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PGA Championship 2024: Justin Thomas thinks he knows the Valhalla quirk that produced so much drama

May 14, 2024

Maddie Meyer/PGA of America

LOUISVILLE — Valhalla’s architecture pedigree is something of a schismatic subject, although there’s nothing divisive about the drama that’s unfolded on the Louisville stage. There was a sudden-death showdown between Mark Brooks and Kenny Perry at the 1996 PGA Championship and a three-hole playoff pitting Tiger Woods against Bob May in 2000. Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy had to hold off a host of opponents (including nightfall) to capture the Wanamaker in 2014. Valhalla was also the backdrop for the Americans’ upset of the Europeans at the 2008 Ryder Cup. Say what you want about the course—and many things have been said—but when the golf has come to Valhalla the golf has been good, and Justin Thomas thinks he knows why that’s the case.

Thomas is a two-time PGA champ, but more importantly this week, Thomas is a Louisville native. Valhalla is not Thomas’ home course; that honor belongs to Harmony Landing, where Thomas’ father Mike served as the head pro. But Thomas estimates he has played Valhalla “10 to 15 times,” and in speaking to the media Tuesday, those experiences provided a window into why the proceedings at Valhalla have been so tight.

“I think [there's] something about that there's not a lot of different ways to play the golf course,” Thomas said. “For the most part you know if it's a par 4 or 5, you're just grabbing a driver when you get to the tee and you're just hoping you hit the fairway, and then you're probably going to hit somewhere between a 5- and an 8-iron into the green.

“I think when you give all of us very similar places to play from, you have the opportunity for more bunched leaderboards or you don't get maybe as much of a situation like last week [when Rory McIlroy ran away from field at the Wells Fargo Championship]. Like obviously you can … someone can run away from it. But history has kind of proven at this tournament that they have been pretty bunched leaderboards, and it's been very close coming down the stretch.”

That may seem like an indictment on Valhalla, and for those that view this place through a negative prism, perhaps that’s the case. A proper test should not just ask multiple questions of a player’s ability, but offer more-than-one way to respond. Conversely, it’s not just the 1996 and 2000 PGAs went to playoffs; the ‘96 edition, for example, had 13 players within three shots of the winning score, and Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson were two shots or less behind McIlroy in 2014.

“It's all very right in front of you,” Thomas added. “You just hit a driver really far and really straight and hit your irons well. That seems to be the theme here.”

That bomb-and-gouge strategy will especially be in play this week, as Tuesday’s practice round was halted due to storms and more rain is expected through the next couple days. These conditions, on this course, could correlate to multiple players in the Wanamaker running late Sunday afternoon. For a tournament that’s on a run of producing must-see moments, there are worse fates. Because while a course is certainly a character in a major’s story, it’s often secondary to those competing for the title.