My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

After looking at the weather forecast a day earlier, we felt that we were fortunate to get the round in without delay.  After the round, we had a delicious lunch in the mixed grill.  I recommend the Championship Burger...fantastic.  After good food and good company, it was on to Indianapolis to take on Crooked Stick.  I wasn't sure what to expect at Valhalla as Jack Nicklaus courses sometimes get a lot of criticism in the architecture community.  I actually really enjoyed the course and thought it used the land well, while providing good strategic golf in most spots as well.  The course is clearly built to host major championships, but I thought it would be a fun course for members as well.  I didn't have a chance to tour any other courses around Louisville, but I feel confident saying that if you're in the area, this is the place to be, from a golf perspective.  Thanks to my host for a great day at Valhalla!.

#18, Par 5, 490 Yards

This hole was built for an exciting televised finish.  A birdie or better is very attainable, and it's only 545 yards from the tips.  With a downhill tee shot, that's nothing more than a long par 4 for the pros.  For the rest of us though, it's a great chance to finish strong and feel good about your round at the 19th hole.  This was the last hole that Jack Nicklaus played in the PGA Championship, and a plaque honors his conversation with playing partner Tiger Woods.  Tiger made some history of his own on this hole in his famous showdown with Bob May where a pulled tee shot strangely appeared out of nowhere and exploded down the hill en route to a birdie to force a playoff.  Water borders the hole down the right much of the way.  A good drive will leave a definite chance to get to the hole in two, to a horseshoe shaped green with three distinct sections (though these have been softened) and a bunker in the front.

#17, Par 4, 390 Yards

Uphill and to the left, this hole plays longer than it shows on the scorecard.  It's 475 yards from all the way back, and coupled with #16, provides a nasty one-two punch before getting to the scorable 18th.  Bunkers straddle the fairway off the tee, and then greenside bunkers front the well-sloped green with ample room to bail out on the right side if desired.

#16, Par 4, 405 Yards

Where the water makes the 15th difficult, it's primarily the length that makes 16 tough.  It stretches all the way to 510 yards from the tips and a new tee is being built to challenge the pros.  The same creek that comes into play on 15 is also on the right side on 16, as the two holes follow an out-and-back routing.  The shape of the hole favors a fade off the tee, and then leaves a fairly simple, albeit long, approach into the green.

#15, Par 4, 380 Yards

#15 goes out to the eastern-most point on the property.  It's probably the easiest of a three-hole stretch of par 4's leading up to the 18th hole, which is a reachable par 5.  However, what the hole lacks in distance, it makes up in tightness.  A stream runs the length of the right side of the 15th, and divides the 15th from the 16th.  It borders the right side of the green here with a rock roll similar to the 13th hole, and must be respected on the approach into the green.  

#14, Par 3, 165 Yards

Only one more par 3 at Valhalla, and it's right here at the 14th.  While the green tees are at 165 yards, the next two tees behind the greens both play from 220 yards.  We hit a shot from those tees to see what the pros will face.  From the Greens, it's not terribly hard, but, like the 12th, the green bends away from you to the right.  In this case, bunkers are short and long, and the green sits in a really cool looking natural amphitheater.

#13, Par 4, 325 Yards

The signature hole at Valhalla.  This one is a short par 4 to an island green built up with rocks, water, and a waterfall surrounding it.  With two decent shots, it's a really easy par and a definite birdie change.  However, lose your focus, and a big number is certainly a possibility.  The drive just needs to find the fairway--anything but the bunkers on the left is fine.  A long iron or fairway wood/hybrid is perfectly reasonable, and will leave a wedge shot into the green.  I believe they tried to entice some players to drive the green during the Ryder Cup, but nobody ever tried it.  They may try the same thing at the PGA Championship, but in a stroke play event, I'm not sure why anyone would do anything other than lay up.

Looking back from behind the green.  I haven't played the course yet, but this one reminded me of some holes I've seen at Muirfield Village on TV.

#12, Par 4, 420 Yards

The hardest hole on the inward nine.  The fairway runs out at around 270 yards, somewhat similar to the 6th hole.  From there, it's a long approach over a valley to a green bending away from the player to the right, with a bunker guarding the front.  Definitely a tough hole.  Par is definitely cause for celebration.  On this hole, I made the classic golf photographer blunder, in that my memory guard filled up!  I tried to delete some pictures quickly to be able to finish photographing the round, but it definitely had an impact on the number of pictures I took the rest of the way.  After a quick trip to Target to buy a new memory card, I'd be ready to go the next day at Crooked Stick.

#11, Par 3, 165 Yards

This one-shotter has some Redan features.  The green bends away from the player to the left with a large bunker on the front left.  There are certain spots on the right bank that will feed the ball toward the middle, but the green itself doesn't really play like a true Redan.  The picture shows how the lay of the land slopes from left to right, rather than away from the player, so again, while it might look like a Redan, it probably rarely plays like a Redan.

#10, Par 5, 520 Yards

Not a whole lot off the tee, but this hole gets very interesting going into the green.  It's a blind second shot, but a slope on the left side of the hole will feed the ball to the right and toward the middle of the green.  A very scorable hole to open the back side.

#8, Par 3, 150 Yards

A straight-forward one-shotter here.  It's a tricky green, but a good approach shot should provide a reasonable chance at par.

#9, Par 4, 400 Yards

An uphill climb back to the clubhouse on this dogleg right par 4.  It was into the wind the day we played and the rain had started on the 8th green, so it was a test.  Both shots on this hole play well to a fade...a Jack Nicklaus staple hole.  I was plenty happy with a one-putt bogey the way this one played, and marched onto the second nine with my head held high.

Right Fairway 

Left Fairway

Green Tees

#7, Par 5, 490 Yards

The second par 5 on Valhalla's opening nine is well known for having two fairways, separated by water.  It's a full 600 yards from all the way back, and we took a shot from those tees just for fun.  A decently-hit driver barely made the short-cut fairway on the left.  Granted, I'm not a big hitter, but it's still a solid shot to even get there.  From the Green Tees, it was a more manageable shot to the short cut, and it made the drive to the left fairway almost make sense, as from there, I had a chance to get home in two.  Otherwise, there's really no reason to risk it, and playing out to the right is the better play.  Plus, with only one two walking bridge across the water, you have to play Moses and "walk on water" to get back to the right side...which I did  It's only an inch or so of water, but it's still not a bridge!

Back Tees

#5, Par 5, 405 Yards

The 4th hole bends left and now the 5th hole bends right.  Bunkers on either side of the fairway demand that you hit it in the fairway.  A fade is the logical shot shape for the shape of this hole, but the left side of the fairway is preferred to yield the best line into the green with a bunker on its right.  A good test of a par 4 after the easier 4th.  This one gets you warmed up for the brutal 6th about the come.

#6, Par 4, 450 Yards

The hardest hole at Valhalla, by far.  Nicklaus backed up the green by about 70 yards on this dogleg right, and made it a hole that really only makes sense for tournament golfers.  For the rest of us, par is a major victory, and taking a five on the scorecard is nothing to be ashamed of.  The hole requires a shot of about 250 yards before you run out of fairway off the tee.  Hugging the cliff/water on the right will present the shortest distance to the hole, but it's still a full 200 yard shot to the green.  We had some fishermen in kayaks down below when I hit my approach shot, and I'd be lying if I said the thought of topping a ball into their heads wasn't in my mind!  I've heard that the membership really didn't like Nicklaus moving this green and questioned the fairness of the hole.  His response was simply to play it as a par five and move on...not bad advice.  The good thing is that there is tons of room right of the green to bail out and leave yourself an easy pitch into the hole to attempt a one-putt par if you miss the green.

Nothing wrong with being on the cautious side of the hole off the tee (the right side).  The view into the hole is still fine.  My ball sits in the picture below.

#4, Par 4, 325 Yards

This one is a breather and a chance to score.  It's one of two short par 4's on the course, with the more famous 13th coming later.  Drive it as far as you're comfortable with, as long as it's straight.  You can choose to take it near or over the bunker on the left if you're willing to play with fire, and get rewarded with a short pitch into the green.  Or, lay back with an iron, hybrid, or fairway wood, and leave yourself more of a full shot into this green.  Floyd's Fork is behind the green, but should only come into play with a badly misjudged approach or skulled wedge.

#2, Par 5, 475 Yards

Valhalla is a very walkable course, and after finishing the first hole, we cross Floyd's Fork to get to the second tee.  The second hole is a second straight dogleg left (and they say Nicklaus only designs holes to favor the fade!)  Keeping it in the fairway is critical for this one.  Major slopes and moguls line the left side, along with water, and some of the thickest rough on the course.  On the right side is forest, so pick your poison.  The green is fronted and flanked on the right by bunkers, so be precise in your approach.  With straight shots, a good score can be made on this hole.

#3, Par 3, 170 Yards

The bunker on the front and right of this hole is the key hazard to avoid.  Get it onto the surface of the green and a par or better is very possible.  As with all of the greens at Valhalla, multiple good pin positions exist, and the back left and front right seem to be the most difficult on this one.

#1, Par 4, 390 Yards

Standing on the tee at any course that has hosted a major is a special feeling.  Valhalla has a very nice practice area, and after hitting some full shots, putts, and chips, we were ready to go.  The first hole doglegs to the left with trees at the corner on the left side.  Anything in the middle of the fairway is sufficient and will leave a reasonable approach into the green.  Driver isn't necessary, as the key is to find the short grass.  The closer you get to the trees on the left, the better angle you'll have into the green with a bunker protecting the right side.  Bailing away from the trees off the tee brings the humps and bumps right of the fairway into play and will complicate the approach.  In Donald Ross's and Pete Dye's style, this one should favor a draw off the tee and then a fade into the hole.  While Nicklaus takes a lot of heat in the architectural community, the strategy and design of this hole is sound.

It doesn't stop there though.  The fact that you're on a major championship site continues with the memorabilia inside the clubhouse, some of the monuments around the course, and even the scorecard (the club just produced a new one with the Wannamaker Trophy shining on the front of it).  Then, it continues with the shear size and scale of this property.  When walking around the course, it's easy to see why it's attractive to tournament planners due to the loads of space for concessions, corporate hospitality, media, and grandstands.  Not to mention the fact that it's a pretty darned good golf course!

Valhalla opened in 1986 and was the dream of Dwight Gahm.  However, Jack Nicklaus built the golf course and Gahm showed it to the PGA of America with the hopes of hosting a major golf championship, his roll in the club's ownership would change.  In 1992, the PGA of America announced that the 1996 PGA Championship would be played at Valhalla, and one year later, they acquired a 25% stake in the club.  In 1996, the PGA of America increased its ownership to 50%, and purchased the remainder of the club in 2000, so that it now owns 100% of it.  For these reasons, it's likely that the 2014 PGA Championship won't be the last time the Season's Final Major is hosted at this great Louisville track.

I had a chance to play Valhalla after accepting a very generous invitation that actually came through this very website!  After exchanging emails with my host, we finally came upon a date in May for me to come down to Louisville on what would be a 3-day whirlwind tour of Kentucky and Southern Indiana that would cross three prominent tracks off of the lists.  After Valhalla, I would head to Crooked Stick, and then down to Victoria National to finish an awesome weekend.  We originally planned to play a little after 10:00 on a Friday morning, but took a look at the weather forecast and moved up our time to 8:10 to try to get in front of some rain and thunder that was supposed to come in the afternoon.  We faced a few holes of rain, but god the round in as hoped.  After watching a few guys from the University of Louisville golf team tee off before us, the tee was ours and it was time to have my chance at the course that became famous for Tiger Woods vs. Bob May, and the most recent USA Ryder Cup victory.

While the U of L guys marched all the way back to the Gold Tees (7,540 yards), we played the Green Tees, which were played from 6,515 yards with a rating/slope of 72.4/139.  We'd leave the 77.6/152 rating/slope to the Division 1 golfers!

There are lots of different rankings of golf courses.  Rankings are compiled by golf magazines, golf websites, and just in peoples' minds.  They take a lot of criticism and foster debates and arguments.  "How could you possibly think this course is better than that course" might be heard in your local grill room.  Each ranking has its inherent biases, and clearly none is perfect.  However, these rankings do much more good than they do harm in my opinion, in that they foster discussion and get people talking about what makes a great golf course.  What I particularly like about the rankings, and what gives me great pleasure in playing my way through them, is the variety and diversity of the courses that make them up.  There are 100+ year old gems, and others ranked right by them that were just built last year.  There are parkland, linksland, oceanfront, inland, short, long, very hard, and very playable.  There are courses built by legends, and courses built by folks who built one course and left it at that.  I think this is awesome.

When you arrive at Valhalla, there is a certain feel to it, and it's not one of a 100+ year old classic course.  It's a feel of being at a major championship venue.  It starts when you park your car and see the PGA offices right in front of you.  Inside, they're preparing to host the 2014 PGA Championship.

Valhalla Golf Club

‚ÄčLouisville, Kentucky

Checked off the Bucket List May 9, 2014

Golf Digest:

#97, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)

#1, Best in the State of Kentucky (2013-2014)