By David Vecsey, Special to PGA.comIf Bay Hill is Arnold Palmer's Florida retreat, then Laurel Valley Golf Club is his home. The Pennsylvania native has fostered a 40-plus-year association with the course, which is nestled between Laurel Ridge Mountain and Chestnut Ridge Mountain in Western Pennsylvania.
The site of this week's Senior PGA Championship, Laurel Valley is an old veteran of big events. It hosted the 1965 PGA Championship, the 1975 Ryder Cup, the 1989 U.S. Senior Open and the 2001 PGA Pennsylvania Classic. With the Senior PGA Championship now on its resume, Laurel Valley becomes only the second course to have played host to a PGA Championship, a Ryder Cup and a Senior PGA (PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. is the other.).
Laurel Valley Head Golf Professional Chris McKnight says the course still has the feel of a majors course, even if its profile has slipped beneath the radar in a day and age of long TPC courses and a steady rotation of majors favorites. Waiting out intermittent rains that are sure to have the rough nice and thick for this weekend's event, McKnight took some time this week to play a round of Q&A with PGA.com:
No. 1 -- Before we talk about the course itself, I think one of things that stands out about the Sr. PGA Championship this year is the fact that you have Arnold Palmer playing this week, which isn't such a common thing anymore. What is his connection with Laurel Valley?
McKnight: Arnold was born and raised in Latrobe, Pa., about 8 miles from Ligonier. When Arnie got started playing on Tour, there was a group of guys, business people, that formed this club. We're talking about 1958 and they wanted to make this course the Augusta National of the North, so to speak. They knew that Arnold Palmer was up-and-coming on Tour, and they wanted him to run the show, be the professional here. He turned them down, but he still was involved in helping to start the club. So he declined to be the pro here, and I think that decision worked out pretty well for him. Anyway, that is his affiliation. He is a board member, he does all the redesign whenever something needs to be done out on the course, and he remains very involved.
No. 2 -- So is he around much? Does he actually put in the man-hours?
McKnight: We played just on Friday before he went out to Pebble Beach. We probably play three or four times together here a year. He'll bring some friends over who want to play the course, some of his sponsors or whoever. In general, he's probably here a dozen times a year.
No. 3 -- I asked the same thing of the pro down at Bay Hill, but it must be pretty surreal to be out there playing golf with Arnold Palmer. Or do you get used to it?
McKnight: You never get used to it. It is absolutely one of the top things about my job. It's an awesome experience. He's wonderful to play with; he treats everybody the same, and that's probably why he has had such great appeal for all of these years. Whether its with presidents and heads of state or just the people on the golf course, he is just wonderful. Every time I get the opportunity to play with him, I get very excited. I never take it for granted; I actually get very nervous. I mean, he is The King. You look at not just what he's done in his own career, but for golfing in general. It's always a great opportunity for me and I always look forward to it.
No. 4 -- So do you ever hit him up for advice?
McKnight: No, you know, when we play, it's usually with mutual friends or other people. It's more jazzing each other than anything, sticking needles in each other. He can do that pretty well, too.
No. 5 -- For people who are unfamiliar with Laurel Valley, how would you briefly describe the layout and the philosophy of the course?
McKnight: Laurel Valley was designed originally by Dick Wilson in 1959, and what we have here, we're very fortunate to have a beautiful piece of property to work with. It's about 260-280 acres that was originally an apple orchard. Everybody thinks of Western Pennsylvania as being very hilly, and even though we do fit between two mountain ranges, the course itself is actually very flat. There are mountains all around us, it's very scenic, but overall it's a very traditional golf course. There's nothing tricky about it; the golf course is right in front of you. All the shots are wide open and you can see where you're going. I'd say it qualifies as a very traditional course and not as modern really. It doesn't have the collection areas you see now or the severely undulated greens. Ours are flat and fairly large. From the back tees, it plays pretty long.
No. 6 -- Is there one aspect of the game that might be emphasized more than others?
McKnight: The par-3s are probably the most important part of the course. If you can play them well and you can manage your game around the rest of the holes, you'll do very well. They're very long, very demanding. If you can play the par-3's under par, you've really done something. The mid-iron game will be very important.
Laurel Valley Golf Club
|Tournament Record:||268, Sam Snead, 1973, PGA National GC|
|Course Record:||64, Orville Moody, 1989; Scott Hoch (twice), 1996|
No. 7 -- What kind of golfer would it favor?
McKnight: Our fairways are very generous off the tee; they're pretty wide. So, I'd say this week it's going to favor the very good iron players. Most everybody is going to be able to hit the fairways, so it's how they manage the game from the tee to the green. That's why I think Hale Irwin will have a good showing; a very good iron player.
No. 8 -- And you mention how the mountains don't really come into play. I was going to ask you if a golfer with a better physique was going to gain an advantage over the course of four days.
McKnight: The most severe walk you have is going from the 10th green to the 11th tee, and even that's not very long. It's very manageable to walk this course. In fact, on an everyday basis, we recommend that everybody walks.
No. 9 -- Are there any courses out there, on Tour perhaps, you might compare yourself to?
McKnight: I don't know if there are any on Tour. I would probably categorize our course like Oak Hill in Rochester; not Tour stops, but the kind of course you might see in a major championship ... some of the courses in New York, Winged Foot; those type of courses.
No. 10 -- Well, this course has hosted a Ryder Cup and a PGA Championship, do you feel it's still equipped to host a PGA event, a major or an international event?
McKnight: The golf course would definitely be equipped to handle any major that came our way; I don't have a problem with that. The real question is whether the area can support what major championships are these days. They tend to go to the big cities because they have more corporate opportunities. There's more lodging; more availability. We're 60 miles outside of Pittsburgh and I just don't know if we have the hotels and such to support a major. As far as the golf course and facilities, though, we could handle one.
No. 11 -- Of course, you'd have a pretty powerful lobbyist if you ever wanted to pursue it ...
McKnight: Absolutely. Arnold has always been a great ambassador for the club. And, believe it or not, people listen when he speaks. But it is a business and I don't think they're in the business to lose money. I think they'll continue to take the majors to venues where they're going to have the most corporate success.
No. 12 -- How do you expect conditions to be for the event?
McKnight: We had rain yesterday and last night; it's very cold and overcast right now (early Tuesday morning) with a chance for more rain. That could factor in because you could put less of a premium on driving. If you're off the fairways, it'll be a little easier to hit out of the rough. And of course, the softer the greens are ... it all reverts back to that mid-iron game.
No. 13 -- What's the greatest shot you've ever seen hit there? And it doesn't have to be from a Tour player; it can be a ladies' league or even one of yours.
McKnight: I didn't see it, but what we do sometimes when we have company outings, we'll play "Beat the Pro" out on one of the par-3s. I'll split up the time with some of the assistants and we'll all get out there and hit shots. We go to this par-3 over water, 140 yards, our 14th hole, and what I'll do to jazz it up is instead of hitting wedges all day, if two of the four people can get on the green, they can pick the club that the pro has to use. They'll pick sand wedges or drivers, whatever. So my assistant was doing that, as well, and they made him hit with a 1-iron. Now, 140 yards over water, that's a pretty hard club to hit. He took it out and knocked it in the hole.
I thought not even God could hit a 1-iron?
McKnight: Well, he did.
No. 14 -- What holes do you generally peg as being pivotal over the course of an event? In other words, where can an event be won or lost?
McKnight: There are so many great holes here, it's hard to point out a couple. I think the last three holes coming in on Sunday will be exciting. Sixteen is long and uphill, doglegs to the right, par-4. It has a very small elevated green and it's hard to tell where the pin is because you can't see the putting surface. You shoot par, you take it and get to the next tee. Seventeen is a wonderful uphill par-3 that will play about 185-190 yards this week. It usually has tough pin placements and the green slopes back-to-front and to the right, as well. There's a tilt to it. You have to position where you hit the ball on the green. That's a good par hole as well. Eighteen is a par-5 hole that can be set up to encourage players to go for the green in two. That's going to be an exciting finish. It'll give somebody the opportunity to knock in on and try for the eagle ... or if somebody doesn't do that, they can hit the water and pick up a bogey or a double.
No. 15 -- There's a fair amount of water in play here, right? What other kind of penal situations might people encounter?
McKnight: I'd say the 18th is where the water comes into play the most; 14, definitely, that's the par-3 we talked about. Those are the two holes that have the most water that comes into play. There are other areas, but you'd really have to hit not your best shot to get it in there. In other words, there is water, but not all of comes into play ... not for these guys; it does for our people. As far as other penal areas, the iron play we talked about is critical. If you happen to miss the greens, you'll encounter a lot of bunkers. But on a lot of holes, you'd almost rather be in a bunker as opposed to on a knoll or in the rough, which could be very thick and high this week. The greens generally are pretty large. If you hit 'em, you should be ok. If you don't, then obviously getting up and down will be more difficult.
No. 16 -- What's your favorite hole on the course and tell us how to play it?
McKnight: I don't know if I have a particular favorite holes; I love them all so much. But No. 12 is a downhill par-4 that we've redone. Arnold made some changes to the fairway bunkers and took down some trees to open it up. It's real scenic; you can see the valley in the background and there is this barn that is a big part of the whole thing. It's a unique hole for us, even if it's not the hardest hole. But it's the prettiest, and if I had to pick one, that would be my favorite. How I play it is: I try to drive the fairway on the right side because of the bunkers. There are bunkers on both sides, but it just seems easier to get through them on the right. The second shot is middle iron to the green, which is fairly large, slopes right to left and goes away from you in the middle. And pin placement is crucial; you have to pay attention to where the pin is in order to know what club to take out.
No. 17 -- And let's say you found the keys to the bulldozer ... is there one hole you wouldn't mind giving a little nip and tuck to?
McKnight: I'll leave the design to Mr. Palmer. He seems to have a pretty good hold on it.
No. 18 -- Let's say we've finished a round and we're heading into the clubhouse, what do you recommend off the menu?
McKnight: We're pretty well-known for our lunch buffet, which includes lobster, crab claws, shrimp .. all sorts of hot items and different cheeses. It's a pretty lengthy buffet, and it's something that everybody who has a chance to play here looks forward to. It's special. Unfortunately, once you eat a big plate, you might not feel like playing golf. But it is wonderful. The shrimp and crab claws are dynamite.