People from miles away heard Jack Nicklaus rubbing his hands together when he was approached to design Valhalla back in the 1980s. This 500-acre parcel of Kentucky land was an architect’s dream, with varied terrain, water and plenty of space. So much space that 40 possible course routings were considered before construction eventually began.
Valhalla finally opened for play in 1986 to a rapturous standing ovation but Valhalla is an old Viking word, which roughly translated means “Hall of the slain”, a mythical heaven for Norse warriors slain gloriously in battle. Hold on a minute, we know this is a tough course but surely it’s not that tough? Well, we do know that it took a Tiger to tame Valhalla in the 2000 PGA Championship, which was the second time the club had played host to the PGA (previously in 1996 won by Mark Brooks). The PGA Championship returned to Valhalla in 2014, which Rory McIlroy won in the evening twilight to secure his fourth Major title.
We’re great fans of the US reciprocal guest policy which is similar to the system that is prevalent in Europe. We’re delighted that Valhalla embraces this policy, allowing members of other golf clubs to play the course providing they are introduced beforehand.
The front nine at Valhalla is fashioned in a links-style with fairways that pitch and roll through a fairly flat, low-lying and open valley. Jack needed to do a bit of earth moving to create the outward half, not only to make a visually attractive sequence of holes, but also to protect the fairways from possible storm damage. The back nine, on the other hand, is a much more traditional tree-lined layout.
A number of minor tweaks were made by Nicklaus ahead of the two majors mentioned earlier and Big Jack was selected again to modify the course prior to the eagerly awaited 2008 Ryder Cup which put Valhalla Golf Club under the world’s spotlight once more. Team USA emphatically won the 37th Ryder Cup with an impressive 16½-11½ victory over Europe, heralding their first win since 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline.
Valhalla is a golf course that one could play every day and not grow tired of it. This is one of the better designs by Jack Nicklaus. It is a course of two nines, with the front nine playing primarily flat with the exception of the ninth hole and the back nine offering holes that play through significant changes in elevation, save for the fifteenth hole. While there are plenty of hazards, they are always evident and can be played away from.
The greens are not overly contrived and there are decent green surrounds. The conditioning is excellent with the exception of the fifteenth where the fairway needs to be regraded to prevent water accumulation of the right side of the fairway. The bunkering is very good. There is a nice mixture of longer and shorter holes at all par levels. Water is artfully incorporated into several of the holes. The rough had been cut down slightly from its typical height due to the heat/humidity of a typical summer in Louisville which made the course play easier although I was only in it three times off the tee.
There is not a hole I did not like and there are several that are very good. The course offers a good balance of challenge and strategy. The back nine is significantly better than the front nine because it has better land.
The course is a par 72 and a whopping 7540 yards from the Gold tees, rated 76.4, slope 148. The Black tees are 6975 yards, rated 74.1, slope 143. The Green tees are 6540 yards, rated 71.6/138. There are three sets of shorter tees. We played the green tees. My member host/friend brought along another member who is scratch. We had an excellent caddie.
I will reference only the Gold and Green tees.
1 – par 4 450/390. A nice starting hole, playing downhill. Bigger hitters fly the tree line on the left side of this slight dogleg left. There are no bunkers on the right side. At the green are flanking bunkers left and right. It is a good gentle starting hole where birdie is very possible.
2 – par 5 530/475. This is now often played as a par 4 in professional tournaments. This hole has wetlands pinching in from the left creating a natural dogleg to the left. A single bunker is on the outer corner along with trees down the right side. Longer hitters play over the bunker. At the green are two fronting bunkers and one at the rear to a green that has a fall-off to the left. This green has been moved closer to the wetlands to create more drama. I found the hole to be pretty straightforward and an average par 5, but would be an above average par 4.
3 – par 3 210/170. Playing over a stream known as Floyds Fork, this elevated green has surrounding bunkers and a back to front tilt. The hidden bunker in the rear is a nuisance for those in it. The left side of the green is much smaller due to the placement of the left side bunker. It is an okay par 3.
4 – par 4 375/325. A driveable par 4 that offers a significant penalty if one pulls their shot left into the trees or Floyds Fork. This hole bends to the left and has a large bunker on the inner turn and a small one on the outer turn. At the green are three bunkers. There is a significant tier in the back right of this green. I like the hole. It is an easy par if one plays it safe.
5 – par 4 460/405. A dogleg right playing slightly downhill to the green. There is a long bunker on the right and three on the left side of the fairway. The longer hitters fly all of the bunkers but could find themselves on a downhill lie as the land falls away about 160-110 yards from the green. The better player in our group made birdie here despite the downhill lie. There is a single bunker to the right of the green and some clever mounding on the left and back side. It is an okay hole and ends the gentle start to the golf course.
6 – par 4 460/405. This hole has been lengthened about 100 yards. The tee shot is straight out with no bunkers but a tall tree line down the right. Then one crosses Floyds Ford and has a 240-200 yard shot to the green depending on if one is left or right in the fairway. The second shot is uphill. There is a bunker on the left side of the green. This is a very difficult golf hole and many of the members do not like the hole due to the added length so they built a new tee for them to be able to drive across Floyds Fork on their tee shot, reducing the yardage to the original yardage even if the hole plays very differently.
7 – par 5 600/490. A visually pleasing hole with two pieces of water down the left side of the main fairway. This hole offers a split fairway as the left fairway reduces the yardage by about 50-70 yards. Bisecting the split fairway is wetlands before a second pond starts. From the left split fairway it is all carry over the water to the green. If driving down the right side of the fairway, one has to also clear six bunkers. Farther up there are three bunkers where the fairway turns to the right heading down to lower ground where the green is located. The water is down all of the left side. There is a small pot-like bunker front center of the green. This is a good golf hole.
8 – par 3 190/150. The green has a fronting middle bunker and one back left. It is the worst hole on the golf course. I would have raised the green more to create more drama even if it would have looked like the third hole.
9 – par 4 415/400 – Playing uphill, this hole offers a lot of sand down the right side with two bunkers on the left side. The approach shot is even more uphill with a large, deep bunker on the right side of the green. As would be expected on a green placed on the side of a hill, the green is steeply sloped back to front and right to left towards the lower ground. It is a nice hole.
10 – par 5 595/520. Playing from an elevated tee to a green eventually set off to the right, this hole has its challenge at the green which is long but somewhat thin set behind a bunker. A hill off to the left will kick balls onto the green. It is a fun start to the back nine.
11 – par 3 – 210/190. This hole plays against the side of the hill with the higher ground to the right and a fall-off left. It offers a large green with a single bunker right middle and two on the left. The green is angled right to left. I like the hole.
12 – par 4 470/420. Perhaps the most difficult hole on the back nine, the tee shot is slightly uphill to a plateau. There are trees down the left side but bailing out to the right could land one in higher grass. Facing a 220 yard shot across a deep valley to a green sited on the side of a hill, my caddie advised me to lay up with a fifty yard shot to the left corner of the fairway to have a flatter shot into the green rather than hit as far as I could and have a blind third. Where the valley starts is where the fairway ends. I did as told but regretted his advice as I could not execute the long third shot. Thankfully, I nearly holed out for a four. This green is wider on the right side than it appears but on the left side (where our pin was) it is thin. There is a single bunker front right of the green. This is a strong golf hole.
13 – par 3 355/325. Perhaps the most famous hole on the course, this downhill par 4 has six bunkers on the inner corner of the dogleg left. Brush Run (a stream) creates an island green but the green is of good size. I birdied the hole.
14 – par 3 220/165. From the tees we played this is an average par 3 playing slightly uphill to a green angled left to right. There are two bunkers left and two to the right. The right side has lower ground. From the back tees this is a downhill par 3 that is spectacular. For those that rate or review courses, this is a prime example of why it is important to see the entire course.
15 – par 4 435/380. The worst hole on the back nine is the fifteenth because it is flat and out of character to the rest of the back nine. It serves as a connector hole to the final three. The hole does offer high ground and trees on the left side, a fairway bunker on the right followed by a long water feature that cuts across the front of the green. At the green are three bunkers front middle, back middle and right middle. The hole does have adequate defense and is a much better hole from the back tees. While I said this is the worst hole on the back nine, on many courses it would be one of the better holes.
16 – par 4 510/405. From the back tees this is a beast and requires a long carry to reach the fairway, perhaps 260 yards. The fairway plays through a corridor of trees much like the fifteenth. The green sits above you on a plateau with two bunkers set below the front of the hole. The green has a lot of undulations to it. This is the best hole on the golf course although not the most difficult.
17 – par 4 475/390. The tee shot all the way to the green plays uphill. This is a visually odd hole that seems to play left than right but the reality one should play it straight. Off to the right are heavy trees and taller grass. There are also flanking fairway bunkers. At the green is a single bunker to the left. The green has fall-offs at the front and left. It is one of the more undulating greens on the course.
18 – par 5 545/490. The finale plays from an elevated tee with a long bunker down the left side. Go too far left and you will find the trees much like Tiger Woods did (he got a lucky bounce to find his ball). Go too far right and one might find the water (Rory McIlroy missed the water by perhaps four feet). As the ground rises to the green, down the right side is a series of small man-made waterfalls and ponds, which is visually pleasing. The green has a centerline bunker and one set off front left. There are three sections to the green with the centerline bunker acting as a partial divide. The middle section of the green is its own plateau with steep banks off it to either side. Behind the green the land rises. One does not want to have a downhill shot from the bank behind the green. It is a lovely golf hole.
As indicated, this is one of the most playable designs by Jack Nicklaus, rivaling Mayacama and Pronghorn. One could have a high score here, but one can also play well here. The back nine has the better land and the better holes. The better land also creates more interesting greens with the exception of the fifteenth hole.
The members have a special course here because it is fun to play. From the back tees for the better players, this is a better course. Average players would not experience the back tees, but since I saw them, I know how much better the course is from there.
Wonderful course, but over rated. I was fortunate to play with our pro, Chad. The highlight was on the par where Sergio kept dumping balls in the H2O at the Ryder Cup, Chad reached in two. Alas, he did not make eagle but impressive nonetheless. In my opinion the back is much tougher than the front. Using your imagination walking up 18 must be impressive, overwhelming, humbling...pick your adjective at a major tournament with a large crowd.
Valhalla is an outstanding place. The clubhouse is magnificent. Probably the most beautiful I've ever come across. As for the course itself, it's a real treat. Lots of different ways to approach how you navigate holes here, and Jack makes you examine all your options with every shot. I'd definitely agree with previous reviews that the back is stronger than the front, but the outward half is certainly nothing to knock. Numbers 2 and 7, the front's Par 5's, are fantastic risk-reward holes. Both can be reached in 2, but water and sand around each green make it a tall order to make an eagle. Laying up on each of those holes, as I did, secured easy pars with makable birdie putts that didn't require much stress, as going for the greens would have. The 4th is a good short Par 4, and the 6th is a beast of a hole. My friend, an assistant pro at Valhalla, says it's the hardest hole in Kentucky. It's believable, and it hasn't always been like that, as Nicklaus moved the green 100 yards back from its original location next to a creek, to an area surrounded by trees. Yet, even with the difficulty of #6, #12 makes its own argument for being a beast. Missing the fairway here almost guarantees the best score you can make is a 5. Even if you do hit the fairway, par is a tall order. After (likely) getting your rear end kicked in there, you move onto #13, the signature hole with the island green. It's a fairway wood or long iron off the tee, and a wedge into the green. Assuming you don't psych yourself out because of the water, it's not a hard hole to make birdie on. #15 is another great Par 4, with the meandering creek along the right side providing a strong challenge, with a very quaint, relaxing view. After more challenges on the 16th and 17th, you get one last chance to bite back on the short Par 5 18th. Avoid the water, put the ball on the correct side of the green, and birdie is a very realistic option so that you can end your round in happy fashion. This is a very fair course, as a whole. Keep it in the short grass and on most holes, you'll have a green light to attack the flag. Once you're in the rough, you are forced to play defensively and limit the damage. Nothing but good things to say about Valhalla though. I would love to come back here, and in part to the exciting tournaments it's hosted in the past, is worthy of many more big tournaments going forward.