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Hole 18
A view of the 18the green and clubhouse at Laurel Valley Golf Club. (Photo: Montana Pritchard, PGA.com)

Laurel Valley's Legacy Fit for a King

Laurel Valley Golf Club, the venerable 46-year-old facility designed by Dick Wilson, made a name for itself quickly by involving Arnold Palmer and hosting the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup in 1965 and '75, respectively.

By Mike Dudurich, Special to PGA.com

Laurel Valley Golf Club may not have been created with the expressed purpose of being a future site for major championships, but a look at its history shows that it certainly turned out that way.

And according to Howard "Pete" Love, past president of the prestigious club with a national membership that includes chief executive officers from some of the country's biggest corporations, the championship-studded resume certainly hasn't hurt the facility. "You needed a reputation of some sort and I think we established that," says Love.

Tucked in a valley between Laurel Ridge Mountain and Chestnut Ridge Mountain, this gem of a club will celebrate its 50th birthday in just four years. It will start the celebration a bit early by hosting the 66th Senior PGA Championship and will toast, one last time, the accomplishments of one of its founding fathers, Arnold Palmer.

The Senior PGA Championship joins the 1965 PGA Championship, the 1970, '71 and '72 National Team Championships, the 1975 Ryder Cup and the 1989 U.S. Senior Open as the major milestones in the club's history.

While the number of major events held doesn't compare to some other venues, Laurel Valley becomes just the fifth facility to host both a PGA Championship and a Senior PGA Championship.

The Ligonier, Pa., club is also the second to host the Ryder Cup, the PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship (PGA National Golf Club is the other).

Seeking a respected golf course designer, Palmer and the other founders -- industrialist Leonard S. Mudge, T. Mellon and Sons Vice President George Wyckoff, Consolidation Coal Company President George H. Love, U.S. Steel President Benjamin Fairless and Mellon Bank Vice President Fred Gwinner -- agreed on Dick Wilson, who had previously updated some of the bunkers at famed Seminole Golf Club. Local contractor Lou Pevarnik was named as the man in charge of construction.

Wilson and Pevarnik were charged with creating the best golf course possible on what had been a 260-acre pheasant hunting preserve owned by the late Richard King Mellon. Ground was broken on June 8, 1958, with two of the founding fathers, Love and Gwinner, playing the first unofficial round 13 months later, on July 11, 1959. Wilson called Laurel Valley "the most natural, beautiful site I've ever seen for a golf course" when it officially opened on Oct. 1, 1959.

Laurel Valley's first exposure to major championships came less than five years later when in May of 1964 The PGA of America awarded the club the 47th PGA Championship, to be played in the Laurel Highlands in 1965.

The catalyst was Palmer, who was not only a Laurel Valley founder, but represented the facility on the PGA Tour as well.

Dave Marr, one of Palmer's best friends, won the 1965 PGA Championship, punctuating the victory with a magnificent 9-iron on the 72nd hole that stopped three feet from the cup. It was quite a comeback for Marr, who earlier that year had blown a three-stroke lead with seven holes to go in the final round of the Insurance City Open in Hartford.

At Laurel Valley, however, the 31-year-old Marr was a study in concentration on the way to winning the only major of his career.

Marr made a difficult putt for par at the 17th hole and was a tower of strength on the 18th. He drove into a bunker on the left side of the fairway, laid up short of the big lake on the right with a 7-iron and hit that 9-iron shot, which he later called a "career shot."

The final round turned on the par-5 11th hole, when Marr made birdie and his nearest pursuer, Jack Nicklaus, chipped badly twice on the way to a bogey. Even today, Palmer laughs when he remembers the 1965 PGA Championship and the ceremony on the 18th green to crown the winner.

"George Love was a wonderful man, one of the best friends I ever had as an older man and a spokesman," reflects Palmer. "At the ceremony, he called me up to give me a special award. He said, 'And to Arnie, who was one of the founders and consultant to the club from the beginning, we're making you a lifetime member because you played like one.'"

Palmer finished the 1965 PGA Championship tied for 33rd at 10-over par.

"The PGA Championship gave Laurel Valley an identification, which is what we were really looking for," says Palmer. "That worked out tremendously, except I didn't win."

Five years later, the National Team Championships began a brief three-year run at Laurel Valley. This event was also known as the National Four-Ball Tournament, but it might just as well have been known as the Palmer and Nicklaus Championships at Laurel Valley. In 1970, that dynamic duo won the event, defeating George Archer and Bobby Nichols by three shots. In 1971, they buried Bob Charles and Bruce Devlin by six shots.

Everything pointed to a three-peat in 1972, but Nicklaus had to withdraw because of an infected finger. Babe Hiskey and Kermit Zarley won the title that year.

The 1975 Ryder Cup was contested at Laurel Valley, which was by that time 16 years old and had made a name for itself as a major venue. While the 21st Ryder Cup matches were not tremendously competitive -- a strong United States Team whipped the Europeans, 21 to 11 -- they were the first to be televised nationally and the country watched Palmer captain the powerful U.S. Team, led by Nicklaus. The Golden Bear said he came to Laurel Valley playing the "best golf of my life" after winning his fifth Masters in April, his fourth PGA Championship in August and the World Open at Pinehurst, N.C. As powerful as that team was, the U.S. could have set a margin-of-victory record had it not been for a pair of improbable upsets.

England's Brian Barnes knocked off Nicklaus 4 and 2 in the morning singles, shocking the golf world. The two were paired again in the afternoon singles and Nicklaus told Barnes, "You've beaten me once, but there's no way you're going to beat me again." Nicklaus backed up his words early, making birdie on the first two holes, but, believe it or not, Barnes rallied again for a 2-and-1 victory. Many historians refer to Barnes' victories as the biggest upsets in Ryder Cup history.

Starting in 1988, Palmer and his design company, led by architect Ed Seay, began a series of renovations to Wilson's original Laurel Valley design. The layout has been modernized to handle the skill of today's top players while keeping it a challenging, but playable course for Laurel Valley's membership.

The 1989 U.S. Senior Open was the most recent major championship to be held at Laurel Valley and was a showcase for Orville Moody and his long putter. He became only the fourth player to win both the U.S. and Senior Opens by firing rounds of 64-70 on the weekend in 1989. His 134 total was the third-lowest final 36 holes in tournament history.

Moody was in a tie with Frank Beard going into the final round and bogeyed the first hole to fall out of the lead. But he rifled a 250-yard 3-wood to within 30 feet of the cup on the par-5 sixth hole. He made the eagle putt and never looked back.

And since the 1965 PGA Championship, Laurel Valley hasn't looked back, either. Ongoing improvements to the golf course and facilities are big reasons for Laurel Valley's inclusion onto any number of "top" lists around the world.

Mike Dudurich is the golf writer for the Tribune Review in Greensburg, Pa.

Facilities that have hosted a Senior PGA Championship and PGA Championship
Facility Years hosted
Firestone Country Club 1960, 1966, 1975 PGA Championships
Akron, Ohio 2002 Senior PGA Championship
Aronimink Golf Club 1962 PGA Championship
Newtown Square, Pa. 2003 Senior PGA Championship
Laurel Valley Golf Club 1965 PGA Championship
Ligonier, Pa. 2005 Senior PGA Championship
PGA National Golf Club 1971, 1987 PGA Championships
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. 1982-2000 Senior PGA Championships
Valhalla Golf Club 1996, 2000 PGA Championships
Louisville, Ky. 2004 Senior PGA Championship
Facilities that have hosted a Senior PGA Championship, PGA Championship & Ryder Cup
Facility Years hosted
Laurel Valley Golf Club 1965 PGA Championship
Ligonier, Pa. 1975 Ryder Cup
2005 Senior PGA Championship
PGA National Golf Club 1971, 1987 PGA Championships
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. 1982-2000 Senior PGA Championships
1983 Ryder Cup
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