The Finest Golf
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky -- In Norse Mythology, Valhalla was known as the great hall where Vikings feasted and celebrated mighty victories with gods and legends.
Now, the PGA of America, and pretty much all of professional golf in the U.S.A., is turning to a Valhalla of a slightly different kind in an effort to restore American golfing pride, and celebrate a mighty victory before their losing streak reaches truly mythical proportions.
The 2008 Ryder Cup will be staged at Valhalla Golf Club, September 16-21, as the American Ryder Cup team attempts to break their longest losing streak in competition history against a strong European squad.
It will also be a chance for this small Southern U.S. town, which is famous for its annual Kentucky Derby horse race and its namesake takeaway chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken to establish a new international identity.
“There is no question we are selling our city and state to the world with these matches,” said Walt Gahm, whose family founded the course and club in the mid 1980s.
“We want to make known as more than just poor, barefoot people who put on a horse race once a year with moonshine in our back pocket.”
The U.S. has lost the last three Ryder Cup matches to the Europeans by the largest routs in their 70-year history, and would have lost six straight matches if not for the efforts of Texan Justin Leonard, who knocked in a U.S. Ryder Cup putt for the ages to win the 1999 match on American soil.
After the historic drubbing the U.S. suffered at the K Club outside of Dublin in 2006, the bi-annual matches return to America for their first appearance at Vahalla, which is now owned by the PGA of American and has already hosted two U.S. PGA Championships
“There will be magic here in September,” Gahm said about his family’s former course. “They was before and there will be again. I’m predicting an American win. You have to stay positive.”
Regardless of what fans and players come away with a win, both teams will face a stern challenge from the Valhalla layout which was opened in 1986 by Gahm, and is now wholly owned by the PGA of America.
Nicklaus built the course on 486 acres of prime, rolling bluegrass. Because the Gahm family built the course to host future championships, there are plenty of wide open spaces for spectators and long ball hitters.
For this year’s Ryder Cup, the course will play par 71 and 7,416 yards with at least three par 4 holes measuring over 500 yards.
This fall, former U.S. hero Leonard is among the favorites to make the U.S. team this fall and this year’s competition will be staged at the site of one of world number one Tiger Woods’ most legendary wins.
He put an emphatic stamp on his magical 2000 season with a tight playoff victory over fellow American Bob May to win the 82nd U.S. PGA Championship, which was held at Valhalla.
His 270 total, with birdies on the last two holes, then domination of a three-hole playoff proved Woods has plenty of mastery in this Southern Kentucky private club showcase.
It also ended the consecutive major championship steak held by Jack Nicklaus, who designed the Valhalla layout
The question many have is will his Kentucky bluegrass course provide the motivation Woods appears lacks in at the one golf activity he has not absolutely dominated since turning pro.
He has a very substandard 10-13-2 record, with a variety of partners and has only won one Ryder Cup competition since turning pro in 1996. Perhaps returning to the par 71 Valhalla layout designed by his idol Nicklaus could bring plenty of good memories.
Now the question is, can Woods transfer that to his American team and to himself when he competes in a team format, not in individual play.
While his record in singles play is a Woods-like 3-1-1, his record in team competition is a positively awful 7-12-1. Add the overall mark of fellow American star Phil Mickelson at 9-12-4, and it’s easy to see why the U.S. team remains 0-for-the-21st Century in Ryder Cup play.
Newly named U.S. Captain Paul Azinger has changed the lineup of competition this year, going with alternate shot first, and has four captain’s picks instead of the usual two in an attempt to halt the American slide.
Gahm said he expects between 25-30 percent of the crowd to be make-up of European visitors and while he is not personally hoping their squad wins, he is making sure they have a good time at Vahalla.
“I didn’t understand history of the Ryder Cup before I started attending and seeing the importance the European fans and players place in it. They will never forget the hospitality people in Louisville show them this year. That’s what we do here.”
Azinger, who will face off against fellow captain and former TV partner Nick Faldo, said he is more concerned about U.S. losing streaks and course conditions than making sure the visitors have a good time.
“I've got a lot of decisions about course set-up. Europe always tries to neutralize our strength, which was power,” Azinger said.
“I feel in these last several Ryder Cups, we’ve had bombers like Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods) on the Ryder Cup team and the fairways are hampered.
“At the Belfry, the fairways beyond 290 yards were eight yards wide, just the weirdest configuration of fairway shape, and they forced Tiger to end up hitting his second shots into the greens from the same spot as everybody else unless you wanted to hit your driver into an eight-yard wide area. That was a smart course set-up wise.”
Azinger said he was looking forward to returning to Valhalla where he played in two PGA Championships and praised the make-up of the course.
Others apparently agree as it has been ranked as the top course in Kentucky every year since it opened in 1986, and is ranked in the top 100 in the U.S. It was also named one of the top three private courses in America when it opened.
But despite the makeup of the course, that doesn’t mean Azinger is averse to making some changes.
“I've actually spent some time with Mark Wilson, the superintendent at Valhalla, and, depending on the makeup of the team, I’ll do everything I can to get an edge,” he said.
The front nine at Valhalla was built by Nicklaus into a low-lying parkland setting where 650,000 cubic yards of earth were moved to build up tees, greens and fairways to a level that would protect the course from major storm damage.
The greens, tees and fairways are a combination of Pencross and Penway bent grass strains. Overall, there are 42 sand bunkers strategically positioned throughout the course.
The back nine holes were carved out of a higher elevation tree-covered terrain with a shallow creek that would come into play on four holes.
The par 4 17th hole and the par 5 18th have huge spectator mounds which can accommodate tens of thousands of golf fans eager to see how the final holes can turn a match.
Valhalla's greens, tees and fairways feature distinct tiers and sections that provide a variety of challenging hole locations. The primary rough is Kentucky bluegrass with fescue making up the secondary rough.
As benefits an area which features Kentucky mansions and huge horse farms, the Valhalla clubhouse is rather lavish itself.
The 17,500-square foot clubhouse, featuring a 45-foot Rolex clock tower and a veranda overlooking the 18th green, opened in February 1996. The clubhouse, in the traditional Louisville design, blends both Midwestern and Southern accents.
If all this doesn’t work to the U.S. team’s favor, local organizers have appointed former Masters champion and local native Fuzzy Zoeller, official prime minister of fun. He’s sure to know where the local Kentucky whiskey is kept to soothe another potential big American loss.
As the local horse breeders would tell you, America is anything but the favorite at the September Ryder Cup matches, but with Azinger’s changes and Valhalla's challenges, the U.S. team could at least be seen as a respectable long shot.