Kentucky and Old Country Traditions Converge in Valhalla

Bourbon, Horses & History

Rory McIlroy’s victory in darkness at the 2014 PGA Championship in Valhalla Golf Club, resisting the rallies of local favorites Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in a rain-delayed final round, was the Northern Irishman’s last win in a major. However, it was not the last time nor the first time someone from the Old Country left an imprint in Valhalla and Kentucky.

 

“We have exposed limestone throughout the golf course, and we are pretty much in the heart of limestone,” said Jimmy Kirchdorfer, General Chairman of Valhalla Golf Club. “That is the reason the early settlers decided to raise horses and have the whiskey industry here. Limestone is the key to our Kentucky heritage.”

 

Limestone is the foundation of Valhalla and most Kentucky traditions, from bluegrass (both the plant and the music), to horses and bourbon.

 

“It imbues the water with important minerals that are consumed by the yeast during the fermentation process. Then it filters the water and removes iron, which will interact with the components in the oak barrel and discolor the bourbon,” explained Dubliner Conor O’Driscoll, the seventh Master Distiller in Heaven Hill Distillery.

 

“If you look at our portfolio, Henry McKenna, was an Irishman, Evan Williams was a Welshman. It was the Irish and the Scots who brought whiskey to America. Of course, the Irish invented it… or so they affirm,” said for the craic (jokingly in Irish or Scottish) O’Driscoll, the druid also behind the blending of Elijah Craig, a name associated with the invention of bourbon.

 

Coinciding with the anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, O’Driscoll met his wife around 25 years ago at the Kentucky Derby, another melting pot of international influences in the Bluegrass State, including some winningest riders from Mexico and Puerto Rico.

 

“I went to the Kentucky Derby and that’s when it all kind of came together, the event was very international,” said Englishman Josh Webber, part of the groundcrew during the 2008 Ryder Cup and the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.

 

“The Derby was a fantastic experience. I went to the horse race and never saw a horse. We were in the infield partying,” added Irishman Paul O’Donoghue. Webber and O’Donoghue were the only Europeans under Superintendent Mark Wilson’s orders during the memorable Ryder Cup at Valhalla.

 

“When I was mowing greens, I had the European flag wrapped around my shoulders and I wore a crown,” remembered Webber. “We always had the European flag flying and Mark went and bought 200 American flags for the rest of the team,” O’Donohue recalled.

 

Both then young men from the Old Country in Kentucky –now superintendents in Southern England and The Netherlands—treasure the memories of their time in Valhalla and the “massive similarities between the soil in the Islands and Kentucky,” even the whiskey, the grass, and the music.

 

“Except for one or two places, Ireland is mainly limestone, which gives you the green,” explained O’Donohue. “The only reason we call it bluegrass in Kentucky is because when it is hot it turns blue,” added the Irish superintendent about the origin of the name of the grass and the Bluegrass genre, derived from traditional Scottish, Irish, and English music.

 

Bluegrass songs about family, horses, bourbon, and even limestone played in the background during the time Webber and O’Donohue spent under the wing of Kentucky Golf Hall of Famer Mark Wilson in Valhalla Golf Club.

 

“Being part of the building of Valhalla put the wind on my back and launched me downhill,” said Wilson, who started his career in the seventies along with the first class of formally educated superintendents in the country.

 

“For 22 years I mowed the bent grass fairways of Valhalla with green mowers and cut the clippings. And every winter we had to extent the site and the venue,” said now-retired Wilson, privileged witness of one Ryder Cup and three PGA Championships in Valhalla.

 

“We were fortunate to have epic and historic finishes. I remember all of them,” said Kirchdorfer. “Tiger beating Bob May in a playoff in 2000 was spectacular,” he remembers about Tiger Woods’ victory, the first time since 1953 (Ben Hogan) that a player had won three major championships in the same calendar year.

 

“The 2008 Ryder Cup, when the US was struggling to win until the end and we had two players from Kentucky, Kenny Perry and JB Holmes, was very special. A lot of people from Kentucky would say it was the best sporting event they have ever been to,” said Kirchdorfer.

 

“Valhalla is fantastic. It always seems to provide a very exciting finish in these championships. I watched the 2000 PGA here when Tiger won against Bob May, and I was sitting at home watching the Ryder Cup, as well. It seems like it always provides a great finish,” said McIlroy after winning his fourth major in Valhalla at 25 years of age.

 

A decade later, two weeks after the 150th Kentucky Derby, and on the 25th Anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Rory McIlroy, from the Old Country, could break the spell and win his fifth major at the 106th PGA Championship in Valhalla Golf Club.

 

“I had a great time here and hopefully I am going to come back one day to Valhalla and try and win this thing again,” were some of his last words in 2014 before departing Kentucky with the Wannamaker Trophy.

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