Valhalla Golf Club prepares for the PGA Championship

John Ballard, CGCS, and the Valhalla Golf Club crew are eager to showcase Louisville's gem of a golf course during this month's tournament.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
John Ballard, superintendent at Valhalla Golf Club since 2019, says he and his team are eager to welcome the fourth PGA Championship to the Louisville course later this month. Photos by Tim Furlong

It wouldn’t be fair to say John Ballard, CGCS, has no experience when it comes to golf course maintenance for a major tournament.

After all, as a volunteer, he changed cups on the back nine at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., the last time that storied venue hosted the PGA Championship, in 2014, and he shadowed hosting superintendents at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., last year and Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., in 2022 when the PGA Championships were held there.

But …

“Shadowing those guys was great,” says Ballard, Vahalla’s superintendent since 2019 and a 29-year GCSAA member. “That really helped me get a taste for it. But there are a lot of things people don’t tell you about hosting a major — the buildouts, the volunteers, soliciting funds from people you do business with, getting uniforms, food. There’s a lot of hours that go into that. When you go as a volunteer, you’re just excited to be there, taking instruction and trying to take it all in. But when you’re the guy in charge over all of it, it’s so much more encompassing.”

But that challenge is part of the reason Ballard landed at Valhalla in the first place. No stranger to the facility that has hosted three PGA Championships and the 2008 Ryder Cup in its relatively short history, Ballard has been head superintendent at three golf facilities, all within about 25 miles of each other, all within the Derby City.

And as Valhalla — in the parlance of another Louisville institution — rounds the corner and heads down the homestretch for the May 16-19 PGA Championship, it would appear Ballard and his team are hitting their stride.

“Our goal is to have a championship golf course you can only get in Kentucky,” Ballard says. “This year is the 150th Kentucky Derby, and between that and the PGA Championship, that’s a huge economic impact on Louisville, and the town is hungry for it. I remind the staff that these things come and go quickly. Everything is not a problem, just an opportunity. Let’s enjoy it.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
When a group of local businessmen bought Valhalla from the PGA of America in 2022, they showed their commitment in part by funding a new agronomy center.

‘Weeded out’ of architecture

A competitive golfer since he was a child, Ballard initially thought he’d make his living as an architect, and he enrolled at his home-state University of Tennessee to pursue that goal.

“The program there does a good job of weeding people out who don’t really want to be architects,” Ballard says.

Ballard soon learned he was one of those people, but as he wandered around the Knoxville campus one day, he spotted a sign advertising turfgrass management, so he enrolled in UT’s landscape design program.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says.

In the summer of 1995, Ballard took his first job working on a golf course, when he interned at Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville. Internships at The Club of Cordillera in Vail, Colo., and Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina followed, and upon graduation in 1997, Ballard took his first full-time job as an assistant superintendent under Steve Barber at Audubon Country Club in Louisville.

“I think I just knew it immediately,” Ballard says. “I just got hooked.”

After a year and a half, Barber left for a job in Colorado, and Audubon CC hired Tom Welch as head superintendent. Welch also lasted about a year and a half before leaving the industry, and in 2001, at the ripe old age of 23, Ballard took his first head superintendent job, at Audubon CC.

“I don’t know if the board didn’t want to go through the hiring process again, but I think they knew I was a hard worker,” Ballard recalls. “I was determined to work hard and prove myself. I didn’t know everything, but I knew how to work hard.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Ballard (center) flanked by Phil Vineyard, lead assistant superintendent, (left) and back nine assistant Payton Hobby.

‘I’m never leaving’

Ballard quickly proved his worth at Audubon and spent 16 years there, and, honestly, he and his wife Christy never really thought he’d work anywhere else.

“We thought Audubon Country Club was the place for us,” Ballard says. “We never thought about leaving.”

That changed when he took a call from the University of Louisville. The university had purchased what was then the Cardinal Club, and Ballard was asked to be superintendent of what was to be rebranded as the University of Louisville Golf Club.

“The Louisville athletic director and I had a relationship,” Ballard says. “He said, ‘I’d like to have a talk in my office,’ and he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I talked about it with Christy. She said, ‘You’re stale. This could be an energizer.’”

In 2016, Ballard took over as superintendent at the Cardinals’ home course.

“It was so fun,” he says. “It was a new golf course. We hosted NCAA regionals. I felt like I was working with the coaches. Then they had somebody leave, and I moved from superintendent into a director of golf role. I thought it would be great for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have to be up at 4 every morning. I thought, ‘I’m never leaving here.’”

Wrong again.

Ballard realized he missed the work (if not the early wake-ups), and in 2019, when Valhalla’s then-superintendent Roger Meier became the first senior director of golf maintenance operations for the PGA of America at its under-construction new headquarters, PGA Frisco in Frisco, Texas, Ballard took a call from Valhalla, which at the time and since 1993 had been owned by the PGA of America.

“With the history of it and the allure of hosting a major — you know, very few people get to do that in their careers,” Ballard says. “That’s the pinnacle. That’s your Super Bowl. That was huge for me. I’d been on the property a lot, and I was good friends with Roger. I knew how massive the property was and how big of a team you’d have to have to maintain it. Hosting a major was never really a career goal, but your goals evolve as you grow. It was almost impossible to say no.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Exposed native limestone is part of what makes an event at Valhalla unique to Louisville. Photos courtesy of Valhalla Golf Club

Transition to zoysiagrass

Two years into Ballard’s tenure at Valhalla, the facility hosted the 2021 Girls Junior PGA Championship, then in August of that year began a major renovation that included bunker restoration, cosmetic work around the property and a regrassing of fairways and tees from the original cool-season bentgrass to warm-season Zeon zoysiagrass.

In all, 1,313,500 square feet of Zeon was sodded, a shift that, Ballard says, saves the club roughly $250,000 per year in water and other input costs, to say nothing of the environmental benefits.

“Louisville is a super hard place to grow grass,” Ballard says. “When we did the fairways and tees, those were original from 1986. They were heavily contaminated with Poa (annua) and Poa Triv(ialis). In those sticky Louisville summers, conditions deteriorated, so we wanted to avoid that. With the Zeon, the playability factor is good. It takes less water, less chemicals, less manpower, and it’s a better playing surface during the peak of the season.”

“The best way I heard it was, where we live, we can grow all grasses equally poorly,” adds Phil Vineyard, lead assistant superintendent at Valhalla and a 12-year association member. “It’s definitely a challenge out here. The week before we were about to make the change, the Girls Junior PGA Championship was out there, and we had six or eight hoses going in the fairways just spot-checking the fairways. It’s a monster for cool-season grasses. We get extremely cold winters and hot, humid summers. Zoysia is a great grass for us.”

When the PGA of America decided to make the switch to Zeon, it wasn’t just throwing darts: The club had trialed the grass on practice tees on the driving range. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
A regrassing from bentgrass to Zeon zoysiagrass tees and fairways helps Valhalla save on water, other inputs and manpower.

Ballard had experience with zoysiagrass at Audubon CC — although it’s worth noting there he tended Meyer zoysiagrass, which, like most zoysiagrass planted in the transition zone, is Zoysia japonica, while Zeon is Z. matrella. Ballard endorsed the change.

“I’m super happy with it,” he says. “I’m glad we did it in 2021. In 2022, we were OK, not great. Now we’re fully, fully grown-in. It just took a little time to get there.”

Vineyard admits there was a bit of a learning curve.

“2022 was the initial growing year, so we took that year with a grain of salt,” he says. “The zoysia didn’t have much of a root system yet, so it was a tough one to judge. We definitely went into (last) winter in a much better spot than the year before.”

The grass also caught a break in that the new owners — a group of Louisville locals ponied up to buy the facility from the PGA of America in 2022 — opted to close the club in November. A two-day window around the May 4 running of the Kentucky Derby will be members’ only chance to play the course since its closure.

“We’re normally open during the winter,” Vineyard says. “But we’re open with an asterisk. We let weather close us down. Even on a good day, we don’t have a lot of golf when we’re open in the winter. But we just shut down, just to be safe. The owners were nice enough to let us close down. Oh my gosh, it’s so nice.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Ballard has served as head superintendent at three golf courses, all within 25 miles of each other and all in Louisville. Photos by Tim Furlong

Massive infrastructure

The PGA of America folks thought it was pretty nice, too. Not having to dodge golfers made it easier for the maintenance team to perform its rounds and for tournament organizers to build out the massive infrastructure needed to support the close to a quarter of a million fans expected for the PGA Championship.

“The new ownership group, those four individuals are being proactive in wanting this to be the best PGA Championship ever,” says Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s managing director of championships. “Vendors love it. There are, obviously, buildings adjacent to many of the golf holes, and they don’t have to stop their work. It’s going to be one of the biggest PGA Championship buildouts ever — close to a million square feet of structures, and flooring. It’s a huge buildout.”

It’s worth noting that previous PGA Championships at Valhalla — in 1996, 2000 and 2014 — were held in the sultry summer. While an earlier-season major event isn’t unheard of at Valhalla — the 2004 Senior PGA Championship was played in June, the 2011 Senior PGA in May — the conversion to zoysia and the May timeframe’s proximity to zoysia’s emergence from dormancy presents a bit of an unknown.

“With the switch of the fairways to zoysiagrass, it will be slower growing in May than in August,” Haigh says. “That’s the one variable we’ve not had at Valhalla. From the two years we’ve had zoysia there, we know it plays faster and firmer than the bentgrass fairways ever did, so hopefully there will be more run on the ball. That’s both good and bad. The course plays a little shorter, but balls are more likely to run into bunkers, for example. Spectators on-site will certainly be more comfortable walking around in 70, 80 degrees.”

Ballard cautions the zoysiagrass won’t be its prettiest, necessarily, but he’s not worried about its playability. 

The PGA Championship will be one of only a handful of majors to be contested on zoysia. Previously, the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis was played on Meyer zoysiagrass, and the Atlanta Athletic Club hosted the 2011 PGA Championship on Diamond zoysia.

“We’re usually about 80% green by the middle of April and fully green by mid-May,” Ballard says. “It just won’t be that deep, dark, rich green. We did do some things to accelerate the process, and we spent the last two years trying different things, so by this year, we didn’t want to guess. We wanted to know. We’d have 30 acres of zoysia and we’d treat 10 acres one way, 10 acres another and 10 acres another way. So overall, I feel really good where we’re at, and a lot of that stems from the work we’ve put in and the team we have. This is far and away the best group of individuals I’ve been able to put together. They’re all very talented, and they’ve all bought in to what we’re doing.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Valhalla Golf Club has hosted three previous PGA Championships, but those were held in the hot and humid summer and on bentgrass fairways.

Adding to a legacy

Ballard would be among the first to admit he’s merely building on a legacy that started well before he took over at Valhalla.

To recognize that, on a couple of occasions he has invited Mark Wilson, CGCS Retired, to speak to the troops. Wilson was superintendent at Valhalla for the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships and the 2008 Ryder Cup.

“I am the first to raise my hand and tell you I don’t know how to do something, and in this case, I wanted to lean on Mark and his experience to help both me and my team,” Ballard says.

It was an easy trip for Wilson, who lives about a mile from the Valhalla gates and gladly dropped by for what he calls a “little dog and pony show” to inspire the crew.

He has been awed as he’s seen the structures start to go up.

“They started building the infrastructure in 1992, and every year they were adding on to it,” says Wilson, a 46-year member of GCSAA. “More tents, more parking, more stage things — they just continued doing even more. Of course, it’s just an unbelievable facility because of how much area you have — 440 acres inside the fence.”

Wilson counts Ballard among his friends, and he plans to volunteer for the PGA Championship.

“I was a superintendent at Audubon Country Club, where John was, and I knew him from the beginning, when he was an assistant,” Wilson says. “He’s a good Tennessee boy, and he’s a good little golfer.”

And, apparently, he’s a pretty good boss, too. Just ask Vineyard, who before coming to Valhalla about four years ago spent four years at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., home to The Players Championship, which bills itself as golf’s “fifth major.”

“We have a really good environment here,” Vineyard says. “John has put together a very good setup, so that it never feels overbearing. It’s enjoyable, which makes it less daunting. I want to be a superintendent, and I haven’t closed the window on that, but I really enjoy it here. It’s getting hard to want to leave here. The ownership is great to us. And I’m extremely excited about this. We have such a great crew, and it’s such a great golf course, I can’t wait to see it on the international stage.”

Andrew Hartsock ( is GCM’s senior managing editor.