, and then it was a different type of field at The 2002 Club Professional Championship."

Reese noted that 2002 Senior PGA Champion Fuzzy Zoeller doesnt live far from Valhalla in New Albany, Ind. and plays the course occasionally with friends. "Fuzzy will be familiar with the course, Tom Watson played fantastic here in 1996 and 2000, and Jack designed the course and played pretty well here in 2000," says Reese in projecting a few early favorites. "Someone who keeps the ball in the fairway and hits a lot of greens in regulation should do pretty well here. You have to make a few putts, too."

Indeed, while Watson finished tied for ninth after shooting 65-68 on the weekend, Nicklaus missed the 36-hole cut at Valhalla in the 2000 PGA Championship. Tom Kite, another senior contender, tied for 19th in 2000 with a 69-70 weekend performance. If Nicklaus were to win at Valhalla in 2004 for his second career Senior PGA victory, he would become the oldest Senior PGA champion at 63. Jock Hutchison was 62 when he won in 1947. He would also be following in the footsteps of a Tiger, the Tiger who has followed the Golden Bears major claw prints throughout his career.


Roger Graves is a free-lance golf writer from Salt Lake City,Utah, and a frequent contributor to PGA Magazine.

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