LOUISVILLE, Ky.(AP) The waterfall alongside the 13th green at Valhalla Golf Club could have been lifted from a Disney theme park.
How appropriate as another major golf tournament comes to a course that’s always seemed to be a bit of a whimsical creation.
Lacking the tradition of an Augusta National or the truly memorable holes of a place such as Pebble Beach, this Jack Nicklaus-designed layout on the eastern fringe of Louisville is nonetheless hosting the Ryder Cup, it’s third big-time event in the last dozen years.
Not bad for a club that’s not even as old as the youngest member of the U.S. team, 23-year-old Anthony Kim.
At least the reviews are better than they were in 1996, when Valhalla hosted its first PGA Championship just a decade after opening its gates. The comments then were pretty stinging.
No tradition. A pedestrian layout more suited for a tournament named after a tractor or a bank. A blatant attempt by the owner, the PGA of America, to bolster the reputation of the club.
But it might prove to be the right fit for a Ryder Cup.
“I think it’s a superb golf course, especially for match play,” Justin Rose said. “It’s got a lot of interesting holes, a lot of dramatic-looking holes. It’s going to offer some birdie opportunities out there, but there’s some trouble out there, too. There’s a lot of risk and reward holes, and I think it sets up really well for match play.”
Actually, the Americans seem to be borrowing an idea that’s worked for Europe.
After years of hosting the Ryder Cup on U.S. Open-styled courses – Oakland Hills, The Country Club, Oak Hill – the United States has turned to a place more comparable to The Belfry in England and The K Club in Ireland, the last two courses used on the other side of the Atlantic.
It may be rather ordinary, but Valhalla is expected to yield plenty of birdies – and excitement.
“There will be eagles and birdies and all sorts of stuff flying around,” Ireland’s Graeme McDowell said.
The 13th is the signature hole – a downhill, 352-yarder that can be reached off a forward tee, assuming one can keep the ball on the par 4’s island green (it’s surrounded by a creek). Local favorite J.B. Holmes bombed away during the practice rounds, thrilling the galleries.
“We’ll see,” said Henrik Stenson of Sweden, one of Europe’s longest hitters. “I’m sure somebody is going to have a go at it.”
Matches that come down the 547-yard 18th hole will be decided on a par 5 that has a large bunker protecting the left side of the fairway and a pond down the right side. But a decent tee shot should give most players a chance to go for the green with their next swing.
“Aggressive play will be rewarded,” American rookie Steve Stricker said. “A guy that hits it long and straight is definitely going to be rewarded here.”
Valhalla was carved out of a flood plain on the outskirts of Louisville, land that had no apparent use until a local cabinetmaker came up with the idea of build a golf course good enough to host a PGA Championship, then summoned Nicklaus to design it.
The PGA of America ended up buying the place, giving Valhalla a big advantage when the organization’s two major events – the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup – are doled out.
The club hosted its second PGA Championship just four years after the first, in 2000, the quickest turnaround for a major championship other than the Masters since 1910, when the U.S. Open returned to Philadelphia Cricket Club after a three-year hiatus. For good measure, the 2004 Senior PGA Championship also was held here.
Despite being just 22 years old, Valhalla needed major renovations leading into the Ryder Cup. Nicklaus himself oversaw the changes, adding some 300 yards to a course that had quickly become outdated against today’s stronger players and improved equipment. Several greens were reconstructed. Others were modified to create more challenging pin placements. Bunkers were added at six holes.
But Nicklaus retained the most noticeable characteristic – a front nine that is much different than the back side.
“It’s interesting,” Sweden’s Robert Karlsson said. “The front nine is a lot more open … Scottish type, if you want to put it that way, golf course. The back nine is more tree lined. It’s two different nines, but they are both very good.”
Teammate Paul Casey also noticed the distinction.
“The first few holes, I thought that a really long hitter … a more erratic player, would be liking this golf course,” the Englishman said. “But when you come down the stretch on holes 15 and 16, for example, and 17 as well, they are not the widest fairways you’ve seen. In a pressure situation, those are going to be tricky to hit.”
So, while Valhalla may be lacking in tradition, there should be no shortage of thrilling shots.
“You’re going to see a lot of birdies,” Stricker predicted. “You’re going to need to make birdies to win the hole.”