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Taking Their Lumps Only the windmills were missing from the split-level greens at Jack Nicklaus's Valhalla, which got the Bronx cheer from players at the PGA Championship

Aug. 28, 2000
Aug. 28, 2000

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Aug. 28, 2000

NFL Preview 2000

Taking Their Lumps Only the windmills were missing from the split-level greens at Jack Nicklaus's Valhalla, which got the Bronx cheer from players at the PGA Championship

Augusta National has Amen Corner and Rae's Creek. Pebble Beach has
the par-3 7th and Stillwater Cove. The Old Course has the Swilken
Burn bridge, the Valley of Sin and bunkers with names.

This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue

Valhalla Golf Club? It has the Toilet Seat, the new nickname of
the awkward 18th green, and unsightly power lines that run
through the front nine. Sure, any course would pale in comparison
to the sites of this year's first three majors, but somehow we
can't get past that memorable moment at the 18th green during
Wednesday's practice round for the PGA Championship. "Dennis
Paulson said, 'If you look down, the green looks just like a
f------ toilet seat,'" said Steve Pate. "He's right."

So was this really any place to hold the last major championship
of the millennium year, especially after Valhalla had gotten
lukewarm reviews during the 1996 PGA? "We have a better course
now," Valhalla superintendent Mark Wilson says. "People compare
us to Pebble Beach and Augusta. We're in better shape at 14 years
old than they were." O.K., we'll give you that. Still, Valhalla
was a poor choice.

All you had to do was witness the opening round. It took upward
of six hours to complete, and even though there were no delays,
it didn't finish on Thursday, a major-championship first. No
rain, no fog, no lightning, no streakers. Just a creeping,
pathetic pace of play. Eighteen players were still on the course
when darkness fell on their heads, no doubt waking them. "I'm not
criticizing the PGA," said Ernie Els, who shot 74 in a hot,
six-hour round, "but it needs to rethink this course. Every third
hole we were bunched up."

There was plenty of blame to share. The par-5s were reachable in
two for even the non-Tigers, backing up play. Officials didn't
prod slow-moving early groups. Too many pins were set in
ridiculously difficult positions. Yes, slow play was an issue at
St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, too. But with Valhalla, let's put
the blame where it belongs--on the architect. "Jack Nicklaus
builds hard courses," says Tom Kite, "and slow ones."

Long walks to tees, and smallish greens surrounded by deep
bunkers in which your average club member is more likely to
unearth Egyptian treasure than he is to play a shot onto the
green are Valhalla's trademarks. Tournament officials figured
just over four hours and 40 minutes would be a reasonable pace of
play for Valhalla. See, there's the problem. In Scotland, 3:40
would be tolerable--barely. A 4:40 round would get you branded
with a scarlet letter. A downpour on Thursday night softened
Valhalla, rescuing greens that were dying in the sizzling
afternoon heat, and made the course more playable; otherwise the
PGA's finish might have run over into Monday Night Football.

Last week no one seemed to disagree with David Duval, who once
said that Valhalla was an ideal site...for the Nike tour. Sample
this smorgasbord of player comments:

"It's a wonderful golf course, until you get within 10 yards of
the greens," says Pate.

"I like hard courses. I like a lot of Jack Nicklaus's courses.
But this is not one of his better works," says Kite.

"Valhalla seems like a TPC course. It would be fine for a Tour
event, but I don't think you want to hold a PGA at the Phoenix
Open," says Kevin Sutherland.

"I don't completely hate some of the holes on the back nine,"
says Paul Stankowski.

"The greens are a little iffy for this type of championship,"
says Scott Hoch.

"The difference between Valhalla and other major sites is that
Nicklaus hasn't been dead for 30 years," says Lee Janzen. "It's
like art. As soon as the architect dies, his courses are great."

This isn't about looks. We're not downgrading Valhalla because of
those power lines. Several great courses have noteworthy quirks.
Oakmont is bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Cypress
Point's 1st hole features a tee shot over the entrance road. "I
hadn't really noticed the power lines," said Duffy Waldorf. "When
you go to Pine Valley, you go past an old amusement park, across
some train tracks and--whaddya know?--you're at Pine Valley." So
what if Valhalla's front nine is aesthetically weak. It's built
on floodplain, is mostly wide open and treeless and is not very
pretty, but Baltusrol, Muirfield and Royal Lytham and St. Annes
haven't won any beauty contests, either.

Valhalla's problem is its greens. Bad greens ruin even the best
layout, and tee to green, Valhalla is pretty good, sometimes
brilliant. The stretch of holes from 11 through 17 is the kind of
challenge major-championship golf should be. The greens, however,
are an exercise in excess, a leftover from '80s architecture
that, unlike bad '80s music, didn't go away. Nicklaus's directive
from Dwight Gahm, the Louisville entrepreneur who commissioned
the course, was to build a future PGA Championship site. "I tried
to create some gallery situations and some unusual situations
around the greens," Nicklaus says. "Maybe I got carried away with
a couple of them."

Nicklaus says the course has so many humps because he designed it
during his Humpty-Dumpty period, and he admits he would like to
soften some of the undulations. "If you redid all 18 greens, it
wouldn't be bad," says Paulson. "You have 18 volcanoes out
here--19, if you count Pate. All the greens have high ridges,
basically in the middle. It's frustrating. Even at Augusta
there's a definite slope in the greens. Here, there's too much
movement in the middle of the greens."

If the survivors could vote one green off the island, it would be
the 8th, with the 16th a close second. The 166-yard par-3 8th has
an elongated green with a depression in the left side that looks
like one of those gravity wells in which you drop a coin in and
watch as the coin slowly, agonizingly rolls around in
ever-smaller circles. On a putting surface, that's the equivalent
of a black hole and greatly reduces the green's usable area. On
Saturday the back-right pin at the little 8th brought the right
front bunkers into play, making the hole the hardest of the day
with more than twice as many bogeys and double bogeys (20) as
birdies (nine). "I'd fill it in," Waldorf says of the swale.

The 16th is a longish par-4 at 444 yards with another narrow but
long green, divided into two tiers by a swale. The green slopes
off on the right and is crinkled around the edges. It ranked as
the second most difficult hole of the week. "You can't hit it
right on the green at 16 and be in position to play, I don't
care who you are," says Blaine McCallister. "It's like a U.S.
Open; you can't go at the flag. It changes your whole outlook on
shotmaking."

Another notorious green is the par-3 11th, which has two small
tiers connected by a steep five-foot ramp. Yuck. "I can't
imagine anyone walking up on this green and saying, 'This is a
great design,'" says McCallister. Then there's the 18th. On
Thursday, Janzen found himself over the final green in two, in
deep grass and with no chance of stopping his ball atop the
Toilet Seat's upper tier. His shot ran down to the left front of
the green, 50 feet away. He holed that putt for an unlikely
birdie.

The back nine is a scenic trek through hills and trees, and it's
a bear. The 12th, a 467-yard par-4 over a valley to an awkward
green with a steep drop-off, is the toughest par on the course.
The 348-yard 13th is a layup par-4 to a semi-island green on
which a slight mistake means a double bogey. A long iron shot
makes the par-3 14th dicey. Water fronts the green at the 15th,
and the uphill par-4 17th, with its turtleback landing area, is
an underrated hole and no sure par, as Tiger Woods and Bob May
proved while scrambling to avoid bogeys there during their
playoff. With less eccentric putting surfaces, the back nine
would have potential. "This course has such oddities," says North
Carolina club pro Karl Kimball, who missed the cut, "but it has
some greatness, too."

Jose Maria Olazabal shot a course-record 63 on Saturday on greens
that had been softened by rain, and let's be thankful for that
little bit of weather. Had the course stayed as firm, dry and
baked-out bouncy as it was on Thursday afternoon, Valhalla's
overcooked greens might have turned approach shots into Ping-Pong
matches and exposed the course's shortcomings. Asked what he was
going to do in his free time now that he is supposedly done
playing in major championships, Nicklaus said, "I can still
design a few courses. If I can't play, maybe I can make it so
somebody else can't play, too."

We have a better idea, Jack. The Ryder Cup is coming here in
2007. Get to work. Valhalla is a great fixer-upper.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Down the drain The shape of the 18th green earned it a nickname that will surely make Nicklaus flush with embarrassment.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Unlucky 13th One of the few holes at Valhalla fit for a major, the 13th was home to 23 of the tournament's 131 double bogeys.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO A typical feature of Valhalla's goofy greens is the ridge that splits the 11th into two tiers.

Sorry Sites
The worst Grand Slam venues since 1990

1. CARNOUSTIE, '99 British Open

Seemed like a good idea because...the toughest Open course had
been out of the rotation for 24 years, mainly because the town
had lacked a decent hotel.

But was a disaster because...ferocious rough and
single-file-wide fairways combined with the usual winds to make
the course an unplayable joke.

2. SHOAL CREEK, '90 PGA

Seemed like a good idea because...gee, we can't actually think
of a reason. At least the club became integrated, sort of.

But was a disaster because...five-inch bermuda rough swallowed
balls whole. That wasn't chipping; it was weed whacking.

3. RIVIERA, '95 PGA

Seemed like a good idea because...the Riv is a great test of
shotmaking, Ben Hogan used to win there, and O.J. Simpson was
still a member.

But was a disaster because...of one tiny problem--there wasn't
any grass on the greens. We're pretty sure that was O.J.'s fault
but can't prove it.

4. VALHALLA, '96, '00 PGA

Seemed like a good idea because...before '96, a major hadn't
been held in Kentucky in 44 years? No. Because the PGA of
America owns the course. Ka-ching!

But were disasters because...Nicklaus forgot something when he
built the Humpty-Dumpty greens--the clowns' mouths.

5. PEBBLE BEACH, '92 U.S. Open

Seemed like a good idea because...Pebble is an Open regular and
the most beautiful course on the planet. Not even the USGA could
screw it up.

But was a disaster because...the rough was so thick that it
eliminated chipping. High winds arrived on Sunday at about the
time the bare greens died.

"I like hard courses," says Kite. "I like a lot of Jack
Nicklaus's courses. This is not one of his better works."