Lynch: The course architecture snobs will come for Valhalla. To hell with them!

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 venue for a major. There’s ample space for infrastructure, no squeeze on corporate suites, and room to sling beer and shirts. It doesn’t matter that it’s an uninspired golf course on a suboptimal property.

More than anything, Valhalla can accommodate spectators. That isn’t always the case at golf’s biggest events. Los Angeles C.C. had limited space for non-members while Merion was (and will be) so cramped that spectators were in danger of inadvertently reaching second base with each other. Midwest venues seldom fail to deliver substantial attendance numbers. Bellerive in St. Louis was a middling design that drew enormous crowds in 2018. And rapt theatergoers tend to not much care about the aesthetics or provenance of the house.

2024 PGA Championship
2024 PGA Championship

Large crowds gathered for a day of golf at the 2024 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./Louisville Courier Journal)

Low scoring is also often cited as a negative by design snobs, for whom it’s an article of faith that the birdie rate is inversely proportional to the caliber of the design. There were plenty of red numbers on day one at Valhalla, and while that disappoints those among us who enjoy seeing the thumbscrews turned on the world’s best, it’s tough getting folks to pay up or tune in to see guys hacking sideways from the hay. More than ever, the sport ought to be serving that constituency what it wants. The 106th PGA Championship will not be a good week for those who prize par as a proximate reflection of demanding championship golf.

Valhalla is 3-for-3 in proving that outstanding championships and outstanding architecture are mutually exclusive, that it can supply jolts to rival the electricity pylons dotting the property. Hopefully, that becomes 4-for-4. If not, well it’s unlikely a major will return here anyway since the PGA of America no longer has an ownership stake in the club. So tempting as it is for the course-centric congregation to condemn, chill a little. Perhaps by that wonderful rock-lined waterfall on the 18th hole.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek