Club TFE Design Notebook: Pre-Empting the Valhalla Eulogies

Plus: A Q&A with the developers behind Brambles, Old Barnwell, and The Tree Farm


Hello and welcome back to Design Notebook, where we’re proud to have represented Athene on the course this week. As part of Apollo’s ecosystem, Athene has become a market leader in retirement services. Fueled by an innate dr—

Gah! Sorry about that. Something came over us.

This week’s Design Notebook is a stacked one, with thoughts from Garrett Morrison on Valhalla’s reputation as a championship venue and a Q&A by Andy Johnson with three first-time golf course developers: Eric Berridge (Brambles), Zac Blair (The Tree Farm), and Nick Schreiber (Old Barnwell).

You’re reading a free preview of Design Notebook, a weekly Club TFE roundup of golf architecture-related news, musings, and photography, with writing from Garrett Morrison and Andy Johnson, insights from industry experts, and more. Interested in access to Design Notebook, all of our Club TFE content, a 10% discount at the Fried Egg Pro Shop, and other perks? Click here to join!

Does Valhalla Produce Great Championships?

By Garrett Morrison

Valhalla Golf Club’s future as a major championship venue is in doubt. The PGA of America no longer owns it, having sold it to a group of members in 2022. The organization has already selected sites for the next seven PGA Championships, and Valhalla is not on the list. The PGA’s new home base in Frisco, Texas, likely will usurp the Kentucky club’s once-per-decade hosting slot. Meanwhile, the USGA has recently become firmer in its preference for traditional venues, making Valhalla an extreme longshot to secure a U.S. Open.

So it’s only natural to reflect on Valhalla’s three PGA Championships to date—1996, 2000, 2014—and wonder whether the course deserves to stay in the rota. After all, the 2000 and 2014 PGAs were certified classics, won in thrilling fashion by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, respectively. Doesn’t this prove that Valhalla, through some alchemy of design, setup, and atmosphere, produces great championships (especially if you discount the forgettable 1996 duel between Kenny Perry and Mark Brooks)?

It’s a tempting argument, one that may gain traction if this week’s tournament ends in, say, a playoff between Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. Also, since I’ve seen this movie before, I’m sure that such an outcome would prompt calls to round up and execute every architecture nerd who has dared to criticize Valhalla’s design.

I’m pre-exhausted by the discourse.

But before we start slinging mud (of which there will be plenty in Kentucky this week), let’s pause to think about why Valhalla tends to generate close final-round battles featuring elite players. It’s not magic: the course has long par 3s and 4s, narrow fairways, and smallish greens surrounded by rough and bunkers. This style of design and setup, which practically defines the PGA Championship’s modern brand, gives an outsize advantage to a skill that many star players share: power. Length off the tee and the ability to muscle the ball out of rough to a well-protected green will be near-prerequisites for contending at this week’s PGA Championship. If Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, and Bryson DeChambeau show up with any kind of short-game and putting form, they will be in the mix on Sunday. And the presence of such A-listers on the leaderboard will further burnish Valhalla’s reputation as a serious venue.

It does not follow, however, that Valhalla is a great golf course. In fact, I find it a fairly mediocre and bland one. Very few holes offer multiple options of the tee (the exceptions being the short par-4 fourth and the double-fairway par-5 seventh), most of the greens lack memorable contouring, and the recovery shots from around the fairways and greens are one-dimensional and repetitive. So even if Sunday turns out to be a barn-burner, the first three rounds, when the focus will be on the course and the shots demanded, will probably be sleepier, aside from the inevitable Blockie walk-and-talk.

The decision-makers at PGA of America, I gather, are okay with this trade-off. So are many fans. And so, to a degree, am I. Variety is the spice of golf, and there’s room for the kind of long, narrow, straightforward test that allows the game’s alpha dogs to feast.

But we shouldn’t mistake effective leaderboard-engineering for good design. Nor should we forget that the best recent events—the 2022 Open at St. Andrews, the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, and several editions of the Masters—didn’t just deliver exciting final rounds. Since the venues were truly excellent, those tournaments were fun to watch from beginning to end.

A Q&A with Three First-Time Golf Course Developers

By Andy Johnson

Here at Fried Egg Golf, we often talk to architects about the process of building golf courses. It’s more rare that we have the same conversation with developers and owners, who obviously bring a different perspective to the topic.

So this past week, I sent a few questions to three people who recently had their first experiences overseeing the construction of a private golf course from the business side: Eric Berridge, a partner at Brambles, a course in Middletown, California, designed by Coore & Crenshaw and James Duncan; Zac Blair, the founder—and, along with Tom Doak and Kye Goalby, co-designer—of The Tree Farm in Aiken, South Carolina; and Nick Schreiber, the owner of Old Barnwell, designed by Brian Schneider and Blake Conant, also in Aiken.

Here’s what they said:

What was the best decision you made while building your course and club?

Eric Berridge: Listening to our architects. Keeping things simple. Valuing the land as our most precious resource. Delaying decisions until they become critical path. BBQs with the shapers and crew.

Nick Schreiber: Identifying and hiring the best people, and letting them do what they do best. It’s that simple.

Zac Blair: Getting smarter people than me to help out!

What’s one thing that you wish you could do over? 

Berridge: Understanding ADA code in our clubhouse! Setting better expectations around timing—giving ourselves more time to let things unfold. Grow-ins take at least two years (three in our case).

Blair: [I wish we had found] a way to build the clubhouse first. I think it would’ve been really cool to have spent the last year or so hanging out on the back patio having lunch and watching people finish on 18.

A very close second would be getting some more golf-specific people to help with the early clearing, infrastructure, and site work.

Schreiber: We have made plenty of mistakes, but I would guess that every development has its own set of site-specific regrets. In our case, I wish we had pushed harder to get permits for our non-golf infrastructure. The delays in building our clubhouse and lodge have impacted our members and have also delayed a number of key sources of revenue.

What’s a model or membership concept that you thought about trying but ultimately decided against? 

Blair: I remember at one time thinking about a concept of a private club with no members where we just basically would invite people out throughout the year to visit or invite various clubs to come out.

Berridge: We thought about being a non-profit, and we thought about being 100% public fee. We ultimately decided that we could have a great club while still providing opportunities for the local community and outside play. Our model is very much in the spirit of British golf. Being inclusive and unpretentious is very important to us.

Schreiber: I think we spent more time considering our pricing structure than our membership model. Our location in Aiken, South Carolina, dictated a somewhat national model, though one that also allowed us to create a local membership that constitutes about 20% of our community. The larger question for us was how do we create a pricing structure that produces a diverse set of candidates without losing our shirt!

What was the most gratifying moment of the entire process for you? 

Schreiber: It sounds so corny, but making new friends. From our team and our partners to our members and their families, it’s been very rewarding to find a bunch of folks who believe in what we’re trying to accomplish at Old Barnwell. Sitting at my desk and receiving a text, phone call, or an email from a member or their guests complimenting our team or the overall experience at Old Barnwell never gets old, but it’s much more fun to be out there mixing it up with the team or said members and guests.

Berridge: Working with people who truly love golf, understand its beauty, and value the sport for what it actually is. Watching people come off the course with exhilarated looks on their faces. Telling Dennis Dresser he just shot the course record (72—second day of play. It’s been broken!). Every time I bring Dad up. Tapping a keg of Guinness for the first time. Figuring out the right balance between art and practicality.

Blair: Everything about the process has been pretty special, honestly. I remember how cool it was going on site before we officially owned the property so when we finally had it purchased it was pretty neat. Also, when the course was staked and we had a pretty good understanding of the routing and trees starting coming down—that was incredibly cool. But the coolest things have been playing the golf course 1-18 for the first time and just having so much fun with other people that have helped along the way.

What was the thing that most surprised you about this experience?

Blair: Just seeing how much infrastructure/civil work needs to take place for certain things like the buildings. Really most of the actual “golf” seemed about what I thought it would be (which was still challenging at times), but all the other stuff has been very eye-opening, and I feel like I have learned a lot if I ever do another project.

Schreiber: I’ve been amazed at how small the golf world is, and how generous people in the industry are with their time. I spent 10+ years in venture capital, and no matter how many conferences I went to or companies I worked with, the venture community never got as small as the golf world has in just a few short years. With only a couple of exceptions, everyone I have reached out to for insights or advice has been willing to spend some time on the phone, or even in person.

Berridge: The land and Mother Nature are the driving force. When you try to go against her, she makes things very difficult and expensive.

A Course We Photographed Recently

Valhalla Golf Club (Louisville, KY)—designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1986, host of the 2008 Ryder Cup and the 1996, 2000, 2014, and 2024 PGA Championships


“What kind of difficulties make interesting golf?

“We can, I think, eliminate difficulties consisting of long grass, narrow fairways, and small greens, because of the annoyance and irritation caused by searching for lost balls, the disturbance of the harmony and continuity of the game, the consequent loss of freedom of swing, and the production of bad players.” Alister MacKenzie


Design Notebook is a weekly Club TFE roundup of golf architecture-related news, musings, and photography, with writing from Garrett Morrison and Andy Johnson, insights from industry experts, and more. Interested in access to Design Notebook, all of our Club TFE content, a 10% discount at the Fried Egg Pro Shop, and other perks? Click here to join!