Home Entertainment Local Guys Bought the Valhalla Club, and Now They’re Hosting a Major

Local Guys Bought the Valhalla Club, and Now They’re Hosting a Major

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The quality of a major championship venue is defined by its champions, and Valhalla Golf Club, the site of this week’s P.G.A. Championship in Louisville, Ky., has a list of past winners that stands out at every level.

Tiger Woods won the 2000 P.G.A. Championship at Valhalla, and Rory McIlory won it there in 2014. Hale Irwin won the 2004 Senior P.G.A. Championship at Valhalla, and Tom Watson won it there in 2011. At the 2008 Ryder Cup, the United States squad, led by Paul Azinger, beat the European Team.

Even on the junior side, the course has hosted elite players. Akshay Bhatia, who at 22 has two PGA Tour victories, won the 2018 Boys Junior P.G.A. Championship there. Anna Davis, now 18, won the 2021 Girls Junior P.G.A. Championship at Valhalla and went on the next year to win the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

What its new owners, a group of Kentucky businessmen who bought Valhalla in 2022, said it didn’t have was a club presence to go with its illustrious championship history. So when the P.G.A. of America, which runs the championship, decided to sell Valhalla, the new owners moved in to change that.

“We couldn’t let it go to an out-of-town golf management firm,” said David Novak, the co-founder and former chief executive of Yum Brands, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. “We felt they’d be more interested in making money than building Valhalla’s reputation.”

The “we” in this instance is an ownership group that consisted of community leaders: Jimmy Kirchdorfer, the chief executive of ISCO, a piping company; Junior Bridgeman, a former basketball player at the University of Louisville and the N.B.A. who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants and a Coca-Cola bottling plant; and Chester Musselman, a hotel owner based in Louisville.

Novak had the golfing bona fides to unite the golf world behind him. He had been a member of Valhalla since 1990, when he moved to Louisville to become president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, now KFC. And he also had won the Seminole Pro-Member tournament and was the oldest winner of the club championship at Shinnecock Hills in New York, a frequent site of major championships.

“In Louisville, we don’t have many iconic properties,” Novak said. “There’s Churchill Downs, the [KFC] Yum Center where Louisville plays and Valhalla. We wanted to make it better. We said, ‘Dwight Gahn built it and started the club, then the P.G.A. bought it, and then we bought it.’”

So, what will fans see this year that’s different? It is now a venue that aims to create a Kentucky-inspired golf club that also borrows from the business success of its ownership group. Novak has brought in chicken sandwiches inspired by KFC’s Colonel Sanders, and Bridgeman helped create a dessert that plays off Wendy’s Frosty treat.

Bridgeman, who also owns Ebony and Jet magazines, likened his participation in the ownership group to those storied magazines.

“Valhalla was somewhat like Ebony magazine,” he told the Golf Channel last week. “When we heard that it might be for sale, it wasn’t so much looking at it as an investment. It was more something that we felt was important to the city of Louisville, important to the community and important to the state. We thought that we could do some things with Valhalla to get it where it probably should be and by that I mean as far as rankings in the top courses in this country.”

There was an economic factor, too. The new owners saw a vibrant Valhalla as a path for tourism dollars to the city.

“We felt we had an opportunity to not only preserve our championship history but to get it again,” Novak said. “The P.G.A. Championship brings in close to $150 million to the city. We know the community supports the golf, and we could make it better.”

The changes started with the image of the club. The partners wanted it to exemplify Kentucky, known for horse racing, bourbon and bluegrass.

The clubhouse was the start. It now looks like Churchill Downs. Inside there’s a room to commemorate all the champions, like Woods and Davis, who have won significant tournaments at Valhalla, but with the name of the horse that won the Derby the same year of their tournament victory. The gate into the club — along Bluegrass Way — looks like a horse farm gate. And, yes, there are horses on the property, too.

And the holes on the championship course follow the horse theme. No. 1 is called the Post; No. 18 is Photo Finish.

“I’ve always believed the most important thing you can do is know what you stand for,” Novak said. “We wanted to build the Valhalla brand. The first thing we did as an ownership group was we got together with our team and thought, what will we stand for?”

Not everyone has embraced the group’s definition of reality. After the group bought the club at the end of 2022, it altered the rules on initiation fees, causing some members to quit the club.

Disagreements at private clubs are nothing new. Still, the ownership team, which said it funded the renovations without assessing members, is ready for its close-up this week.

“I had complained about what Valhalla could be,” Novak said. “My daughter convinced me to buy the club. She said you have all these ideas about the course, and you love these guys. I’ve had more fun doing this. We’ve done this together.”



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