Valhalla proves itself worthy of major drama

The PGA Championship at Valhalla provided a dramatic stage for Rory McIlroy's second major title of 2014.
The PGA Championship at Valhalla provided a dramatic stage for Rory McIlroy's second major title of 2014. ( PGA of America )

Monday, September 1, 2014

After Valhalla Golf Club splashed onto the sporting landscape at the 1996 PGA Championship, critics sharpened their blades. Some viewed it as a marginal major-championship course, and they were the nice ones. David Duval was among those cutting deep when saying, “I think Valhalla is a perfectly nice golf course – for a Nike Tour event. But a major championship? You have to be kidding.”

Valhalla took a hit in 2000 as well when it paled in comparison to fellow major venues Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. It might as well have been a stick-man drawing in the middle of the Louvre. “You’re not supposed to be talking about those courses in the same sentence (with Valhalla),” Hal Sutton said then.

Even though numerous improvements have been made to the Jack Nicklaus design, the panning extended to last weekend when a Sports Illustrated writer declared it unworthy of a major, saying, “Mediocrity, thy name is Valhalla.” He went on to claim the PGA feels like the Greater Louisville Classic.

Given the constant final-round drama Sunday, though, it’s time to put the arrows in the quiver for good and appreciate the place. Valhalla served up the best major in at least two years. Last time the PGA was here, in 2000, one of the best final days in golf history broke out.

Yes, Tiger Woods shot 18 under par then, and new kingpin Rory McIlroy came two shots shy of that in last week’s soft, wet conditions. But there’s something special going on when those prodigies reign and the two Senior PGAs have been ruled by Hall of Famers Hale Irwin and Tom Watson. Considering all that, Valhalla should get a PGA at least once a decade.

McIlroy’s duel against fellow heavyweights Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson provided nonstop theater. It had more lead changes than the Bush-Gore election. This was not lost on the combatants.

“It was fairly heavyweight,” said Stenson, the playful Swede. “Rory and Rickie are not that heavy. I’d rather take them on in the ring than on the golf course. But Phil might have a nasty jab in there.”

One couldn’t divert eyes from the fast-paced action. You couldn’t go to the bathroom except during commercials. “Exactly,” said Mickelson’s wife, Amy. “These moments are very surreal. It happens so fast.”

In winning his fourth major in 38 months, the 25-year-old McIlroy went from one ahead to three down on the seventh to two ahead in the gloaming on the 18th tee. As he was doing so, a Louisville columnist mentioned that Valhalla was being ripped for being too easy.

If that’s the case, we’ll take benign. We’ll take soft, thrilling and memorable over firm, fast, difficult and boring every time. The U.S. Golf Association might disagree, but this was as good as it gets. We saw two-way traffic, from eagles to double bogeys during the week. It was nice to see players show off their skills and hit drivers. It certainly beat some recent U.S. Open survival tests, where par has been king, ad nauseam, and too many irons struck off tees.

Some might welcome a clown’s mouth and windmill on the last green if it means thrills like this. Though Valhalla, a spectator-friendly track in a special-events town, need not resort to that.

“It’s such a great place to host the event, a wonderful course,” five-time major champion Mickelson said after losing by one. “If it had been firmer and faster without the rain, it would have been a spectacular test. It’s so beautiful and rewards great play. It’s fun to play here.”

Valhalla can hear such deserving sentiment and know that its whipping-boy days should be over. readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.