Think of the names, and how they bring to mind mighty players
and mythic major championships: Augusta National, Oakland Hills,
Royal Lytham, Valhalla...Valhalla? Sure, if the game is Which
Doesn't Belong and Why.
Valhalla is the course with no name. The site of this week's PGA
Championship, the 10-year-old Jack Nicklaus design east of
Louisville seems to have been conjured from thin air and plopped
into prime time. Purportedly stern enough to stand up to the
world's best players, Valhalla has never been tested by so much
as a Kentucky State Amateur. It is a course without a past.
All it seems to have is a brilliant future. If Valhalla can hold
its own this week, more of the PGA of America's showcase events,
including the Ryder Cup (maybe in 2003) and another PGA (perhaps
in 2002) could be contested over the course's 7,144 yards.
That's because the PGA already owns 25% of the place, with an
option to buy it all. The plan is to hold PGA events on PGA
courses the way the Tour does with its Tournament Players Clubs.
Valhalla looks a lot like TPC Junior, with spectator-friendly
features but with the hard edges of Nicklaus designs from the
mid-'80s. In those days rich men all over the country--folks like
Louisville's Dwight Gahm, who made his fortune in the
kitchen-cabinet business--were begging Jack (in addition to
paying him his standard $1 million gratuity) to build the
toughest course in captivity so they could one day host a U.S.
Open. (O.K., the PGA will do.)
At Valhalla, Nicklaus turned heads on several scores. The course
has bent-grass fairways, rare in such a humid climate, and
bluegrass rough, a no-brainer in the Bluegrass State. The tall,
wide-leafed blades off the fairway might take a star turn during
the PGA because Tour pros seldom see the strain and will have
trouble hacking through it.
Many of the holes, particularly on the front nine, which we'll
see plenty of during wall-to-wall coverage by CBS and TBS, were
basically propped up to stay above the floodline of Floyd's
Fork, a creek that twists throughout the property. Contrived,
critics say, but the elevated tees and greens, plus the swales
and mounds constructed to steer water into drainage areas, will
show well on TV.
The 605-yard par-5 7th hole is already controversial. It doglegs
left around a rock quarry into which Nicklaus dropped an island
fairway for those interested in a shorter, more direct route to
the hole. The PGA took the island out of play--it will be filled
with spectators--thus turning the 7th into a three-shotter for
all and angering Nicklaus. "I'm not happy about it," he says.
"They've taken the options out only to make it more difficult."
The 13th, the shortest par-4 at 350 yards, is Valhalla's most
photogenic hole. The smallish green is perched atop stacks of
limestone, which was quarried on-site, and surrounded by a moat.
Not even John Daly will try to drive it. Maybe.
But after that the goofy stuff ends and the tournament surely
will begin. The next four holes at Valhalla have all the stuff
that makes Tour pros tremble. The par-3 14th, at 208 yards, goes
from a tee set high on a hillside to a two-tiered green that
falls more than five feet from back to front. Keep it below the
hole, guys. The 15th is a 410-yard par-4, but the players won't
hit driver because the landing area is too tight. That's too
bad, since it's better to be close to the green, which is the
second smallest on the course and seems to hang over the creek
on the right. Next comes 16,450 yards of par-4 that slides
around a creek to an elevated, 140-foot-deep green traversed by
a huge swale. Want to bet it's not the toughest hole of the
week? The 17th is just another routine 432-yard par-4 to a green
divided into three sections.
Eighteen is a love-hate hole. Some will love it because the
bombs-away par-5 of only 540 yards, further softened by a
second, parallel fairway extending the final 100 yards into the
triple-tiered green, is the kind of eagle machine sure to churn
out exciting swings on the leader board, or at least a dramatic
birdie as the curtain comes down. On the other hand, what would
purists say about a major championship being decided by such a
cupcake? They have a name for that, and it's nothing like
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL LUSTER From the mounds at the wide-open 18th, crowds of 20,000 can watch the eagles fly. [18th hole at Valhalla Country Club]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL LUSTER At the short but sweet par-4 13th, the green is set atop an island of local limestone. [13th hole at Valhalla Country Club]