Valhalla Golf Club – The Course that Jack Built Made Louisville a Major Port of Call
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian
When the 2000 rota of major championships was announced, critics aimed a quiver-full of arrows at Valhalla Golf Club, site of the PGA Championship that August, its second in four years.
“Too easy” and “not major material,” were the nicest comments as Valhalla was compared to 2000’s other major venues: Augusta National (The Masters), Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (Open Championship).
But when all was said and done, the Louisville-based club that Jack Nicklaus built in 1986 delivered not only the most thrilling major of the year, but one of the greatest finales in history.
It took 21 pulsating holes -- including the first three-hole aggregate score playoff in a major -- for Tiger Woods to escape with a one-stroke victory over Bob May and become the first player since 1937 to successfully defend a PGA Championship. Two decades since roars echoed around the 486-acre property, media and fans still rank it the most memorable PGA Championship ever.
Valhalla’s major career began with the 1996 PGA Championship, when Mark Brooks defeated Kenny Perry in a one-hole playoff. The PGA of America assumed full ownership of Valhalla after the 2000 Championship, opening the doors to a run of major moments, including two Senior PGA Championships -- Hale Irwin edged Jay Haas in 2004; and Tom Watson beat David Eger in a one-hole playoff in 2011.
In 2008, the United States --employing Captain Paul Azinger’s “pod” system of building teamwork -- charged past Europe to win the Ryder Cup and spark champagne showers from the clubhouse balcony.
In 2014, with darkness threatening to spoil a Sunday finale, leader Rory McIlroy received the sportsmanship gesture of the decade when Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson -- playing one group ahead -- agreed to allow the Northern Irishman and playing partner Bernd Wiesberger to tee off on the final hole.
Minutes later, Wiesberger suggested to officials that in the interest of time, he and McIlroy play up the par-5 before Mickelson and Fowler were done.
With night falling, Mickelson hit the fairway and came up just short of the green with his second shot. His chip threatened the hole, and his tap-in birdie forced McIlroy to make a par to win. After driving near a water hazard on the right, McIlroy hit his second shot into a greenside bunker. His sand shot came up 34 feet short, but under fading light, he lagged to tap-in range for a victory officially recorded at 8:43 p.m.
Later that year, Valhalla joined Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the “Louisville Slugger” (2006), Secretariat (2007), Churchill Downs (2012), Keeneland Race Course (2015), and the Lakeland Swim Club (2016) as the only non-humans enshrined in the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
The club some said wasn’t major material is now side by side with honorees such as Muhammad Ali.