Valhalla GC’s John Ballard, CGCS, on his journey to hosting the PGA Championship

By |  May 13, 2024 0 Comments

As a college student, John Ballard, CGCS, had his sights set on a career in architecture. Thanks to the University of Tennessee — and its stringent requirements — he instead found a rewarding career in golf course maintenance. The 31-year turf pro now has his sights set on hosting a successful PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.

“(Tennessee) does a great job of weeding people out of architecture,” Ballard jokes. “I was that guy. Someone said, ‘You should go into landscape architecture.’ I went over to the agriculture campus and saw something about the turf business. I said, ‘Hey, I like to play golf …’ I just fell into it.”

In college, Ballard had three successful internships, including stops at Cherokee CC in Knoxville, Tenn., Cordillera GC in Edwards, Colo., and another at Pinehurst National — now Pinehurst No. 9. Upon graduation, Ballard started working full-time at Audubon. In only two-and-a-half years, he saw two superintendents depart for greener pastures, and at age 23 he found himself as a head superintendent.

“Was I ready? No. I don’t know that I’m ready now,” Ballard laughs. “It sort of drives you a bit to say, ‘I don’t know everything, but I’m going to continue to grind and learn.’ That’s the mantra I’ve had for my career, even today, is figuring out What do I need to do? And how do I get a little better at this?”

Ballard would remain at Audubon CC for 18 years before making the move to the University of Louisville GC, where he worked for almost four years. In November of 2019, with Roger Meier making the move from Valhalla to PGA Frisco (Texas), Ballard interviewed for and got the superintendent job at Valhalla GC.

After the 2011 Senior PGA Championship, Valhalla GC installed a SubAir system to aid with moisture control on its greens. (Photo Courtesy: Valhalla GC)

After the 2011 Senior PGA Championship, Valhalla GC installed a SubAir system to aid with moisture control on its greens. (Photo Courtesy: Valhalla GC)

A more sustainable Valhalla in 2024

Valhalla is no stranger to the PGA Championship — this will be the fourth time the club has hosted the major. Mark Brooks won it in 1996; Tiger Woods hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2000 and in 2014 Rory McIlroy staved off Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler when he won the major, his second, in near darkness. The course also hosted the 2008 Ryder Cup and the 2004 and 2011 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championships.

Before taking the lead as head-designer of the course in 1983, Jack Nicklaus described the future site of Valhalla Golf Club as “a golf designer’s dream.” (Photo Courtesy: Valhalla GC)

Before taking the lead as head designer of the course in 1983, Jack Nicklaus described the future site of Valhalla Golf Club as “a golf designer’s dream.” (Photo Courtesy: Valhalla GC)

There are some major (pardon the pun) changes to Valhalla for this PGA Championship. First and foremost is the switch from bentgrass to zoysiagrass, a move made in 2020/2021. Ballard calls the change “fantastic” and “a home run” and adds that it has helped make the course more sustainable with less water, chemistries and labor needed to maintain the course. Another change is, that the PGA of America sold the course to four business partners two years ago, and the new owners are infusing major capital into the course and club. One of the investments was in a new agronomy center for the maintenance team.

With the timing of the PGA Championship now in May, Ballard says his biggest challenge will be getting the zoysia to “wake up” in time for the arrival of the world’s best golfers.

“Last year we did a lot of things with pigments and paints that just kind of started to tickle (the grass) a little bit,” Ballard says. “The biggest thing is waking the course up early in the season. Then, after that, the challenge is going to be … we still have a full year to go after (the PGA Championship) is over. Right after all the stands leave and all the hoopla is over, we still have our club championship and invitationals. So, getting the course to stay at a high level for the seasons is a real challenge for the team.”

Ballard feels strongly in that team. Phil Vineyard, lead assistant, spent three seasons at TPC Sawgrass, among other southeastern courses; Payton Hobby and Justin Wilt, both assistant superintendents, lead the crew. Valhalla also has six assistants-in-training in anticipation of the PGA Championship, the most Ballard has ever had.

“The staff that we’ve been able to build up around the assistants that we have, the AITs, the internship programs that we have … it’s taken a while,” he says. “Really, it’s taken that four-and-a-half years since I arrived to really get us to where we’re at. And I think we’ve got probably the best team I’ve ever been around.”

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About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at

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