Locally owned Valhalla Golf Club touts Kentucky flavor as it prepares to host 4th PGA Championship

Published 1:23 pm Wednesday, May 15, 2024

By Gary B. Graves, AP Golf Writer

LOUISVILLE — Kentucky’s distinctive flavor becomes obvious upon entering Valhalla Golf Club.

White and limestone fencing that surrounds many of the Bluegrass State’s horse farms lines the road leading in, which until recently featured a couple of residing thoroughbreds grazing just inside the gate. Speaking of bluegrass, every fairway features several cuts of the lush turf, complementing the Kentucky limestone jutting out from several holes.

A white spire a la Churchill Downs tops the clubhouse, offering a strong reminder of the Kentucky Derby among many traditions. Every touch, from holes nicknamed for the state’s signature bourbon to the Derby’s mint julep cocktail, were intentional by several Valhalla members who purchased the club from the PGA of America nearly two years ago.

And as 156 of the world’s best golfers prepare to take on the private course hosting its fourth PGA Championship this week, the hosts want to ensure that players, spectators and viewers learn all the Commonwealth offers.

“It’s the best course in Kentucky, but we never really reinforced the fact that we’re in Kentucky,” said David Novak, part of an ownership foursome that includes ISCO Industries CEO Jimmy Kirchdorfer Jr., hotelier Chester Musselman and former Louisville men’s basketball and NBA star Junior Bridgeman, an entrepreneur.

“Limestone in Kentucky is the reason why we have the thoroughbred industry and the bourbon industry, because it purifies the water. So, we really showcase the limestone with our fences. We renamed all the holes to give them a Kentucky flair. All of that was geared around trying to take what is the major champion experience and give it a unique branding that I think will make it even more enjoyable for our members and anybody that comes here.”

Valhalla is hosting the PGA for the first time since 2014, when Rory McIlroy claimed the last of his four majors in the twilight. The tournament was held in August then before being shifted in 2019 to May, between the Masters and U.S. Open. The 38-year-old course also hosted the 2008 Ryder Cup, won by the United States. Only Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has hosted more PGA Championships (five) than Valhalla.

Valhalla underwent the first of many of its own changes a few years later when that quartet of members purchased the club from the PGA aiming to keep it out of the hands of real estate developers. Since then, they’ve worked to ensure it remains the same course presenting a picturesque, stadium-like view on many holes.

Returning players might notice the Jack Nicklaus-designed course plays about 130 yards longer this time around at 7,609. Some holes have new tee boxes and all feature clever nicknames such as Holla and Sting Like A Bee — the famous phrase of late heavyweight boxing great and Louisville native Muhammad Ali — reminding golfers where their fortunes may rise or sink by Sunday evening.

Valhalla club professional Kyle Cramer believes the par-4 opening “Post” hole lengthened 40 yards to 484 poses an initial difficulty off the tee with a dogleg left and approaches featuring front-right and back bunkers. The par-4 13th, known as the Limestone hole, is just 351 yards but features a group of bunkers before an island green built up with 20 limestone boulders.

Other than tweaks elsewhere, Valhalla is the same — with its best natural features highlighted.

“We didn’t feel like we needed to make the golf course that much more difficult because we’ve had just great leaderboards throughout past years,” Cramer added. “The cream has risen to the top and we’ve had great champions, so we didn’t want to do anything to make it tricky or too difficult. We want the players to enjoy the golf course, be able to make some birdies, which is exciting for the fans and viewers on TV as well.”

More than anything, Novak stressed that the ownership wanted to ensure that Valhalla retained the visual and competitive charm they enjoyed while playing the course as members. Fearful that the PGA might sell the club to a for-profit outside group hoping to build housing around it, the group banded together to not only keep it local, but enhance the traits that landed big tournaments in the first place.

Novak, the co-founder and former CEO of Yum! Brands corporation that operates the Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut restaurant chains, in particular has sought to apply his corporate experience into building the course as a brand that stays on the radar for major championships. While he wouldn’t disclose how much was paid for Valhalla or invested in the improvements, the group is pleased with the results.

And they’re hopeful that golfers and everyone else will take notice.

“Myself, along with our partners, we’ve applied everything that we know and have learned in business to really making Valhalla a better golf experience,” said Novak, whose upcoming book, “How Leaders Learn,” recounts his interactions from business along with golfers and other athletes.

“It’s a great test. It’s a very hard golf course. It can be very humbling. But when you have a great round there, you feel pretty good about it.”