In the golf pecking order of ultimate greatness -- the name Pine Valley resonates as the first among equals. It is the "Citizen Kane" of golf courses. When rankings of the global best layouts are spelled out -- it is the New Jersey-based club which nearly always claims the top spot and rightfully so.
Founded in 1913 by a group of amateur golfers -- Pine Valley was the brainchild of Philadelphia hotelier George Crump. Crump wanted to create a course clearly beyond all others. At Pine Valley he insisted there be no parallel holes -- no two holes going in the same direction and that all clubs in one's bag would be called upon to provide top tier execution. Crump died before Pine Valley was finished and was eventually holes #12 thru #15 were completed by the efforts of Hugh and Alan Wilson from nearby Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia. The contributions of other noted architects over the years reads like a who's who among the giants in the golf architecture profession.
When one hears the name Pine Valley the quick association often references the wild and wooly nature of the grounds that exist beyond the finely prepared turf areas where play should take place. Wayward shots can result in particularly high scores although in nearly all cases fairway widths are considerable.
The strength of the course is twofold. First its all-star grouping of holes -- richly varied requiring the fullest range of skills to play them. At Pine Valley the player must adjust constantly -- shaping shots as called upon -- flighting the ball to achieve the proper marriage between accuracy and distance.
The most underrated aspect deals with the vexing putting surfaces. When the greens are at full speed and the course is playing firm and fast it takes a herculean effort to place the ball in the proper position in order to maximize one's score. While the greens are not at the level of such American stalwarts as Oakmont, Oakland Hills / South, Augusta National and Winged Foot / West -- the ones found at Pine Valley are clearly an impressive lot -- varying in pitch, size and playing angles to overcome.
Arguably, Pine Valley has one of the game's grand starting holes. The dog-leg right plays just under 440 yards and it invites the bold play from the tee. The prudent play is to simply keep the ball in play and avoid biting too much off of the dog-leg. The approach faced portends what the player will encounter time after time -- precision is richly rewarded -- indecision and doubt will suffer appreciably. When the pin is placed in the most rear section of the 1st -- it takes a golfer with supreme confidence and unerring nerve to hit an approach all the way to the back.
As mentioned -- although the playing corridors are sufficiently wide enough -- it is the constant thought that poor execution of any serious type will pay a huge price.
The quartet of short par-4's at Pine Valley are all tour de force holes. The 2nd at 368 yards is a gem -- the beautifully contoured green sitting atop a small rise of land with punishment awaiting the misplayed shot -- either off the tee or during the approach. The 8th is one of golf's grand short holes -- featuring two greens -- the second being added not many years ago by architect Tom Fazio. When the original left green is in play the narrowness of the green makes it critical for the player to gauge the flight of the ball and yardage correctly. Birdie is possible -- so is double-bogey -- or more. The 12th at just under 340 yards is a 90-degree dog-leg left and it attempts to seduce the player in going for the aggressive play at the tee. Pity the poor soul who gets taken in and tries to vainly accomplish a result that is best carried out with a far wiser choice in hitting to the far right side and providing the best approach angle. At the 17th -- the 345-yard hole -- is another that calls upon placement off the tee followed by a well-played approach to a marvelously positioned green that sits above the fairway.
Pine Valley has only two par-5 holes -- each is stellar. The 7th is noted for "hell's half acre" a wasteland of sand that cuts off the fairway and requires the player to successfully negotiate its dreaded expanse. At the 15th you play in the opposite direction from the 7th -- the fairway becoming narrower and narrower as you approach the green.
The foursome of par-3 holes is also vintage stuff. The 3rd at 198-yards features a sand engulfed target. The 5th - named as the hole where only "God can make a three" is terrifying for the player unable to hit it archer-like straight from the tee to a green 238 yards away and almost all uphill. The short 10th at 161 yards -- with its solitary deep pit frontal bunker -- the devil's asshole -- that can swallow up a player for eternity. And capped off with the 15th at 220 yards -- played from an elevated tee to a green sternly protected by a water hazard.
The lone real issue with Pine Valley is the amount of tree growth that took place during the 1950's and 1960's. In its original form -- Pine Valley was free of trees -- the overall scene stark -- layered with immense sandy areas scattered all around. The profusion of trees only served to obscure the character of the land and the holes themselves. The desire to "open" up the course has been an ongoing matter and clearly has been an immense aid to bringing to full effect the nature of what Crump originally envisioned. The resulting improvement in the overall health of the turf has also been an added by-product of note.
As a New Jersey resident I have always taken pride in the fact that golf's top course is located in the Garden State -- my home. Despite New Jersey's small size the most noted golf course certainly in the United States -- and save for the likes of The Old Course at St. Andrews -- the most noted globally -- is often shrouded in shadows because so little of the course has ever been shown on television save for the likes of a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf episode and in hosting the 1936 and 1985 Walker Cup Matches. Pine Valley remains a scintillating golf design justifiably revered for the consistent manner in which it has separated the pretender from the true contender who walks its grounds.
Like Zeus who reigns above all others from Olympus in the lore of mythology -- Pine Valley resides in its own pantheon -- a monument to its founder who wanted to create something no one would ever forget. It remains unforgettable -- a vintage incomparable masterpiece.
By M. James Ward
Perennially ranked as the #1 golf course in the world, Pine Valley has it all. While many courses have some or many of the elements outlined below, none have the distinct combination of them all: A visionary founder, an extraordinary routing, the unparalleled pedigree of its designers, privacy, perfectly maintained fairways, true greens, forced carries off every tee, the difficulty that the waste areas cause when a golfer is off the fairway or green, the risk/reward options available, a mix of short and long holes, the membership, the practice facility, the caddies, the natural terrain, the intangibles of the location and the fact that is in New Jersey!
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Rather than recount the many fantastic things that are indeed right and wonderful about Pine Valley, here are the (minor) areas I think it falls down: There's no question that a day at Pine Valley is and will be one of the most treasured, rare, and privileged days of your life for those lucky enough to be invited. From the difficulty and randomness of finding your way past the run down nearby theme park and then over the railroad tracks and into the PV township itself. To the other worldly feeling one feels when in the rustic old clubhouse and locker rooms . . . And the golf course is undeniably breath-taking, with seemingly no 'weak' holes on the property. But for me, something is not quite right. As great as it is, something just doesn't add up. For one I'm not a fan of the course returning to the clubhouse area after just 4 holes. This is detrimental to the overall 'journey' of a round. It also means your approach shots to the 4th green and tee shots from the 5th are likely to be interrupted by the hustle and bustle that goes with the nearby proximity to the clubhouse, valet, car park and main internal driveway. Nit picking this may well be, but we are after all rating something that is (if the other reviews are to be believed) as close to golfing perfection as one can find on this fair planet. You wouldn't expect to find a wonky wheel on a Ferrari 250 GT... Or a fly on the plate of an otherwise blemish free Heston Blumenthal meal, or for that matter a shoddy brushstroke in the corner of a Picasso... Shall I continue?
Since we're discussing the 5th hole, the incredibly difficult uphill par 3, may I mention the ugly tower block 'guest rooms' that stare back at you with contempt and ruin an otherwise picturesque scene. The well documented 'hell's half acre' wasteland that exists immediately in front of the 7th tee hides an otherwise average par 5. 12 is a short par 4 that, were it not at Pine Valley, would be lauded as a very average short 4 par hole, that is equally short on design features and shot values, not to mention aesthetic appeal.. 16 is a fantastic long par 4, yet it somehow feels slightly out of character with the rest of the course – probably down to the completely flat level entry to the green and the vast lake that laps inches away from the right edge of the putting green. Finally we arrive at the 18th hole. An absolutely stunning vista is offered from the raised tee, but what might be a 9 rated hole is spoiled once more by the comings and goings of the main internal road right up by the greenside. Which means, much like on the East course at Wentworth you may find yourself repeatedly backing off from hitting the approach of what will likely be one of the most crucial shots of your round. Or worse still you may find yourself taking a few extra looks at the green before pulling the trigger on that demanding final shot because there is a Chevrolet sitting on the edge of your peripheral vision and your are not quite sure whether it's waiting or about to dart right in front of your 5iron (as well as trying to consider what effect the severe ball below the feet lie will have on the outcome of your shot - whence you finally are able to play it!) Knit picking yes… but these are the stark facts as I see them.
Now you may say that the other great courses of the world have a similar number of tiny blots on their otherwise near perfect copybook. But that is the crux of my argument, how can Pine Valley be held in such esteem at the very top of the pile when it has a similar number of blemishes to its rivals. The otherwise perfect Old Course in St Andrews arguably suffers from a string of ‘samey’ par 4’s on the outward 9, and too many holes that run in the same direction. Similarly Royal County Down has a few too many weaker holes on its back 9, as well as (arguably) too many blind shots. Merion in the United States flirts with roads and residential nuisance on over half its holes, as well as having its fair share of (relatively speaking as ever) weak holes. But, and this is the thing, I don’t believe that Pine Valley’s rivals have any more of these blots than Pine Valley itself does. In fact I’d go so far as to say The Old Course, Muirfield, Royal County and Bethpage Black have slightly less blotting so to speak. I’d also go on to say that the setting / views, the history and the accessibility of these courses to Joe public also elevate said courses further above Pine Valley.
To conclude this short review ( / essay) I’d like to also touch on the subject of shot values, strategy and the sheer buzz you get from playing a golf hole or shot. Let’s say on most courses you have 36 full shots to play. If you rank each shot on these factors I feel somewhere like Bethpage Black ranks far higher than Pine Valley. Having played these two courses on consecutive days I think I’m in a fairly decent position to judge on this point. Without going into too much detail, in purely laymen’s terms I feel Bethpage offered me a far greater number of wow moments as I stood on tees and approach shots. As well as more strategy, more subtlety - an aesthetically more pleasing design. For me Bethpage is the ultimate test, not Pine Valley. The fact that it is the People’s Course only raises it in my regard. Muirfield in Scotland, while a completely different kettle of fish, would return similar rankings for me. With the added bonus of the stunning vistas and the ever changing wind / weather conditions to add into the mix. Ditto County Down and the Old Course. I’d also (sorry, just to rub a bit of salt in the wound to PV aficionado’s) raise the concern of the trees… when Pine Valley was originally conceived and constructed there were about 90% less trees and woodland and the shot variety and strategy would have been vastly different, and in my opinion of a higher value than today. This is a point that baffles me as to why PV is ranked so highly today as so many critics, architects, experts etc. bemoan trees on a golf course and lament them as being detrimental to a good layout and good shot values and even detrimental to the overall aesthetics of a golf course experience… so why then do these same experts rank it so highly? I’m more inclined to agree with the Architects Choice Magazine Top 100 that has St Andrews Old Course as their #1 with Cypress Point at #2 and County Down, Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, North Berwick and Kingsbarns all in their top 20. It’s nigh on impossible to assign actual rankings to courses simply because of the sheer number of variables when making the decision. I prefer the grouping of courses in categories (as used to be the chosen rankings method when Golf World started their rankings in the UK many years ago). On this basis I would have a Category 1 or ‘A’ group as follows: St Andrews Old Course County Down Muirfield North Berwick Kingsbarns Bethpage Black I would place Pine Valley in my ‘B’ category list of courses, together with the likes of Royal Dornoch, National Golf Links of America, Sunningdale New, Loch Lomond.
As a final passing thought I would like to question the qualification and validity of George Crump as a course designer / Architect. He had relatively little experience or training prior to setting out his ‘masterpiece’ (his only ‘piece’ I’ll have you know). All the other courses at the top of the pile have been set out by legends of the game, most of whom have numerous other examples of their genius in the world’s best rankings lists. Tom Morris, Alistair McKenzie, Harry Colt, A W Tillinghast, Donald Ross – legends of their profession, all boasting hugely successful and varied portfolios. I ask this final question; name one other genius in his or her chosen area of expertise that only ever had one creation? Ferrari and Marranello didn’t stop after their first GT creation 1948. Da Vinci’s work didn’t begin and end with the Mona Lisa. More importantly all of these artists, in having multiple creations, were able to improve over time through trial and error, through learning different techniques and through learning from their contemporaries, trying to emulate or better them. And in the case of the course designers mentioned above - visiting and learning from the great courses of the world and each other. Tilly, Dr McKenzie, C B MacDonald all spent time in the UK, spent time exchanging theories and learning from Old Tom Morris, studying and playing The Old Course, North Berwick and many more. Very little of which Crump undertook before working on Pine Valley.
Don’t get me wrong, Pine Valley is one of the greatest golf courses in the world, no question, I just feel that it should reside somewhere at the bottom end of the top 10 and not the lofty position it has commanded for so many years. I’m sure many will disagree, hopefully the odd eccentric or young upstart may agree…? There you have it. Pine Valley – 10th best course in the world. Now, who wants a cup of tea?
A number of the nit-picking observations are purely based on the gentleman’s experience and his basis for comparison. As Crump drafted the routing, the thought of having valet parking, hustle and bustle at the main entrance were probably not even factors in his mind 100 years ago when he drew up the 4th and 5th holes. Not many people have an issue returning to the clubhouse after the 4th hole, especially Mr. Woody Platt! Bethpage may be the most interesting design; however, golf is more than just championship play. Championship courses are rarely “fun” (and vice versa). The most difficult thing to do is create a great championship course that is also fun, venues like Cypress Point, Merion, Sand Hills and National Golf Links of America come to mind. A number of the reviewer’s criticisms of Pine Valley did not exist when the course was built and are not the fault of the designer (eg: valet parking and traffic distractions). Furthermore, if cars bother you while golfing, then let’s get real here – more people have seen the Loch Ness Monster than invasive traffic issues at Pine Valley.
Every course has its flaws, but every list must have a number 1. Pine Valley itself has long been viewed as an unbeatable monster, the world’s hardest inland layout. However, suggestions that it’s just a house of horror miss the mark widely. There is no rough in the accepted sense, just trees, scrub and huge sand areas. There are, perhaps, more death-or-glory shots here than on any other golf course. Pine Valley also presents numerous strategy challenges within its rigours. Most people who play at the Old Course for the first time probably won’t remember every hole because many of the holes at the end of the property blend together and don’t offer a lot in terms of excitement. Most people who play at Royal County Down for the first time probably won’t remember every hole because you can’t see about 6 of them. You will remember every hole at Pine Valley even years after you play it. I’m the first to admit that you have to play a course a number of times to gain a full appreciation for it.
I can sense that the reviewer seems to think that Pine Valley was only created by George Crump. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and the fact that it had contributions (or varying degrees) from Walter Travis, Harry Colt, Charles Alison, Alan and Hugh Wilson, William Flynn, George Thomas and Perry Maxwell only further validates why it’s the ultimate layout – it was touched by all of the greatest architects in golf history! It’s somewhat ignorant to bypass the reality that Crump certainly called upon the services of a number of distinguished Golden Age architects. Furthermore, Crump didn’t even complete all 18 holes, the 12th through 15th holes were finalised after his untimely death in 1918.
We’ve therefore proven that Crump did not entirely design Pine Valley. Even though it was the only golf course that he was associated with, I’ll happily answer the question of “name one other genius in his or her chosen area of expertise that only ever had one creation? ”. I welcome the reviewer to read about Mr. Henry Fownes who was the soul designer of Oakmont Country Club. Oakmont was the only course he designed, so if you want to pick on Crump for Pine Valley (which isn’t even valid because the course was clearly designed by multiple people), then let’s not forget about Fownes’ single creation in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The golf world considers OCC as one of the best, despite the absolutely irrelevant fact that it was created by a guy with limited architecture experience. Just because a course wasn’t designed by a Golden Age giant doesn’t mean it can’t be outstanding.
No course presents more vividly and more severely the basic challenge of golf, the balance between fear and courage. Nowhere is the brave and beautiful shot rewarded so splendidly, nowhere is there such a terrible contrast between reward and punishment, and yet, withal, the examination is fair. You could argue that Pine Valley is number 1 in the world because it was built by the architectural dream team.
I take milk in my tea, thanks. Fergal O’Leary
On number 2, Barclay, who was a 4- or 5-handicap at the time, hit a perfect drive down the middle of this 375-yard hole. Then hit what appeared to be a perfect 6-iron, but it barely rolled over the back edge of the green. The green is severely sloped from back to front and the pin was all the way in the front. After a very delicate chip onto the green, he was surprised to hear his caddy say “Bye-bye,” as it slid off the front into one of the famous waste bunkers of Pine Valley, where he stayed for eight shots. Two putts later, Barclay was writing down a 12 for the hole. Number 7 is home to what may be the most famous hazard in golf. “Hell’s Half Acre,” a waste bunker that stretches from the 285-yard mark to the 380-yard mark on this par 5. The 10th hole seems to be a benign 145-yard par 3, but it has what appears to be a tiny bunker in the front left called “The Devil’s Asshole.” Lots of balls seem to find it, and many golfers get very exasperated in there. Enough said!
Number 15 is a 590-yard par 5 uphill into the wind. Whew! I hit driver, 3-wood, 3-wood, and 6-iron, and two putted for a 6. They were all pretty good shots too. It was exhausting. One famous Pine Valley story is about a golfer who had made a substantial bet that he could play the course without losing more than 10 golf balls. He was seen putting his ball across the bridge over the stream on 16, in order to win his bet and keep his ball for three more holes. The caddies at Pine Valley are invaluable, and they have eyes like hawks. The good news is a caddie can find almost any ball that finds its way into the scrub. The bad new is, he stands there and expects you to hit it. Bastard! Larry Berle.
In 1990 an Argentine golfer was made member of Pine Valley and all I can say is that I am very lucky to know him well and have a good relationship with him. Every time I met him I asked for more info, stories, details, anything that could get me to know better this special place. All I can say is that every day in my golfing life I felt in deeper love with this "lady", although I wasn't able to kiss her on the cheek! In the late 90s Cope Benito gave me a yellow polo shirt with the logo and it still remains one of my deepest golfing treasures, although I know have a couple more, a hat, ball markers, logo balls ... I already told the story on my Merion and Shinnecock Hills reviews, but the point is that a Myrtle Beach trip led me to also play these three courses in 3 consecutive days, which is not bad at all I believe.
Since the confirmation of the trip until the day we went across the gate (August 24th), a lot of new info came to my head and I was very anxious of finally getting together with this very good looking lady, maybe the nicest in the world. The day before we arrive to Philadelphia and after a stunning Lasagna we all three spent a long time "discussing" of the golf day we were about to experience and all three agred that it was a very big star in our golfing life. We arrived around 9am to the Club and it was a complete day, not only a round of golf. We first were able to leave our stuff at the lockers room, change our shoes and have a quick coffee at the bar, facing the boards of all the Winners of the traditional events at Pine Valley, including the Club Championship. We were then showed the Maintenance Barn where you cant imagine how much equipment they have, they could easily maintain 5 courses with all that. After that we drove to the cottages, the houses and the historical buildings there and finally ending at the Driving Range for maybe the best warm up session in our lives: a full bucket of new ProV1s were waiting to be hit to the most perfect practice area you can imagine. I can say that even pictures will not be fair enough with this perfection.
Swing ready, we were then off to 1st tee to have a dancing session with the prettiest woman in the world, even the bravest and most good looking man would be nervous. The Masterpiece created by George Crump with very deep help from my hero A.W.Tillinghast gave us one of her best days, sunny, almost no wind and with the course in excellent condition, we couldn't ask for more ... Each hole is one world itslef, I would need 1 million characters to fully describe the whole course and it still couldn't be enough, so I will just point some bullet points: - I missed green #1 on the left, one of the toughest blind shots I have faced but could make on of my best approach shots and save par. - Hole #3 is so nice, deep green in the middle of wild sand. I made the green to 30ft and easily 3 putted ... - Hole #5 maybe the toughest par 3 in the world, even if on the green, 2 putting is a tough task. On the back of hole #6 you will see a very strange metal figure, it is the swing plane of Jay Sigel, a Pine Valley hero. Hell's Half acre bunker is big, very big and the third shot although looking easy can be tough! The evil must be big, because his ass hole at 10 is huge! Half way house can't be more charming, with a frame with dozens of logo balls found on the course. Elevation change from tee to green on 14th will not look that much on pictures. Hole #15 is the most perfect par 5 you can play, getting home in 2 only very few have made it. There are many details and shots I could tell, but a round here is one different world for each golfer, I wish more devoted players where able to walk this links at least once and be able to read their reviews. Golf day ended with a walk on the par 3 course done by Fazio, if you like to gamble I cannot figure a better scenario.
Finally I am getting to read "Pine Valley: a Unique Haven of the game". If you can, read those lines in order to admire this place. Nothing more to say, a great day and a unique experience, Pine Valley is all you can dream of a Golf Club. You have to be there, you will never dream it as good!! Click here to read Javier's article in full.
While I wouldn't classify Pine Valley as my favorite course just yet (that honor belongs to Cypress Point), I will definitely say it's among the hardest I have ever played and I'd like to, rather than simply go on about how great the architecture is be constructively critical in the politest possible way. I will say that my first experience there was everything you would expect, from the traditional not being able to find it, even with GPS (since it's not on any GPS system, which is pretty cool in and of itself), to chasing down the mail delivery truck that past by to ask him where the hell it was. The rest was exactly as Ian writes below in his excellent review. I also want to add that the day I played they had a pretty severe thunderstorm that had suspended play of a members father/son event so it was literally raining cats and dogs while at the same time being about 95 degrees when I arrived. The amazing part of this story was that we walked to the first tee with umbrellas and 1 minute before tee time the sun came out. This was of course fantastic however, at 95 degrees and 100% humidity I'm not sure if it was wetter when it was raining or when the sun was actually shinning. However the result was that the greens were very very soft, even to the point where balls that were not spinning back off the greens, even up to 5 meters were on occasion plugging straight into them (this happened to me on two of the par 3's). I would call this working to my advantage but on the 5 or so greens that I spun the ball backwards off of them into the bunker or rough the conditions were certainly not in my favor.
That Pine Valley the ultimate test is for a golfer I don't doubt for a minute. In fact, I would venture far enough to say that if you are not an excellent single hcp'er with decent length and strong ball control you might just have one of the more frustrating golf rounds of your life and that's if you are on your game. There are semi long carries off of most tees and often semi long carries from fairway to green. Again fine for excellent golfers but what about the average member or the older members? The gentleman who hosted me was in his 70's, a very good golfer as well. He played from the forward tees, I don't remember him being able to reach more than a couple fairways on the day. This makes me question of course what kind of a members club it is. Is that fun golf? If I was getting on in age, I'm 43, I would certainly be leaning towards a flatter, great routing, maybe even from Colt, on a smaller property that allowed me to enjoy my golf a little more.
The next issue would be the trees and again I certainly don't want to offend anyone as there is no argument this is the number one course in the world or at least top 2 together with Cypress Point. In examining some of the older photos of the course it is apparent that the 100+ years has produced a tremendous amount of tree growth and if I were on the greens committee one of the first projects I would undertake would be to attempt to bring back the space and playing corridors that the course originally had. The sandy ground where Pine Valley finds itself is without a doubt some of the world best golf terrain and it's in desperate need of some deforestation efforts. What would this change? Well, it would make the course even more appealing to the eye, it would make it a touch more playable for the average members there and protect it for future generations from completely being grown in. When the trees start to interfere with the architecture you are actually too late in taking action.
While I understand that this is my opinion only and like anything else it's subjective, how do you constructively criticize perfection. It is, however, amazing to think that you could even improve on a course like this isn't it?
In the end, for me when I walked off the course, on that day I was super excited to get into the clubhouse for a hard drink or 5. That ended up being a couple of Arnold Palmers since I had to drive back to Philly, but I walked off and left thinking to myself what I wouldn't give to come back with my best "A" game, knowing what to expect, with less intimidation and give this beautiful beast another run. I don't want to get greedy but I guy can always dream right?
Take all the usual ingredients for rating a golf course and add to it your anticipation, the air of privilege, mystery, exclusivity and reputation and Pine Valley becomes the undisputed champion and any of the usual subjective analysis is cast aside for what is the purest assessment of golfing greatness.
When we arrived knowing that we had been acquainted with one of Pine Valley’s circa 1,300 members (and by the way no one seems to quite know the precise number nor who is actually a member!) getting in the front gate is a reassuring formality – without this of course, all you will see is this most understated of golf course entrances. The entrance is hidden on East Atlantic Ave behind the Clementon Lake Water Park. After passing this most low key of attractions, you make a left on that road and follow it all the way to the dead end, there is a dirt car park and a rail road crossing on the right with the gate entrance – until we saw the security guard with a Pine Valley shirt on we were certain that we had got lost!
However proceeding beyond this check point and you are stunned as you turn the corner and drive past the eighteenth green and stare up the 18th fairway – you could never imagine this most wonderful of settings, a golfing sight you will never forget. As you meander through the pine forest and turn to the clubhouse you do not end up at some grand country club setting, but the most perfectly simple of clubhouses, for everything at Pine Valley bar the golf course is understated. Maybe this is deliberate as the focus is firmly on the course itself.
Once you are through the front gate, you become a member for your stay and you are treated to all the expected privileges. The staff who welcome you make it an event in itself and they simply can not do enough for you, what wonderful people they are. With a club of such great reputation comes a Pine Valley family of employees themselves honoured to be working at the best golf course in the world.
The charm of Pine Valley is in part the simplicity or “back to basics” feel of the clubhouse, stepping into the bar is akin to stepping into your local where the staff know everyone by their first name and the dark stained wood panelled great room has real warmth and character. The portrait of PV’s most famous late Captain and long-standing member, John Arthur Brown is its central theme. Cunningly his eyes will follow your every move, and wherever you sit this portrait of great quizzical expression questions your very presence in this hallowed clubhouse. This is along with the masses of golfing memorabilia and the pictures and historical records of George Crump’s vision and creation.
We were fortunate enough to stay overnight and had rooms booked in the clubhouse (you can also stay in the lodge overlooking the 5th hole). You go upstairs and walk past the boot room, through the locker area, and to a corridor to rooms that would be better described as a dormitory. It is though quintessentially Pine Valley! No en-suite (communal showers and toilets embellish the quirkiness), no television and the only hotel I know where you keep your door open and do not lock away your valuables! You are among friends.
The benefit of an overnight stay is not only to sample this experience, but to have the rehearsal of the short course and what a hidden gem this is. Like everything else Pine Valley does, it is truly unique, a 10 hole course carved through further acres of forest and a great Fazio design. The two opening par 3’s are great short holes with the second being deliciously treacherous – an elevated tee down to a lake fronted green with a bunker around all 4 sides which is a copy of the 14th hole on the main course. Get to the third and if you wonder where the tee blocks have gone from this point on, you are placing on the fairway and playing the approach shots to the par 4’s of the main course – the third hole being a copy of the approach to the 16th.You can spend a very enjoyable few hours on the short course, but it does not take away any anticipation for the main event.
After a home styled hosted banquet where as guests we joined other members for the most sociable of evenings we adjourned to contemplate the day ahead. As the sun rose reality pinched itself, for today we were going to play Pine Valley! I could only ever watch the level of excitement my children experienced when I told them they were going to Disneyland for the first time! Now though I was living this same experience – a mixture of quivering excitement but massive anticipation, I just had to play well! What to do to prepare? A relaxed early morning walk or 200 balls on the range? Well fortunately like kids ready for Christmas I had more than enough time to do both! The range itself is a wonderful experience with possibly the only practice facility coming close is the recently converted Augusta National car park.
As 10.40 tee off time approached, we all tasted the anticipation, in the knowledge that every hole we played was never likely to be repeated? The first is a great opener and demands a shot to the corner of the dogleg to have a chance of landing on the upturned oval green. Missing the fairway to the left was a body blow and a realisation of the mind and spirit being overwhelmed by the occasion. Hacking out and then “nailing” a 4 iron to the heart of the green steadied the nerve, for this is not the place to start badly.
Every shot at Pine Valley is demanding. The short course is there to practise your approach play as the challenge of Pine Valley is landing it on the greens and the test of the approach to the 2nd uphill characterises its difficulty. In truth I had not settled until after the 5th hole so overawed I was by the occasion. So what of the 5th, IMO the greatest par 3 in the world (along with the 16th at Cypress Point) and also one of the hardest. The 5th is a colossal par 3 across valley and river to a steeply climbing green that demands a carry of 230-240yards.it has NO bail out to the right and limited room on the left and what room it does have is mainly bunkering and characteristic sand scrub. If you ask the members how have you started, they will say ask me after the fifth! The legendary story of a member who started 5 under after 4 holes and then walked off the course (for fear of the 5th) is well rehearsed!
There is no let up with Pine Valley, every hole is great. Many are moulded beautifully to the contours of the land and the architecture is flawless even on the holes that are less theatrical. Such is the challenge at Pine Valley, the notion of golf ball length disabling courses defences does not come into the equation – you will always have to think your way around here and certainly you tweak a few drives, you are discouraged to use the big stick pretty quickly.
As you finish the ninth, there has not even remotely been a sniff of a weak hole. The first 3 par fours (1, 2 and 4) are all unique and very varied with the fourth driving blind over the ridge to the green adjacent to the clubhouse. Survive the 5th and you have a testing tee shot on the 6th across daunting shrub. The only par 5 on the front side is the 7th and what a clever design this is. Anther tight drive which makes you think sufficiently not to power it down the fairway, but then you are faced with clearing the large scrub area known as "Hell's half acre" placed sufficiently far back to prevent reaching in two, but sufficiently wide so as not to drive over it. This is stroke index 1 for a reason.
The 8th looks like some respite on the card – a short par 4, however not one of our group parred it, such is the size and challenge of the green. Never has a 90 yard sand wedge shot demanded such concentration. As is so often the case, you miss the green here by fractions and you can run up double or triple bogey. The depth and sometime narrowness of the bunkers is often a major problem. A number of the putting surfaces have contoured surfaces and it seems to correlate with the shorter holes that seem to offer little defence on the scorecard (don’t be fooled).
As you start the back nine, the 10th is a simply gorgeous par 3 (and one of the few holes that gets regularly photographed at Pine Valley). It is famed by the deep bunker known as the devil's asshole". It played as a 150 yards par 3, I hit what I thought was a glorious looking 8 iron tight on the pin which was positioned back right. Unfortunately the spin did not hold the ball and it went through the back into one of Pine Valley’s infamous narrow bunkers, with no space to draw the club back the ball came out but quickly rolled to the front of the green, 3 putts back up the ridge left me shell-shocked with a double bogey. This epitomises the margins around here - so hard, and with such little leeway to go wrong.
As you get into the “meat” of the back nine we felt it got better than the front nine (if that is possible!!) such is the quality, 11, 12 and 13, 3 par 4’s of such varied characteristics. No one would argue with the view that Pine Valley has 18 signature holes, it certainly has 4 par 3’s of the highest calibre and the 14th is a cracker, down to water and sand double protected green. There are so many elevated tees at Pine Valley, it adds to its magnificence, yet not contrasted by many holes where you have to drive or play uphill – is this an optical illusion? No, just stunning architecture and great use of the topography.
As we paused by the lake to survey the routing up one side and down the other of the 15th/16th we were captivated also by the occasional freight train that happened to trundle by and the signatory horn so reminiscent of the years of watching the Masters and it simply added to the romance.
The more I reflect on Pine Valley, the more I elevate its status as a great golf course, every hole is tough but has the perfect challenge. The fact that I had played relatively poorly that day was not a source of agitation, but getting to the eighteenth tee I was for one final time overawed again. Having seen the 18th from the green looking back (as we had entered the day before), I now look down from the tee determined to play the last hole well. Is this the greatest finishing hole in golf? I would say so. It demands a fierce carry over entrance road, small lake and well-protected bunkering to what is relatively large green. The tactic of forgetting how difficult the final shot was and just putting a good swing on the ball paid off! This was a phenomenal round of golf that cannot be replicated, a course so perfectly shaped and created by its surroundings.
To be classed as the best requires greatness in every aspect and that little bit more. If we extended the ranking to include a “7 ball”, would it be rated as the only course as such on this site?? Having now played Pine Valley I have to concede that I have incorrectly rated a few other courses as “6 ball”. And I thought golf rankings were subjective, well if you know your golf courses everyone would rate Pine Valley as being No. 1, it is an irrefutable fact! I hope my comments have done it justice. Ian Henley