Teeing Off

Staff Writer

Some of the most iconic sporting moments have taken place on golf courses. It’s hard to mistake the iconic final day red adorned by Tiger Woods as he made his way up countless fairways and greens on his way to armfuls of major titles with the occasional fist pump thrown in. One of the places where he won was the PGA Championship in Louisville, that included an opening two rounds playing alongside Jack Nicklaus, making his final appearance a fitting finale given it was Nicklaus who has also designed the very course Woods would triumph on several days later. And so, history comes full circle.

From August 4-10, Valhalla Golf Club at the eastern tail end of Shelbyville Road will play host to the 2014 PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors tournaments, one that sporting greats like Woods have won right here in this very city. But this year is perhaps a little different than other years, further proof that Louisville is fast becoming one of the most fanatical sports towns in the United States. According to tournament director Brett Sterba, this year’s tournament has sold out in record time.

“We have accomplished the fastest sales in the 96-year history of the PGA Championship, so it’s something great for Louisville and something it can hang its hat on,” Sterba said. “We have ticket sales for all 50 states and 13 different countries, and that makes it a national and truly international event. Having somebody come from all 50 states is a big deal. Someone in Alaska bought tickets.”

If ticket sales are any indicator of how passionate fans in Kentucky are for sports, then Sterber has seen that in abunance in his time here in Louisville’s since he moved over a year and a half ago to help organize this year’s staging.

PGA Championship Tournament Director Brett Sterba.

PGA Championship Tournament Director Brett Sterba.

“Louisville is a market that you would normally place in the top 50, and you would expect a market in the top 10 cities to accomplish these goals, but it’s further proof of how a community like this supports special events like the Derby and the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup,” he said.

Perhaps one reason why Louisville’s version of the PGA Championship may be the best yet is due to the PGA’s core belief in exposing young people to golf. Additionally, encouraging members of the armed forces to attend events is easily enacted so close to Fort Knox.

“Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets have all sold out,” Sterba said. “And the week-long ticket for the event which is called the Wanamaker sold out in two weeks,” so the ones left to sell are Monday through Thursday, the practice rounds and the opening day of the championship. But the practice round days are the days when you can come and watch the players work out and get autographs, and they’re really fit for juniors.

“One of the beauties of the PGA of America is that we allow all juniors 17 and younger free entry to the event all week long with a ticketed adult (up to four juniors),” Sterba said. “That means they can come with a ticketed adult even on days we have sold out. So you can come with your spouse and bring eight kids, all for less than $50. I think that’s a pretty good deal.”

The same goes for members of the armed forces, who get free entry on all days.

“All week long, active and retired military get in free to the championship, as well as their spouses, and that’s including on days that we’re sold out because one of the initiatives that the PGA pushes is trying to give back to those who serve our country and to also help grow the game of golf and expose juniors to the game,” Sterba said.

But if Valhalla and the PGA Championship is a dream for countless golf fans around the world, it would not have been possible had it not been for another dream – that of Louisville businessman Dwight Gahm, who for years had envisioned Louisville in possession of a world-class golf facility. So in 1981, Gahm, along with his sons Walt, Gordy and Phil, commissioned another golfing behemoth, Jack Nicklaus, to design and build a course that would envelope 486 acres of Kentucky farmland. But what good was a championship level course without a championship to host? Having completed Valhalla in 1986, Gahm quickly started to petition the Professional Golf Association of America to stage the PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors. The first one was staged in 1996, won by Mark Brooks – his only major, before Tiger Woods triumphed when the tournament returned in 2000.

Right now, the course is still in its most genteel state, with weekday members populating the course and shooting errant balls around the place. There is little sign of what is about to come. But take a drive on a cart with Sterba and it’s easy to see how much work goes into staging a tournament of this magnitude. Take the 65,000-square-foot apartment-sized venue being staged at one end of the course, where up to 10,000 fans will congregate to eat, drink and enjoy the action, only to then vanish once the tournament is over.

“People always ask us, ‘Why are you here for two years?’” Sterba said with a laugh. “But the answer is that it’s not just about those seven days. We have to plan everything. We always say that a major championship experience begins when a person gets in their car. If you have a poor experience because of traffic and we weren’t routing people the right way, that affects your day and what you may think of the PGA Championship. So the moment you get in your car to the moment you get back to your driveway, that’s your major championship experience, not only the time you spend on-site. And we have to get that right.”

For Sterba, once the final putt is sunk on the amphitheatrical final green on a balmy August evening, he has a few months before he has to start packing and readying for yet another move and one more major championship to stage. Another two-year cycle begins, like the ones that have included for him and his wife residences in Chicago, Minneapolis, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and, of course, Louisville. But the Cleveland native will have fond memories of Louisville and the people who worship sports so much in the bluegrass.

“Louisville has been quite special, and as a whole, Charleston and Louisville have been the most welcoming of cities to us,” he said. “Maybe it’s the Southern charm, but when you walk around, people will say ‘hi’ to you. In other places it just doesn’t happen. And it’s why we really like it here.”

As for now, with only a few months left until the 2014 PGA Championship Sterba has put the finishing touches on Louisville’s latest sporting extravaganza. Eight hundred semi trucks will arrive before 250 buses start ferrying the 46,000 attendees, hoping to catch a glimpse of golfing history in the perfect setting.

“We really want people to leave his year thinking that they went to their best sporting experience,” he said.

Photos By IGOR GURYASHKIN | The Voice-Tribune