Category - Major Events

Sahalee Stands Tall as a Major Championship Venue

By Adam Stanley and Ryan Adams, PGA
Published on

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship features the best golfers on the planet. But as is the case with most majors, the golf course also plays a starring role. This week at Sahalee Country Club has been no exception.
The club, located in Sammamish, Washington – a suburb of Seattle – means “high heavenly ground” in the Chinookan language. It hosted the 1998 PGA Championship before the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship descended upon the storied venue in 2016.
Brooke Henderson won the 2016 edition in a dramatic playoff over fellow 18-year-old Lydia Ko. There were only seven golfers who finished under par for the week that year.
Henderson has always had an affinity for the golf course, which reminds her a lot of courses she grew up playing in Canada. She was bestowed an honorary membership by the club this week after her victory eight years ago.
“This place, Sahalee, is special to me regardless of what happens this week, it will always hold a special place in my heart,” Henderson said. “I love the huge, towering trees and the tight fairways. It’s almost majestic.”
Out of the other side of her mouth, however, comes the overarching challenge of this particular course.
“Feels very peaceful and amazing, but at the same time a little bit stressful because you have to hit it so straight,” Henderson said with a smile. “That's the number-one priority is trying to hit a lot of fairways, keeping the ball in play, and giving yourself good looks for birdies when you can and making those clutch par saves when you need to.”
"Sa-Hallway" provides a unique test
That is the key part of finding success at Sahalee, which boasts fairways cut through mature trees, many of which are 100-feet high, and forces golfers to think extra carefully about their approach to their tee shots.
Lexi Thompson tees of No. 10 at Sahalee.
Lexi Thompson tees of No. 10 at Sahalee.
“It’s really the requirement of making golf shots out there," said PGA of America Golf Professional Caleb Kraus, Sahalee's Head Professional. "The fairways are super tight. We’ve got the tall trees around. You can’t make any loose swings. You have to hit it straight, hit it in the fairways. You have to be pin-point accurate out there."
In a story for The New York Times in 1998, when the PGA Championship was first played at Sahalee, two-time Major Champion Lee Janzen gave an apt description of how he should have prepared for the tight Pacific Northwest beauty.
“I think the best way to prepare for this course would have been to go to a big city, like New York, and maybe play down Fifth Avenue,” he said. “With the trees being so large, and so close to the fairway, you immediately see the only shot you can possibly hit.
“And that’s straight down the middle.”
Memories of 2016 flood back for Low Club Professional
One person who's enjoyed seeing a Major Championship back at Sahalee, and who knows a little bit about playing well there? Jennifer Bermingham.
Bermingham, who's a PGA of America & LPGA Professional, was the only club professional to make the cut in 2016. Back then, she was a coach with her own academy in Southern California, and now works for Invited Clubs in Dallas as Director of Golf Programming.
Bermingham (right) with Henderson after the 2016 Championship.
Bermingham (right) with Henderson after the 2016 Championship.
Seeing the narrow fairways appear again on TV, it brings back a bevy of memories from an "unbelievable week."
"I was like a fish out of water, honestly," says Bermingham. "Since I was a little girl, my dream was to always be on the LPGA Tour and at Sahalee, it was a dream come true. On one of the practice round days, Lydia Ko and David Leadbetter set up shop next to me and I got so nervous. I didn't want to chunk any club so I pulled out my driver and just was ripping them down the fairway. They were like, 'Who is this girl?' Stuff like that the whole week, but I was treated like I belonged."
Bermingham got off to a dream start, too, going 3-under par through her first four holes and almost making an ace on No. 13. She was in such a good position after two rounds that her older brother, one of multiple family members at Sahalee that week supporting her, had to cancel the excursions he had booked in Seattle.
"And that's because I was going to make the cut," remembers Bermingham.
The trips up to the course pre-Championship had paid off, and she eventually would be standing next to Henderson holding the crystal awarded to the Low PGA or LPGA Professional. But there was other ways Bermingham prepared for the narrow fairways, too.
"When you’re on those tee boxes, at Sahalee, you get kind of claustrophobic — the trees are so tall, the fairways are so narrow, and the rough is thick and long. I would go to the end of the driving range at home near the fence line, and get as close to the fence as possible, trying to hit my drive along the line . . . without hitting the fence," recalls Bermingham. "I hit ball after ball into that damn fence, but it got me ready. The fence mimicked that claustrophobic feeling."
Sahalee continues tradition of big-time venues
Stacy Lewis, formerly the No.1-ranked golfer in the world, has been an important part of KPMG’s impressive effort in women’s golf and especially with this championship. One of the key pillars of her suggestions to KPMG to help elevate the status of this major was to take it to some impressive venues across the United States.
Last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was played at the iconic Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, while Olympia Fields, Congressional Country Club, and Hazeltine National Golf Club have been recent hosts (and soon-to-be repeat hosts, too).
The finishing hole at Sahalee.
The finishing hole at Sahalee.
Sahalee most certainly is part of that impressive list.
“The golf course just helps with the credibility and to compare that we played this golf course, the same as the guys played a Major Championship here,” Lewis said. “The venues, it was basically one of the (biggest parts of the puzzle).”
Tips for tight fairways
So, while the best players in the world take on Sahalee’s tight challenge today for a Major Championship title, what happens the next time you’re faced with a difficult driving day?
"Aim small, miss small. Aim big, miss big!" says Bermingham. "You need some small, intentional targets. Be strategic on where you place your shots, so you have the best chance to score well."
Dr. Alison Curdt, the PGA/LPGA Director of Instruction at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, California agrees with Bermingam, and says there are three key things to do when you need to rope it down the center.
"The first is to select a specific target on the horizon – like a tree branch or the tip of a mountain range," says Curdt. "Secondly, keep your eyes connected to that target and don’t let them wander to the places you don’t want your ball to go. And finally, stay locked-in to that mental image and couple it with a full finish."