Golfing paradise without the frills

Andy Farrell on how a family's dream course became reality
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The Independent Online
It has taken the little matter of the 78th USPGA Championship to put a halt to Dwight Gahm's regular diet of four rounds a week at the Valhalla Golf Club. The last time Gahm, previously a longstanding member at another Louisville club, was prevented from playing because of a tournament, he decided to build his own course...

That was in 1980, by which time a 486-acre site he owned 20 miles east of downtown had remained unused for 15 years. Along with his three sons, Walt, Gordy and Phil, all members of the family business, Gahm set out to build a "golf only" paradise, with none of the swimming pools, tennis courts and housing developments which are usually a feature of American country clubs.

At the same time, Gahm went to visit Hall Thompson at the Shoal Creek course in Birmingham, Alabama, which staged the 1984 and 1990 US PGAs. Gahm said: "On the way, Hall Thompson's driver said: 'I hear you are building a golf course.' I said that was the case and then he said: 'Then you have to call it Valhalla.' We didn't know what it meant, but it sounded good. When we got back, we went down to the library and found out it was from Norse mythology, a paradise for the souls of Viking heroes. It was the perfect name we were looking for."

Valhalla, the club, is one of the most exclusive in the area, currently boasting 270 members. It is also one of the best, having been voted the finest course in Kentucky shortly after opening in 1986. No expense was spared in building the course, and that meant hiring Jack Nicklaus as the designer.

"We had a dream many years ago of having a little old course that we could go out and play ourselves," Gahm said. "We just wanted to play golf on a world-class course, but we told Jack to go ahead and also make it a spectator course with mounding for fans." Nicklaus has said of his instructions: "He just said: 'major championship'."

Gahm, now 77, was a scratch golfer by his teens, when he would caddie in the morning, then use his fee to pay for his own bagman in the afternoon. In 1955, he bought Kitchen Kompact, now one of America's leading manufacturers of kitchen cabinets. Having his own golf course was not enough, though. "After a couple of years, we got a little bit eager," Gahm said. "We thought of the PGA and started working on that."

Jim Awtrey, chief executive of the PGA of America, was invited not only to the club, but to Louisville's showcase event, the annual Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Four years ago, Valhalla was named as the venue for this year's USPGA and shortly afterwards the PGA of America took a 25 per cent share in the club, with an option to buy outright. Awtrey suggests Valhalla may hold the USPGA on a rotation of four or five years and the Ryder Cup may pay a visit. Gahm may find himself banned from playing the course more often in the future.