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The PGA returns to Kentucky

It’s been 10 years since Rory McIlroy won his fourth career major title at Valhalla Golf Club, parring the last hole in near darkness to defeat Phil Mickelson by one shot and etch his name in the history books alongside some of golf ’s greatest stars. And now, the world’s best are set to return to Louisville for the 106th PGA Championship, May 16–19. 

Valhalla has seen its fair share of major tournaments over the years, but General Manager Keith Reese says he never takes the opportunity for granted. Reese considers it a privilege to welcome the game’s top talent to Valhalla, from Senior PGAs to Ryder Cups to PGA Championships, and he looks forward to doing so once again. It will be the seventh professional golf event Valhalla has hosted since opening in 1986. 

“It’s always a big deal to host a major championship,” says Reese, who was named the 2024 Kentucky PGA Section golf executive of the year in February. “What’s interesting for us is it’s been a 10-year gap. We’ve had a lot of championships, but they were very close together, so this 10-year gap has created a huge amount of excitement, both within the community and within the club.” 

PGA Championship Director Ryan Ogle is just as eager as Reese for the major championship to return to Valhalla in 2024. Not only does the venue have an impressive list of past champions, but Valhalla is also surrounded by a ravenous base of sports fans who Ogle knows will turn out in droves to watch the unfolding of another chapter in the club’s championship history. 

“We have a storied history in Louisville and Kentuckiana and a storied history at Valhalla that’s had dramatic events, some of the best events that we’ve had in our history,” Ogle says. “It’s a dramatic course. We hope to provide more drama in 2024.” 

Valhalla Golf Club's 18th hole. Photo: PGA of America
2008 Ryder Cup. Photo: PGA of America
Rickie Fowler hits a shot during the 2014 PGA Championship. Photo: PGA of America
Rory McIlroy tees off during the 2014 PGA Championship. Photo: PGA of America
Tiger Woods hits his approach shot on the 18th hole during the 2000 PGA Championship. Photo: PGA of America

History in the making 

It was 1981 when businessman Dwight Gahm got the idea to build a world-class golf facility in Louisville, a venue that he hoped would become the crown jewel of Bluegrass State golf and host the biggest events in the game. Alongside his sons, Gahm recruited 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus to design Valhalla Golf Club, named for the heaven-like hall of fallen warriors in Norse mythology. 

The 486-acre facility opened in 1986, and has been the top-ranked club in Kentucky since it became eligible for the honor in the late ’80s. Gahm’s major championship dreams were realized when the PGA of America selected Valhalla as the host site for the 1996 PGA Championship. 

That year saw a top-notch field descend upon Louisville for the 78th playing of the PGA Championship. Texas native Mark Brooks won the first major event held at Valhalla Golf Club, collecting his seventh and final PGA Tour victory after defeating Kentucky native Kenny Perry in a sudden-death playoff. In the years since, Tiger Woods, Bob May, Hale Irwin, Jay Haas and Paul Azinger have been among the golf legends to play at Valhalla. 

During the 2014 PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy added his name to the list of incredible champions who’ve won at Valhalla, and he’ll be looking to re-create that winning performance as he works to add another major title to an already impressive career resume this time around. 

A momentous May 

The last time the tournament came to Valhalla Golf Club, the PGA Championship was contested in August, acting as the finale of the men’s major season. But in 2019, the event was moved to May, meaning that this year’s edition of the PGA Championship will begin 12 days after the Kentucky Derby, which is celebrating its 150th Run for the Roses in 2024.

Though some might have considered the proximity of dates to be a challenge for both events, Ogle and his team have viewed it as a unique opportunity to “lift all boats” in the Louisville community, collaborating with both Churchill Downs and local sponsors to generate support and interest in the PGA Championship while being respectful of what the 150th Derby means to Kentucky and the sporting world at large.

“It takes the community support for us to be successful, and it’s a goal of ours to have a long-lasting, positive impact in our host community,” Ogle says. “I know the community is extremely excited about having two events in a row. When you look at the economic impact of the Derby, and then you add in our economic impact that exceeds $100 million for every event, the economic impact for the month of May is hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a great thing to do for Louisville.”

Having witnessed it first-hand running the state’s premier golf club, Reese knows just how golf-crazed Kentuckians are. Thursday through Sunday tickets are already sold out, and the event has sold more hospitality packages than any other PGA Championship, a testament to just how much Kentucky is looking forward to welcoming back the best male professional golfers in the world.

“It seems like everyone here is horse fans, but we certainly have a lot of golf fans as well, knowledgeable golf fans, and a huge volunteer base,” says Reese. “It’s amazing what this community does to support these events. I think this (PGA Championship) will go right up there with the best of the best.”

An experience to remember

Attending a golf tournament in person is a unique experience. Unlike most other sports, the “stadium” is spread across hundreds of acres of natural landscape, and between 120 and 156 athletes are playing at any given time—except on the weekend, when the field is cut down based on score. Some courses have long walks between holes with few good spots to sit down and watch the action, and considering that a round of golf generally takes between four and five hours to complete, you likely won’t be in and out of the PGA Championship in two hours.

But don’t be intimidated. Valhalla Golf Club is spectator-friendly, featuring plenty of vantage points across the property from which you can see a few holes at a time, a perfect way to watch the action without having to hole up in a grandstand all day. 

This year’s PGA championship will once again implement a food-inclusive ticket model—an initiative that was introduced in 2022. That means that in addition to complimentary water, every Championship+ ticket holder can receive one entrée item, one snack item and one nonalcoholic beverage on an unlimited basis at any of the public concessions on property. 

Don’t fret if you weren’t one of the lucky fans to snag a ticket. The event will be broadcast live on ESPN and CBS with plenty of pre-tournament coverage on Golf Channel’s Live from early in the week. 

So even if you can’t attend the event in person, pour yourself a beverage, flick on the TV and watch just what Valhalla Golf Club and the state of Kentucky have to offer when it comes to golf. You won’t be disappointed.

Tiger Roars at Valhalla Golf Club 

Nestled in the rolling Bluegrass hills of Louisville, Valhalla Golf Club has hosted some of golf’s most prestigious championships, and some of the biggest names in the game have hoisted some of the biggest trophies in golf on its hallowed grounds. 

Fourteen years after its founding and four years after first hosting a major in 1996, Valhalla saw a second PGA Championship come to town. And this time, there was just one name on everyone’s lips, one player who made every gallery member’s head turn when he strutted onto the first tee box—Tiger Woods. Having won the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club the previous year, Woods was looking to successfully defend a major title for the first time in a young career that had seen him already capture 21 PGA Tour titles. 

Woods led by one stroke heading into Sunday, shooting a final-round 67 to close out the week in Louisville at 18 under par, a total matched by Bob May. May had recorded three straight 66s on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to tie Woods at the top, ultimately sending the pair to a three-hole playoff to determine who would take home the Wanamaker Trophy. 

Woods struck first, making one of the most iconic birdies of his career on the par-4 16th hole at Valhalla Golf Club to get an early leg up on May. The pair matched pars on 17, leaving May trailing Woods by one heading to the final playoff hole with a victory on the line. While it wasn’t the most conventional way to win a golf tournament, Woods made a par from the greenside bunker to beat May by one in the playoff, collecting his third major title of the 2000 season. 

His win at Valhalla was one of nine PGA Tour victories Woods would collect in 2000, and when he won the Masters in 2001, he became the first golfer in history to win all four majors consecutively, a feat that became colloquially known as the “Tiger Slam” and that hasn’t been repeated since. 

In the drink: What bourbon would PGA Tour players be? 

With the PGA Championship coming to the Bluegrass, we thought it might be fun to match up some of the world’s best golfers with some of Kentucky’s finest bourbon whiskey. See if you agree with our choices! 

Rory McIlroy: Woodford Reserve 

Rory McIlroy is a straight-shooting, world-class athlete upon whom you can rely to be consistent, both on and off the golf course. Enter Woodford Reserve, a drink that’s always a good choice, no matter the occasion, and whose flavor can’t be beat if you’re looking for a classic Kentucky bourbon. 

Jordan Spieth: Jim Beam 

Spieth is a player whose golf game is a bit unpredictable. He’s become famous for his short-game creativity and can escape sticky situations on the golf course better than almost anyone on the PGA Tour. Similarly, you never know what Jim Beam is cooking up as the distillery has produced peach-, apple- and orange-flavored bourbons— among others—over the years. 

Justin Thomas: Blanton’s 

Hailing from Louisville, Thomas attended Saint Xavier High School and played out of Harmony Landing Country Club until he went to college at the University of Alabama. He’s won 15 PGA Tour titles, two of which are major championships, and many juniors in Kentucky have been inspired to pick up the game of golf because of his success. Likewise, Blanton’s was a trendsetter as the first single-barrel bourbon, created in 1984 by Elmer T. Lee. The success of Blanton’s inspired other distillers to make single-barrel bourbons of their own, many of which are still popular today. 

Tiger Woods: Pappy Van Winkle 

Tiger Woods is a household name in the sports world, recognized even by those who don’t know anything about golf. Woods revolutionized golf when he burst onto the PGA Tour in 1996, and he has made $120,954,766 in career earnings on the tour, the most of any player in history. Pappy Van Winkle enjoys similar name recognition in the bourbon world and has become a coveted rarity because of its limited quantities. Just like Tiger fans who will do almost anything to catch a glimpse of his swing, bourbon collectors and drinkers will go to great lengths to get their hands on a bottle of Pappy. 

SARAH KELLAM serves as digital content manager at LPGA. A Grant County native, Kellam played collegiate golf at Northern Kentucky University. 

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