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Valhalla Golf Club

A Louisville thoroughbred breaks loose

By: Bradley Klein

Appeared in July/August 1996 LINKS

Like many impressive courses, Valhalla Golf Club derives from a powerful inspiration. In the dual realms of sports and business, the Gahm family is one of Louisville’s most recognized. Dwight Gahm, 77 years old, built Kitchen Kompact, Inc. into one of the country’s leading manufacturers.

Louisville is home to some fine country clubs, including Big Spring Country Club, site of the 1952 PGA. But in 1981 the Gahms decided it was time to create a golf-only facility, and turned to Jack Nicklaus           

Pieced together from two farms and an old Boy Scout camp, the 263-acre site for Valhalla Golf Club was not easy land to work. Two major obstacles presented challenges: A high-tension power line bisected the property, making the routing a complex matter, and at least as troubling was that about half the ground served as a flood plain for a stream, Floyd’s Fork, that wended its way through the site. A key engineering consideration throughout was to build up greens and tees and to utilize strategic features that would divert occasional floodwaters.           

Throughout it all, Gahm was smart enough to leave Nicklaus alone. During one on-site inspection, Nicklaus called him over to solicit some thoughts on the 3rd green. Gahm’s response was straightforward: “Don’t tell me how to design kitchen cabinets and I won’t tell you how to design golf holes.”           

What ultimately gave the course its character was the decision to incorporate two distinct terrains into separate nines: The front side flows over low-lying, open ground, while the incoming nine, in marked contrast, is cut through much more heavily wooded and rolling land.           

The front nine is routed counterclockwise; the back nine runs the other direction. The course starts with a modest par 4 then offers a teaser of a reachable par 5 alongside an arm of Floyd’s Fork. At the green on the par-3 erd hole, the course opens up to a broad expanse of low-lying mounds and swales. A good share of the 650,000 cubic yards of earth moving required for the course was undertaken on the first five holes. There are no trees on this parcel, but with each hole brilliantly framed by a mix of fescue, bluegrass and rye, the aesthetic composition is stunning.

What would a modern golf course be without a little razzmatazz? Those in search of signature holes need go no further than the 350-yard, par-4 13th. It tumbles off the front porch of the clubhouse to a bunker-strewn landing area. The 5,000-square-foot putting surface is literally a fortress island, with locally quarried limestone rocks used to create one of golf’s most distinctive targets. The legendary warriors who found respite in mythic Valhalla would feel perfectly at home here on this redoubt of a green.           

Valhalla ends in a pyrotechnic barrage. The 18th is a 540-yard par 5 that climbs 20 feet from the tee-shot landing area to the putting surface. A creek crosses in front of the tee and is blended into a waterworks down much of the right side of the fairway—until 100 yards short of the green, when it gives way to a second fairway that forces players to select an angle commensurate with the hole location. All manner of wild, long distance chipping and putting here guarantees an exciting finish.           

With 70 feet of elevation change on site, the grounds at Valhalla provide lovely views. There are also lovely stands of hardwoods dotting the grounds, including sycamore, oak, locust and walnut trees. Both nines start and end by the clubhouse, and outside the west door is the club’s much-used 12-acre practice facility. It’s all part of an intimate fraternity devoted to a single sporting purpose.

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