The first time the PGA was held at Valhalla, what unfolded was hardly memorable. But the next time would turn into something historic.
In 1996, when it was only a decade old, Valhalla hosted the season’s fourth major. The fact that Jack Nicklaus was the designer of the Louisville, Ky., course might have had something to do with that. Of course, the fact that the PGA of America had a 25 percent interest in the club probably didn’t hurt, either. The organization that runs this championship eventually became the sole owner, which also explains why the Ryder Cup went there in 2008. It’s a big-time money-maker, which can trump the fact that Valhalla was ranked 99th (a drop of 15 places) in Golf Digest’s most recent list of the Top 100 layouts in America.
Anyhow, in 1996 what we got was Mark Brooks beating Kentucky’s Kenny Perry in the last of the seven sudden-death PGA playoffs. He made a birdie on the first extra hole, the par-5 18th, for the second time in about 30 minutes. A par would have been good enough, since Perry made bogey. Brooks put his second shot — a 3-wood from 230 yards — on the green and two-putted to finally end things. On the closing hole of regulation he needed to hole a five-footer for birdie to extend the tournament. His 104 putts that week led the field. It would be his lone major win, although he did lose to Retief Goosen five years later in an 18-hole playoff (70-72) to decide the U.S. Open at Southern Hills.
What most folks remember is Perry watching Brooks play the 72nd hole from the TV booth with Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi, when he could have been on the practice range warming up. Then Brooks, a Texan, equated the feeling to winning the Houston Open three months earlier. At 35, that was the last of his seven PGA Tour victories.
Four years later, Valhalla got another chance. Return engagements never happen that quickly, but the PGA of America obviously had its reasons. It went to overtime again. But what an OT this one was. Not that the back nine leading up to it had been too shabby.
It might have been Tiger Woods’ finest moment. OK, maybe if you don’t include the 12-shot romp at the Masters in his first major as a pro. Or my defining favorite, taking the 2008 U.S. Open in 91 holes on one good leg. But 2000 at Valhalla could very well represent his absolute peak. He’d already won the U.S. Open by 15 at Pebble Beach in June, and the British Open a month earlier by eight at St. Andrews. So he arrived at the PGA stalking a Triple Crown, which in the Masters era only Ben Hogan in 1953 had managed to accomplish. And he found himself in an unexpected duel with journeyman Bob May, a fellow Southern Californian whose regional amateur records Tiger had broken. Woods, who was doing the chasing, had to pull off several shots coming home or it was over. Naturally, he did. Both shot bogeyless 5-under-par 31 on the closing nine. That gave Woods a 67, and May his third consecutive 66. Each finished at 18-under 270, five better than the next-best total and a record (by one) for this major.
After Tiger finally pulled even with a bird at 17, May nailed a 15-footer for 4 on the 72nd hole. So Woods had to convert a five-footer that broke left to right to keep playing. It hit nothing but net. On the first playoff hole, No. 16, Woods rolled in a 20-footer that he punctuated by pointing emphatically at the ball even before it dropped while briskly striding toward the cup. He was in front to stay. The two parred in from there, with Woods getting up-and-down from a greenside bunker at 18 to become the first to repeat since Denny Shute in 1936-37. He’d do it again in 2006-07. The following April he completed his Tiger Slam at Augusta.
May, who’d won a tourney in Europe in 1999, would never win a PGA Tour event, though he did lose the 2006 B.C. Open in another playoff (to John Rollins). If he’d beaten Tiger it would have been right up there alongside Jack Fleck over Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open. Or Francis Ouimet over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the 1913 Open. Instead, he goes down as another Mike Donald (see 1990 Open).
For what it’s worth, the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla was notable mostly because the Americans won. And made it look easy (16 1/2-11 1/2). It remains the lone U.S. victory since the Miracle at Brookline in 1999. The Americans will get another chance next month at Gleneagles in Scotland. Of course, the last time they won on European soil was 1993, which was also the only other time Tom Watson was the captain.
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