In Louisville, where the 2014 PGA Championship is being played at Valhalla Golf Club, Muhammad Ali is the city’s most famous and best loved son

Words: Robin Barwick

Tiger Woods may be the most recognised athlete in the world today, but when he was a skinny kid growing up in California, that status belonged to another American athlete, and a man with charisma Tiger could only dream of, Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali.

Here in Louisville, where the 2014 PGA Championship is being played at Valhalla Golf Club, Ali is the city’s most famous and best loved son. Ali was born in Louisville 1942 and raised here, and it is where the 72-year-old still lives. When Ali came to prominence in the 1960s – he would win his first heavyweight world title in 1964 – he still went by his birth name of Cassius Clay, although he liked to call himself the ‘Louisville Lip’ on account of his mouth, which talked as fast as his feet would dance around the canvas.

“Muhammad Ali has a special place in the hearts of Louisvillians,” starts Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications at the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, in talking to Golf Monthly at Valhalla. “Although outside of Louisville, sometimes it seems that Ali has been much more highly regarded and beloved internationally than he has been in the United States. Some of it has to do with Ali’s stance on the Vietnam war, although a lot of that negativity has died down over the years.”

When Ali was called up to the American Army to serve in Vietnam in 1967, he objected due to his Islamist belief that forbade any form of killing. Charged with draft evasion, Ali was stripped of his boxing license and could not compete for three and a half years during the peak of his prowess.

Ultimately, Ali paid tribute to his hometown by establishing the Muhammad Ali Centre here, when more glamorous cities such as London, New York and Las Vegas all vied to host the centre. The centre opened in 2005, the same year Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honour, and despite his long-term suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Ali still makes regular unannounced visits to the centre.

“You never know when Ali is going to be there,” adds Yates. “He is sometimes there in the lobby. They never announce when he is going to turn up but he loves to go and meet visitors. He is an amazing man and the centre is a great legacy. It is much more than a boxing museum, because the centre is about Ali’s humanitarian journey and it celebrates the ideals that made Ali the man he is.”

Robin Barwick travelled to the PGA Championship courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes-Benz is the official car of the PGA Championship