People in Golf - John Ballard

John Ballard

No one position commands a greater degree of respect than the person entrusted with the daily care of the turf at any golf course. Every decision, small or large, is magnified and opined on by the full range of golfers. 

Everyone may have an opinion but a gifted superintendent has to deal swiftly with whatever Mother Nature brings forward.

The standing of a superintendent rises exponentially when key events are played – especially major championships.

Ballard and his hard-working team were front and centre when the 106th PGA Championship returned to the Louisville-based club for the fourth time - the most recent coming in 2014 and won by Rory McIlroy.


The Ballard Background 

Has been at Valhalla Golf Club for nearly 5 years serving as the Golf Course Superintendent. He has helped oversee many projects including the regrassing of the tees and fairways from bent grass to zoysia grass. 

Has assembled an elite crew built with proven experience in major championships that will serve in important roles leading up and during this year’s 106th PGA Championship and the fourth time the Louisville-based club has hosted the event – the last coming in 2014. 

He has over 28 years of experience in the industry


The Ballard Story

I was in Architecture at the University of Tennessee and quickly learned that wasn’t the path for me. 

I had played a lot of competitive golf as a junior and saw that Tennessee had a Turf Program so I decided to check it out. 

Once I landed my first internship at Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville, I knew this might be something that gets my juices flowing. Subsequent stints in Edwards, Colorado and Pinehurst, NC had me hooked. 

The early morning starts, ability to have an outdoor office and freedom to plan your own day were all key reasons this industry resonated with me. It can be a tough road at times. The long days, influence of Mother Nature and not being able to control the outcome can wear on you. 

When you stay committed and surround yourself with quality people, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. I am proud of all the work I have done in my career and cannot wait to lead my team in the “Super Bowl” of golf.

You wake up in the morning, what’s the driving passion? 

Leading a group of individuals with different backgrounds and goals in life and getting them to believe in what we are doing at Valhalla. 

Valhalla returns to the global golf spotlight when hosting this year’s PGA Championship. How long a process have you been involved with in getting the course ready for the event? 

I have been involved since being hired in 2019. Specifically, it really ramped up when the PGA of America made the decision to change playing surfaces. 

We have been intensely planning for over 3 years now. 

What specific aspects of the course will be different from when the club last hosted the event in 2014? With particular emphasis on a May hosting as opposed to the previous August time frame.

Without question the zoysia grass. It provides a firm, fast surface that bentgrass can struggle with at specific times of the year in the Ohio Valley. We have lengthened several tees and created more opportunities for players to put drivers in their hands rather than forced layups. 

The biggest challenge moving the championship is waking the golf course up from its winter nap, especially the dormant zoysia. 

In terms of personnel – how many people are generally involved with assisting matters on the turf side and how many more will be brought on board for the event? 

Our team is 40 strong with Lead Assistant Phil Vineyard and Assistants Justin Wilt and Payton Hobby leading. We have secured over 100 volunteers to lend a hand from all over the country and world. 

Networking in our industry is huge and our team has built outstanding relationships that made the process of securing help seamless. 

Kentucky is located in a transition zone between cooler and warmer grass growths. What kind of challenges does that present? 

Tons. I often hear it referred to as the hardest place to grow grass and I am not sure I disagree. We can have cool season, warm season and both will be great and specific times of the year. 

The challenge is getting them to perform at a high level simultaneously. We have a few trade secrets we will implement so that we are successful. 

When will member play stop in leading up the event? Curiously, how high will the rough be grown and how fast will the greens be set-up for the championship? 

Member play stopped last November and that is a testament to our owners Jimmy Kirchdorfer, Ches Musselman, David Novak and Junior Bridgeman. 

They have given us all the tools we need to be successful including a new Agronomy Center for our team. Rough will be “Championship height”. 

Many people do not fully comprehend the sheer myriad of duties any superintendent is involved with doing. What’s one thing that’s critically important that is often either not realised or paid enough attention to by golfers? 

The ability to plan, stay organised and forward think about what is coming. 

How much sleep each night do you envision having when championship week starts? 

Not much. Have slowly started to reduce sleep in an effort to be prepared. Almost like training for a marathon so to speak. 

Kerry Haigh has long been the point person for the PGA of America on how such host sites are prepared for such marquee events. How close a relationship do you have with him and how does that dialogue deepen as the event draws nearer. 

Kerry and I have a great relationship. He has been on site multiple times to oversee the preparation. He has a tremendous amount of respect for the host Superintendent’s and their teams allowing us to do what we do best.  

When all is said and done with this year’s PGA Championship – how will you define success from your vantage point? 

By providing championship playing conditions for the best in the world where two things happen. First, the PGA of America returns to Valhalla and second, my team is able to turn this success into benefiting them and their careers.