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Heavenly Valhalla Golf Club: A Ryder Cup stop fit for gods - and mortals

Zachary Michael JackBy Zachary Michael Jack,

The 37th annual Ryder Cup Matches at Valhalla Golf Club turned the region known as the "Crossroads of America" into something more, an international golf capital and carnivale all in one.

In the largest sporting event ever to hit Kentucky, Louisville recooked the classic recipe that makes it the proud, permanent home of the Kentucky Derby - plenty of home-brewed Bourbon, sun-dappled hills dotted with towering oaks, horse barns and, yes, unforgettable golf courses, not to mention heaps of Southern hospitality.

The 2008 Ryder Cup final brought hundreds of Euro-fans spurred on by the cheap dollar and the enviable international flight service offered by the Northern Kentucky Airport. And Louisville, good host that it is, welcomed them as they were - well-liquored, good-tempered, more than ready for some high-spirited golfing fun.

The morning of the Ryder Cup final found the Euros packing the stands on Valhalla's first tee, good-naturedly taunting the Yanks with a bevy of tunes both standard and improvised, including the wistful yet provocative, "Where Has Your Tiger (Woods) Gone?" and, especially for the Kentuckians, this salt-in-the-wound: "Good old boys drinking whiskey and rye, singing this'll be the day that I die … "

In gentile Louisville, though, the notoriously mellow natives meet such provocations with genuine curiosity, as in, "So where y'all from?" and, "How long ya stayin'?"

It's not that anything goes in Louisville, as it might in Las Vegas or New Orleans; it's more like anything goes so long as it doesn't get unseemly. It's the difference between mom being gone for the weekend (Las Vegas) and mom minding her business upstairs while you and your buddies roughhouse in the basement.

The crown jewel of Louisville golf is, of course, Valhalla Golf Club, the site of the Stars and Stripes' already-legendary 16 1/2 to 11 1/2 spanking of the reigning Euros. Named after the hall of the Norse God Odin, the course offers a test fit for a deity. In fact, local wisdom holds that 20 handicappers and over might just as well stay home, as even from the dinky, next-to-shortest green tees, the course confronts the weekend golfer with no less than five par fours longer than 400 yards and water very much in play on fully half of the holes. And, be advised, the private course is difficult to storm; while many locals know members ready to sponsor a "guest" in an attempt to slay the dragon, the club limits guest play to four rounds annually.

In fact, architect Jack Nicklaus presents golfers with so many mighty, memorable tracts it proves difficult to choose the postage stamp or signature hole from this meanest of mean 18. The consensus choice, though, is the 13th, euphemistically named "The Island." The Island is, in fact, a fortress, the green raised above the level of surrounding Floyd's Creek by some 15 feet and buttressed by gigantic, grey stones that look as if they were ramrodded in place by Odin himself.

At a mere 325 yards from the high-handicapper tees, the downhill 13th plays a fair length, though the full wedge into the rock-strewn, boulder-field-of-a-mote encircled green is enough to make any tin cup quake in his Footjoys. While Kentucky golf god and U.S. Ryder Cup Team member J. B. Holmes flew, and held, the island dance floor in a Ryder practice round, mere mortals are advised to hold their fire.

Half-owned by the PGA of America, who quickly upped its stake after Mark Brooks outlasted native son and Ryder Cup hero Kenny Perry in a playoff in the course's major championship debut in 1996, Valhalla finishes with a sweet suite of prodigious finishing holes, including the pivotal, and beautiful, 16th, aptly named "Down the Stretch." Sixteen confronts its opponents with a thread-the-needle drive through an amphitheater of oaks, while Floyd's Creek stands ready on the right to swallow a slight slice. At 430 yards from the member's tees to a hilltop, well-bunkered green, the hole offers both a slice of nirvana and a tall drink for the golfer of average means.

He who successfully negotiates the uphill drive on 17 and a blind shot into the green is rewarded with the treacherous beauty of the downhill, par-5 18th, where a cascade of waterfalls beguile down the right and a suite of sand traps lurk left for the mettleless inclined to bail. Dubbed "Gahm Over" for local businessman Dwight Gahm, who envisioned the divine course back in 1981, the 18th either puts the weekend warrior out of his misery or ushers him into the hall of Odin as full-fledged golfing immortal.

Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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