With its already-strong reputation as a mecca for golf enthusiasts bolstered by another memorable Championship held under challenging conditions, the PGA’s showcase property will now look to provide an even better fit with the changing club landscape.
Valhalla was the great hall described in Norse mythology, where the souls of Vikings feasted and celebrated with the gods. When Dwight Gahm, a prominent businessman in Louisville, Ky., set out with his three sons in the early 1980s to build a private golf facility, they had a similarly grandiose vision—this time for an outdoor version of a “great hall,” crafted from 486 rolling acres of a former Boy Scouts camp on Louisville’s east end by one of the living gods of golf, Jack Nicklaus.
From the start, the Gahms envisioned a property and course that would provide a sumptuous feast not only for club members, but also for golf enthusiasts from around the world. Within 10 years of its 1986 opening, Valhalla’s reputation had grown to where it had not only earned the right to host its first major golf tournament (the 1996 PGA Championship), but had caught the attention of the PGA of America as an ideal showcase for that organization. The PGA bought a 25 percent interest in Valhalla GC in 1993, another 25 percent after the 1996 Championship, and then secured full ownership from the Gahms in 2000, after it held a second Championship at the course it could now call its own Kentucky home.
AT A GLANCE
Under the PGA’s full ownership, the original vision of the Gahms has only sharpened. Valhalla hosted Senior PGA championships in 2004 and 2011, as well as the Ryder Cup in 2008, when its standing as a golf mecca both for players and spectators was really shown to the world. That’s when those who flocked to Louisville, along with those who watched on TV, gained full appreciation for how the property offers some of golf’s most spectacular viewing areas in the natural amphitheaters to be found throughout the course.
Even the greatest of “halls” will eventually show areas where structural improvements could be made, however. And so it was that Valhalla’s course was closed for a year in 2011, for a complete renovation and modernization. The irrigation infrastructure was completely overhauled, an underground drainage and vacuum system was installed, bunkers were enhanced, roughs were renovated and the green complexes were rebuilt from the ground up, to enhance surface drainage and soften contours. A new variety of bentgrass was also introduced on the greens, to provide greater tolerance to the extended and extensively humid summers that come with being located in Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River.
The renovation was in part prompted by 25 years of experiencing the challenges that came with having a course located in the heart of the transition zone and with a front nine built in a flood plain. It was also a response to having dealt with a series of extreme weather events during previous tournaments, including tornado warnings and flooding that delayed play at the Senior PGA in 2004, and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ike that blew down tents and a TV tower during the Ryder Cup in 2008.
But primarily, the renovation was seen as the next step needed to properly position Valhalla for many more golf feasts to come—including the 2014 PGA Championship. “This course is the flagship of the PGA of America,” says Roger Meier, the club’s Golf Course Superintendent who came to Louisville in 2010 from Chariot Run GC, to take over for the retiring Mark Wilson.
“The whole plan for Valhalla during the renovation was to ensure it was one for the ages,” Meier says. “We wanted to set this place up for a long, long time.”
Put to the Test
Mother Nature didn’t hold back for the first big test of the upgraded Valhalla course. Drenching rains were unleashed virtually every day of Championship week last month, and play was eventually pushed back to the point where Sunday’s final round featured a race against darkness to go along with the thrilling, down-to-the-final-hole competition that unfolded between eventual winner Rory McIlroy and a host of pursuers, including Phil Mickelson.
But in the end, Valhalla once again prevailed, and that again meant being hailed as one of golf’s great championship venues—not only for its success in being able to conclude the tournament on Sunday night as scheduled, but also for the unique and intimate experience it provided each day to sellout crowds in the face of such challenging conditions.
“The overall feedback we’ve received from the tournament has just been phenomenal,” General Manager Keith Reese said at the end of August. “It was absolutely crazy, and we were very fortunate to be able to overcome all the challenges we faced. But we’re very proud of how we were able to once again show Valhalla at its best to the world, and also very proud of the positive reaction we’ve received.”
Reese has been at Valhalla for an interrupted stretch of nearly 25 years, starting as an assistant golf pro from 1989-1995, then serving (after one year as Director of Golf at Lake Forest Country Club in Louisville) as Valhalla’s head pro from 1997-2012, before being named General Manager in 2013. With Meier and current Head Golf Professional Chris Hamburger, who took that position in April 2013 to return to Valhalla, where he served as an assistant pro from 1997-2001, after 12 years as head pro and GM at The Cardinal Club (now the University of Louisville Golf Club), the three work with tight coordination to not only handle all that major championships can throw at them, but also to ensure an optimum experience for Valhalla’s 300 members (260 local, 40 national).
Indeed, even with all that they and their teams endured during Championship week, this year the Valhalla staff was still determined after it was all over to deliver on a new opportunity it had promised to the membership: to be able to play the course with championship conditions on the Tuesday following the tournament.
The event for members and their guests went off as planned and attracted well over 100 players, Reese reported at the end of August. “It was great; they loved it as something they had not been able to do before,” he says. “They were very appreciative that we still provided them with that opportunity.”
The Valhalla staff has now already turned to drawing on its experience in recovering from previous tournaments to get the course fully ready to return to members for regular use as quickly as possible, while also setting its sights on longer-term goals. These could include expansion of services and amenities beyond golf, as even a property such as Valhalla starts to take closer looks at the value of providing a more complete club experience to members and guests.
For instance, the club staff currently does not include an Executive Chef, with food-and-beverage service limited to breakfast and lunch. “We do a small banquet business with some small functions, but not a lot,” Reese adds. “[F&B and catering] have never been our niche, and we’ve always tried to stay very aware of knowing what we are.”
Still, Reese has become more intrigued, after moving into the GM role, about exploring the possibilities for not only expanding F&B service for members, but also converting facilities which to date have largely been used for administrative purposes into areas that could allow larger functions, meetings and events to be held on site. Already, innovative menu enhancements have been introduced for daily dining, and Reese allows that the club will be “looking at several projects over the next five years” that could lead to a larger presence for F&B, fitness and other areas. Developing on-site lodging is also a possibility, to make it easier for those from around the world to make pilgrimages to the “great hall.”
In the meantime, as Meier says, Valhalla’s three top managers will continue to share, and pursue, the common goal of ensuring that the club is always “the best it can be.” In Meier’s case, this will mean continuing to rely on all available technology to communicate effectively with both members and staff. The course superintendent has developed a strong and loyal following for his Twitter feeds (one personal account, and one for the Valhalla grounds crew), both of which he continued to faithfully update, with plenty of photos, throughout the Championship (and both of which became fully loaded with congratulatory messages from followers who recognized the magnitude of the crew’s efforts and accomplishments in ensuring the tournament’s successful completion).
In Valhalla’s course maintenance facility, Meier demonstrates an electronic job board that has helped everyone who works within his department’s “great hall” stay on the same page, through password-protected access to Google Docs and Google Drive. “Communication is certainly key in this business,” he says. “We’re fortunate to be able to take care of a property like this, and we need to make full use of all of the access and information that’s available to help us keep it in the best possible condition.”
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