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Valhalla’s lack of inspiration won’t keep PGA Championship down

Valhalla’s lack of inspiration won’t keep PGA Championship down

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For golf architecture aficionados, teeing off on Valhalla Golf Club is a challenge akin to taking a baseball bat to a sackful of puppies, since any spirited defense of its design merits is likely to come only from members, parochial boosters or shameless bullshitters.

The snobbery that animates architecture geeks is suspicious of championship courses credited to someone who hasn’t been beneath sod for a century or so. There are exceptions though. A course will get a more favorable hearing if it has a noble pedigree or was made over by a young(ish), still vital designer who is choosy in his projects. See Los Angeles Country Club, which showcased the sublime work of Gil Hanse at last summer’s U.S. Open. Or next month’s edition at Pinehurst No. 2. Neither Bill Coore or Ben Crenshaw can claim youth, but are more vital than Donald Ross and their work at his original was impeccable.

Valhalla has no such associations prized by the cool kids. It was designed from scratch by Jack Nicklaus, who is not only still with us but fiercely opinionated on his craft and prodigious in his output. Those are three strikes in the zone for highfalutins. Location matters too, of course. The nearest ocean to Valhalla is 700-odd miles away, or a couple thousand if you take a wrong turn at the gate. To find a sand dune you’d best drive to the landscape supply store a few miles north. That’s another couple over the center of the plate.

Elevated standards are fine, of course. To be encouraged even. How else to distinguish between a Rembrandt and the dreck adorning the walls of a hot sheets motel in Gary, Indiana? But when it comes to tournament golf — and major championships in particular — many a thrilling drama has been mounted on a humdrum stage. Like Rory McIlroy in 2014. Or Tiger Woods in ’00. And Mark Brooks in ’96. Same goes for the U.S. Open. Torrey Pines hosted a captivating contest once, but isn’t redeemed for the enduring association with tremendous theater.

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Majors are about venues, not golf courses. Particularly in this era when things like logistics, hospitality and merchandising trump quaint considerations like architectural merit, history and the pulse rate of the designer. One only need peruse Ryder Cup hosts over the last 40 years, especially in Europe, where the number of hotel rooms on-site often seems the highest priority. Measured against those metrics, Valhalla is a fine…


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