The bluegrass rough that outlines bending, sloping fairways and the contoured, multi-tiered greens at Valhalla Golf Club are new territory for nearly the entire field of the PGA Championship.
There are no plaques to commemorate historic shots, no oil-painted portraits of past champions in the clubhouse.Under humid, hazy skies and the threat of thunderstorms, the 78th PGA Championship began today with a sense of uncertainty about what kind of score it will take to win.
"I've heard some players saying that it doesn't quite have the feel of a major championship," said Tom Kite. "But I think that's because it's a new facility, one that we haven't played before, and nobody knows exactly what to expect."
Valhalla, which opened in 1986, was shaped through a flood plain, land that had no apparent use until a cabinetmaker in Louisville wanted a golf course good enough to host a PGA Championship, then summoned Jack Nicklaus to design it.
Because of how the bluegrass rough frames the bent grass fairways, they are as generously wide for a major championship as they are for regular play. The bent greens are likely to be soft because they need plenty of water to survive the sultry heat of August.
But large greens shrink when a pin is cut behind a ridge, and loose, thick rough that grows in greenside hollows will turn some chip shots into a guessing game for golf's best.
Defending champion Steve Elkington got his first look at the 7,144-yard, par-72 course in May. A few players, like Payne Stewart, arrived last week to begin mapping out their game plans.
"I think this golf course will stand up to the test," said Ernie Els. "It's a tough course to keep the ball in play all the time. We don't know what to expect. You've got to play your own game.
"In years to come, you can see who's done well here and watch the way they play the course."
The strongest field of the year includes a number of players looking to break through with their first major, like what Elkington did last year and what Tom Lehman accomplished at the British Open three weeks ago.
Els is looking for his own brand of redemption.
Even though he is just 26 years old and a U.S. Open champion, he already is talking about the majors that eluded him. In 17 major championships, Els has finished in the top 10 eight times.
None bothers him as much as the PGA Championship last year. He began with nearly flawless rounds of 65, 66 and 65 at Riviera to take a three-shot lead into the final round, then pulled back the reins and watched Elkington and Colin Montgomerie pass him by.
John Daly, who turned 30 in April, is the youngest player with two majors. Els has three full seasons to match him. To have held on at the PGA last year "would have really put me on my way," Els said.
He has shown no signs of slowing.
Els got within two strokes of the leaders in the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills before a double bogey finished him off at No. 16. He closed to two strokes of Lehman at Royal Lytham before two errant shots on the closing three holes eliminated him.
With his long, fluid swing and delicate short game, Els has become a threat any time, anywhere he tees it up.
"I've had some close finishes now," Els said. "I've won a major and my record in majors is good. But sometimes you're just not on your game and you just try as hard as you can."