Valhalla Golf Club: Firmer, Faster & Even More Demanding

Golf balls are round for a reason: They’re supposed to roll. If the weather continues to cooperate in Louisville, Kentucky, it’s likely the golf balls in this year’s PGA Championship will be rolling farther than ever May 16-19 at Valhalla Golf Club.

In 2021, Valhalla replaced its former bentgrass fairways with Zeon Zoysiagrass. Requiring less water and fewer chemicals than bent, the zoysia plays much faster and firmer, allowing golf balls to roll until they sometimes roll too far.

The club also removed the strips of bluegrass rough between the fairways and fairway bunkers, allowing balls to trundle unimpeded into the bunkers. That is more in keeping with the links style of golf found in the British Isles, where even slightly misplaced shots often bounce along the ground until they reach some kind of trouble.

All in all, those changes should put a greater emphasis on accurate driving and controlled shotmaking. Combine that with Valhalla’s copious bluegrass rough, and the leaderboard of this year’s PGA Championship will be packed with players who are in control of all aspects of their games.

“Hitting the fairways is way more at a premium here than it is at a lot of places,” said Keith Reese, PGA general manager at Valhalla since 2013, who started there as an assistant professional in 1989. “It’ll be interesting to see if the players have to adjust their aiming points off some of the tees this year, just because we are getting more roll than we typically would.”

Designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened in 1986, Valhalla already has proved to be an excellent ball-striking test in past PGA Championships with Mark Brooks (1996), Tiger Woods (2000) and Rory McIlroy (2014) the victors. This year’s will be Valhalla’s fourth major championship, the most of any modern layout. Golfweek’s Best course-ranking program defines modern courses as being built since 1960, and heading into this year’s event, Valhalla was tied among modern courses with the Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin as the host of three PGA Championships. Both Valhalla (2008) and the Straits (2020) also hosted Ryder Cups.

The PGA of America once owned Valhalla, which is ranked by Golfweek as the No. 1 private course in Kentucky. The organization bought a 25 percent stake in Valhalla in the early 1990s, increased its stake to 50 percent in 1996, then bought the club outright in 2000 with the promise to make it an anchor site for future events. In 2022, the PGA of America sold the club to a group of Louisville investors, and the desire to host elite events hasn’t wavered.

Valhalla has proved its worth several other times, as well. Hale Irwin won the 2004 Senior PGA Championship there, and fellow World Golf Hall of Fame member Tom Watson took that title in 2011. Akshay Bhatia won the second of his back-to-back Boys Junior PGA Championships at Valhalla in 2018 before joining the PGA Tour as a 21-year-old, and Anna Davis won the 2021 Girls Junior PGA Championship at Valhalla before capturing the 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

“I think the golf course is a good test of golf, but it’s a fair test of golf,” said Reese, who has witnessed all the big events at Valhalla. “As you’ve seen, we’ve had some really exciting finishes and a really great list of champions. It’s a golf course that has some scoring opportunities but it also has areas that can jump up and bite you if you’re not careful.

“The last six holes, I think, are fantastic, just a great finishing stretch with some short holes and some long holes.”

Those closing holes include a short par 4 with an island green, a long par 3, two mid-length par 4s, a long par 4 and a reachable par 5 to close it all out. There are birdie opportunities, as evidenced by Woods and May each shooting 31 on the back nine in their epic 2000 duel that ended with a playoff victory for Woods. McIlroy in 2014 likewise blitzed the back nine in 32 shots to sneak past Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson.

But don’t consider it a pushover. If past performance is any indicator of future outcomes, Reese expects Valhalla’s combination of thick rough, fast fairways and tricky greens to punish even slightly wayward efforts.

“You look at the champions who have won here, traditionally they have been very good ball-strikers and really good iron players, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods obviously,” Reese said. “A lot of our greens complexes are elevated, so if your iron shots are a little off, they wind up basically being repelled away from the green even more.

“The rough just gets very unpredictable, and I think that’s probably the most difficult thing for the tour players, putting them in a situation where they can’t predict how far a shot is going to go or how much it’s going to spin.”

There have been other changes to Valhalla over the years, besides the switch to zoysia fairways. The greens were renovated in 2012, and more recent work focused on adding length. Valhalla played to 7,458 yards in 2014, and Reese said about 130 yards have been added in preparation for this year’s event. The par-4 first hole has been stretched 50 yards with a new tee, the par-4 12th was stretched 20 yards and the par-3 14th has a new tee 30 yards farther back as the hole now plays 250 yards. To cap it all off, the par-5 18th was extended 30 yards.

It doesn’t hurt that the Louisville area saw early spring weather this year, Reese said. The course is several weeks ahead of its normal growing patterns, and the rough has soaked up that warm sunshine, growing even thicker than normal and further elevating the demands on shot control.

“If you hit good shots, you will get rewarded,” Reese said. “If you hit bad shots, it can punish you in a hurry, each and every hole.”