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78th PGA CHAMPIONSHIP / VALHALLA

It Might Not Take a Warrior to Conquer Valhalla's Course

Golf: With four par-fives, players can score, but beware of the bluegrass rough.

August 06, 1996|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call it the caddie trailer at the exclusive 239-member Valhalla Golf Club--site of this week's PGA Championship near Louisville, Ky.--but who are they kidding? It's only a caddie shack.

"We don't have a Ted Knight, though, but then a 25-cent tip won't cut it either," said Don Nuzzo, Valhalla's caddie master. "We do have some moles, but no, no gophers."

But as in the movie "Caddyshack," there's lots of local knowledge inside the trailer, and the real know-how in negotiating the par-72, Jack Nicklaus-designed 7,144 yards at Valhalla.

"The golf course is really not that hard," said Nuzzo, who has caddied more than 2,000 rounds across the flat land at Valhalla. "The bluegrass rough is very difficult, but the fairways here are very generous. I'm always teasing our groundskeeper: The rough makes a golfer, who shoots 85, shoot 105. But the guy who shoots 70, shoots 70 because he's never in the rough. The rough penalizes the mediocre player, and we have the best players in the world coming here.

"There has been lots of speculation here that it will take 12- to 13-under to win the tournament, but I think the winner is going to have to shoot a lot better. There are four par fives, three of which can be reached by driver and iron, and although I'm from Missouri and will have to see it, people tell me there are guys who can reach the 605-yard seventh hole in two."

Steve Elkington's 17-under at Riviera Country Club a year ago in the PGA Championship tied Greg Norman's mark from the 1993 British Open for lowest score in one of golf's four major tournaments. Seventeen under might not be good enough this week.

"Jack Nicklaus and Larry Mize have the course record with 66s, and local pro Steve Flesch had a 66 too, but with a mulligan on the first hole so that didn't count," Nuzzo said. "I think you will see, without question, the course record fall during the PGA."

Valhalla, named for the mythical Viking great hall for brave warriors, sits in the middle of nothing about 25 miles outside Louisville. The 10-year-old course built on a 486-acre flood plain is ranked No. 51 on Golf Digest's "100 Greatest Golf Courses," and is about to become the PGA's first rotating permanent venue, if all goes well with the 78th PGA Championship.

The PGA bought a 25% interest in Valhalla a few years ago, with the option to buy controlling interest in the course after this tournament. The PGA, which has been criticized in the past for bouncing from course to less-than-desirable course, would like to return here every four or five years, and also stage the Ryder Cup on occasion.

This "Bill Murray-it's-in-the-hole" approach to selecting a permanent rotating PGA Championship venue without most of the game's top players having ever seen this layout places a premium on the success of this week's event.

"It has a major championship feel about it because there are no homes around this course," said Elkington after taking a sneak preview of Valhalla a few months ago. "There will be players that get off to a really good start here just because of the way the course flows through the first nine. But then I think you'll see the scores backing up a little bit as we come in.

"I already know that I'm going to have to invent a little club to chop out of the bluegrass around the greens. If you're not hitting your irons good, you might as well not come."

Valhalla's front nine, which begins with the course's four easiest holes, resembles a Scottish-links layout with long fescue and few trees.

"If you go to the fifth tee anything less than two-under par you're not playing very well," Nuzzo said.

The seventh hole, a Nicklaus specialty, features two fairways, one an island-landing area that would allow players to reduce the 605-yard hole to 508 yards. The PGA, however, staked the island landing area as out of bounds and will make players play the full distance.

"The back nine is completely in the trees," Elkington said. "In my opinion, it's more difficult. I think the hardest hole on the course is probably the 15th, and I would look for a lot of drama on 18 because most players will reach the par five in two shots."

Valhalla's No. 15, a 410-yard creek-lined par four, requires a solid second shot to an elevated green or a machete to set up the next effort.

"That's the thing about this bluegrass," Nuzzo said. "Around the greens, if the ball lands in that stuff it sinks to the bottom and you have to hack your way out."

No. 18, a 540-yard uphill par five, has been designed to produce a two- to three-stroke leader board swing. The three-tiered narrow horseshoe green is fronted by a deep bunker and backstopped by heavy rough. The 18th is also deceptively uphill, and Nuzzo predicted many pros will miscalculate what club to use.

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