In the early 1960s, Dick Wilson was commissioned to fashion a challenging golf course at Boynton Beach on the southeast coast of Florida. The founder members of Pine Tree Golf Club gave Wilson a fairly unremarkable but large tract of dairy farmland to work with.
In 1962, just one year after opening, Pine Tree Golf Club hit the headlines after Ben Hogan declared that it was the greatest flat course in America. Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength.
More than forty years later, Pine Tree Golf Club remains prestigious, traditional and intensely private. Also, the course still represents a precise challenge and is considered to be one of Wilson’s finest designs.
Despite the flat topography it's a strategic test that asks serious questions of even the best golfers. Bold, irregularly shaped and thoughtfully positioned bunkers are the hallmark of the course.
Commenting in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak asserts: “Pine Tree is the ultimate Dick Wilson layout – longer, flatter, more heavily bunkered and more difficult than most of his other courses.”
We recently ran into architect Ron Forse at Pine Tree and he told us that Forse Design has been working for Pine Tree since 1996. They used a number of Ben Hogan’s 1962 8x10 photos to “extremely accurately” restore all 130 bunkers (65 greenside 65 fairway). “Some bunkers [were] put back in, a couple put back into two after Joe Lee made them into one,” said Ron. “Hole 10 was totally reconstructed in the 1970s and we restored the original green complex but as a par 5 – it was a 4 in 1962. The big restoration construction went down in the summer of 1997.
In 2012 it was time to again restore the greenside bunkers as they wore out; the greens were rebuilt again in 2017 [with] minor surface tweaks in a few spots only. No plans of the course exist... that we know of. But a 1965 aerial photo was perfect for restoring features. Eye level photos and the aerial made for precise tools for our work. Another architect redid the fairway bunkers in 2005. We will restore these and tweak paths and landscaping in our current Master Plan Update, being designed now.”
I’m so excited to share my thoughts on Pine Tree with all of you; mainly because it’s one of the few remaining historical courses that is predominantly underappreciated and rarely discussed in the circles of golf course architecture.
In 1961, Dick Wilson completed his design of Pine Tree and the course was opened for play. It was astutely pointed out to me by Head Golf Professional Justin Thompson that perhaps the reason you don’t hear very much about Pine Tree is that it is caught between two eras of golf course architecture, the classic era and the modern one.
While it’s clearly a parkland golf course, Pine Tree surely fits into the “classic” category in my book since you don’t see courses built this way at all in the modern era. Regardless of which era you want to bucket Pine Tree into, I can assure you of one thing, it is an outstanding golf course that is absolutely under appreciated.
What makes a golf course “great”? Every golfer and architecture buff will give you a difference answer; is it how memorable the experience is? The beauty of the course? The conditioning? The overall test of golf? The routing? Green complexes? How much “fun” you had? For me, it’s all of the above rolled up into one simple question: When you finish your round, do you have an immediate feeling of excitement to come out and play the course again? Clearly, I am oversimplifying a complicated answer that has plenty of exceptions to it, but when all is said and done, this is the ultimate question you are answering to define greatness.
Pine Tree offers everything you could want to finish your round excited to go around the course again, and again, and again. A huge criteria for me in analyzing a golf course is whether or not I find it fair and fun. While just about every single approach shot at Pine Tree is a real challenge, the course is a ton of fun and plenty fair.
One of the unique features Pine Tree offers is 7 sets of tee markers where you can play as far back at 7300 yards with a par of 71. I chose to play the course from the 2nd longest tees at just a few yards under 7000 which was plenty long for me to test myself as Dick Wilson designed it. Having 7 sets of tees allows you to control how difficult you want the course to play. If you walk onto the 1st tee and want to give yourself plenty of birdie chances, then pick a tee marker that will allow the course to play shorter; if you want to challenge yourself, play the course further back. This is a brilliant way to tailor the round to whatever level of challenge you are looking for. Trust me when I tell you, if you are between two sets of tee markers at Pine Tree, play the shorter sets of tees, you will thank me later.
Dick Wilson finished his work at Pine Tree just a few years before Pete Dye came along and changed golf course architecture as we knew it. To that end, prior to Pete Dye’s era, an architect built or should I say “designed” a golf course with the land he had to work with. At Pine Tree, Dick Wilson had one hand tied behind his back as he was working with a flat piece of property in the middle of Boynton Beach, Florida. Talk about making the best of a challenging situation, Wilson maximized every single acre he had to work with, routed the course beautifully, and used the art of creativity to produce a wonderful finished product.
How did Wilson accomplish this result? First off, the routing is as good any architect could have achieved on this land. The front 9 holes essentially go in 5 different directions with one slight dogleg left (the 1st hole) and one dogleg right (the 7th hole), all the others are basically straight away going in different directions. On a windy day, this forces you to hit every type of shot to navigate the wind. The back 9 actually goes in 7 different directions which is incredible. Add to that the fact that almost every approach shot at Pine Tree has a well-protected slightly elevated green. You aren’t going to bounce many shots onto the green at Pine Tree, it’s just not that kind of a course. Finally, the depth of each green is angled and appropriate for any length of shot your approach requires. This goes back to my earlier point that the tee box you choose to play will partially control your destiny. If you leave yourself a lot of long irons shots, your ability to hit and hold these greens and your margin for error will be quite different than leaving yourself a lot of short irons or wedges into these challenging greens.
Once you are actually on the putting surfaces you can breathe a sigh of relief as the greens are just moderately tilted with nothing gimmicky or unfair about them. They aren’t flat like a pancake but if you’re looking for drama on your putts, Pine Tree is not going to give that to you. Point being, once you get your ball onto the green, every putt is makeable and as long as you have good speed control, you can putt aggressively without fear of three putting. I’d be remiss in not highlighting how many bunkers there are protecting Pine Tree’s fairways and greens; they are literally everywhere and in all the right places, 128 in total to be exact. Many of the greens are actually quite large and the awesome bunkering is deceptive into making the golfer feel like the targets are smaller than they actually are.
No individual hole at Pine Tree is a true signature hole that you would expect to see highlighted in picture after picture. That’s one of the things I love about this course, you can successfully support that just about every hole is memorable and a well-designed test of golf.
Like all passionate golfers, I don’t like all the holes at Pine Tree equally; two holes are my favorites, the par-5 9th and the short but tricky par-3 13th.
The 9th is a 521 par-5 that requires a precise drive to find the fairway and have a shot to go for the well-protected green in two. I didn’t mention it earlier but hitting the fairways at Pine Tree is critical for success, more on that later. The approach shot to the 9th is nothing short of spectacular. There is a water hazard well left of the green and five bunkers surrounding the slightly elevated green, including two right in front ensuring that you must carry your second shot all the way onto the green if you are looking for an eagle opportunity. The green is large and deep and has a small back shelf where if the pin is positioned there (as it was for me), it’s quite challenging to get your approach shot close to the hole, whether it’s your 2nd or even a wedge 3rd. Nonetheless, the 9th is really the one hole on the front 9 where a good player feels like you should make a birdie and will be disappointed if you don’t.
The par-3 13th hole surely has the look of a signature hole with a gigantic formation of amoeba shaped bunkers guarding an elevated angled green that from the tee looks like a tiny sliver of a putting surface. It’s the closest single shot you will have all day that you could call dramatic but once you get up to the green, you’ll see that the target is plenty deep for the length of the shot. What’s unique and fascinating about this green is that it’s somewhat similar to the 17th at Pebble Beach in that the center of the green creates an hourglass shape that makes a middle of the green pin placement the toughest as that part of the green is quite narrow. For this reason, Dick Wilson was brilliant in making the back tee only 158 yards to ensure that every player has the ability to hit a high soft shot that can hold the green. This hole is the ultimate example of needing both accuracy and trajectory control to deliver the shot that yields the best result.
This transitions us to one of the great features of Pine Tree, outstanding agronomy. The passionate membership of Pine Tree really understands how to get the most out of their golf course. As such they have the unusual set up of both a Director of Agronomy and a Head Golf Course Superintendent. Every single detail of agronomy at Pine Tree is addressed and I give the membership a ton of credit for doing everything imaginable to ensure the integrity of the original Dick Wilson design is maintained and that the course plays exactly as it was intended to, day-in and day-out. Pine Tree has retained well-known and respected architect Ron Forse to oversee an ongoing master plan. Too many courses today neglect the great original architecture that they have and instead of focusing on a restoration, “member greens chairman” play “architect” and screw up an otherwise great golf course. Thank goodness, seemingly that will never happen at Pine Tree.
Pine Tree’s conditioning could have hosted a PGA Tour event today and the tour players would have loved it. Yet, it was seemingly just another day at the course for their incredible staff. Interestingly, the Florida Open will take place at Pine Tree in just over a week. I know that the field for that event will be really impressed with the outstanding conditioning. Few courses in the country are regularly maintained in a way that if they hosted the best players in the world, nothing about their regular course conditioning would need to change. Pine Tree seems to achieve this high standard and I congratulate them for that.
What’s even more impressive is that Florida courses in the summer generally turn to mush and getting a course to play firm and fast in the humidity and heat of the summer is nearly impossible. No, Pine Tree does not play in the summer as it would in the winter, the greens will always be 1-2 feet slower and the fairways will never play as firm. But I must tell you, they get really close to “firm and fast” in the summer at Pine Tree. The greens have that thumping sound when your ball lands and you won’t find too many shots spinning back on your approach shots. For this reason, similar to what is said at Seminole, at Pine Tree you will likely have more greens “visited” in regulation than “hit in regulation”.
As promised earlier, I referenced the importance of hitting the fairways at Pine Tree, which by the way are mowed at the perfect width to be a fair test. The reason the premium is on hitting the fairways at Pine Tree is so important is that they have real rough, not the kind of grass where your ball just sits up, the kind where you know you are playing at a true “golf club” that is designed and maintained to be a championship test. I loved the fact that the ball sat down with grass surrounding it just about every time I missed the fairway. What this means is if you are skilled enough to make solid contact out of the rough, you likely don’t have the magical skills necessary to spin the ball enough to hold the firm, angled greens and more often than not, you will be needing to get up and down to save par. Isn’t this the way golf was meant to be played? Being able to hit the ball anywhere on the course may be fun once in a while but that style of course will not test you the way Pine Tree will.
Let’s spend a moment on the bunkering at Pine Tree. If you’re having a lousy ball striking day, it would be very possible to find yourself in at least one bunker on every single hole at Pine Tree. I’m a low handicap who played really well today, and I was in two fairway bunkers and five greenside. The bunkers are all fair and each one gives you a true up and down opportunity. But you have to hit a clean spinning shot each time as these bunkers are very firm and so are the greens. If you are interested, I got up and down 4 out of 5 times on my greenside bunker shots, the only time I did not save par around the green was on the 1st hole when I took for granted how firm the bunkers were and I thinned my shot 25 feet past the pin and watched it roll right off the green. It should’ve been obvious since you are walking into them to get to your ball, but I always skip my morning cup of coffee on days I play golf and I suppose I was still waking my brain up at this point.
One cool thing about Pine Tree is that when you look around the course you see trees all around you, but you really don’t see any come into play during the course of your round. They mainly shape the holes and create definition.
The par-3s at Pine Tree are superb. They go in at least 3 different directions and today the four par 3’s played 173, 209, 203 and 158. I hit a 7 iron, 4 iron, 4 iron and an 8 iron. I only hit one of the four par 3’s in regulation as they are all stern tests. While the par-3 6th and 11th holes were both 4 irons for me, I can promise you the 6th hole is the hardest par-3 on the course. Everything about the tee shot is intimidating and getting up and down from either short or left is brutally hard, one of the hardest up and downs on the whole course. The 11th is a really awesome hole, from the tee the angling of the green looks severe and the entire right side of the green looks like a narrow sliver, in reality, it’s much a much deeper green than it looks and it’s the perfect size green for a long par-3, another great example of Wilson’s amazing bunkering creating an interesting hole that is perfectly flat.
The two standout par-4s on the course are the 7th and 12th. Making par on either of these holes is an achievement and if you are able to par both, you have taken shots back from the course and you will impress all your friends.
The 7th is the most severe dogleg hole on the course, and the only dogleg right. It’s also one of the hardest holes on the course. Two tiny yet tall palm trees protect a golfer trying to cut the corner off the tee and carry a diagonally slanting water hazard that runs down most of the right side of the hole. From the tips this hole is 474 yards and it looks as if the fairway is a super narrow landing area. Again, there is more room to land your drive than it looks, but I won’t fool you into thinking this isn’t a very demanding tee shot, it’s the toughest one on the course. Should you successfully find the fairway, the approach shot is likely a long one to one of the easier greens on the course, giving you a chance to make a par if you earn it.
The 12th has a signature little pine tree right in the left center of the fairway; it was very cool to look at but probably wouldn’t have been as much fun had it obstructed your long approach shot. At 456 yards the 12th requires a solid tee shot because more so than on any other hole, you don’t want a super long shot into this green. I found the 12th green to be the toughest green on the course, the front section has a subtle false front, and the back section slopes away from you. While the green looks plenty deep, the effective area to stop your ball from coming up short or rolling over is quite small. I don’t see too many shots from the rough holding this green and coming into this green with more than a 6 iron is going to be tough to land it soft enough to stay on the green. Every course has to have that one hole where you know that a par would be really special, this is one of those holes at Pine Tree.
I told you about the 9th hole earlier and its worth touching briefly on the other two par-5s at Pine Tree. The 5th and 16th holes are two mammoth par 5’s that both play over 600 yards from the tips. For all but a few in the world, neither is reachable as both have a bunker fronting the green. These holes are both fantastic. Despite their length they offer great birdie opportunities as a par-5 should. I had 104 yards into the 5th for my 3rd shot and after crushing a drive and hitting a perfect 3 wood, I still had 102 yards on the 627 yard 16th. Unfortunately, I hit both short wedge shots into a bunker short of the green. Luckily, I got both of them up and down to save par.
The 18th hole at Pine Tree offers just what a finishing hole should, a stern test with a championship look and feel. Stretching to 458 yards from the tips, the fairway is lined with well-placed bunkers. The approach shot to the 18th is slightly angled and moderately elevated from left to right with a big bunker guarding the entire right side of the large green. This is not the hardest finishing hole you will ever play, compared to say Winged Foot, Oakmont, Augusta, or Pine Valley’s finisher, but the 18th at Pine Tree is consistent with the design of the rest of the course in that you have to hit two solid shots (or make a good up and down) to make a par.
Hopefully, I have given you a good feel for what Pine Tree is all about. Understated elegance is how I would describe the design of this course. Dick Wilson accepted the piece of land he had to work with and maximized it. There are no gimmicks, just an imaginative, solid test of golf from the very first tee shot to the very last. Pine Tree is a balanced golf course, each and every hole is different, yet they are all clearly intertwined as part of a consistent design. The routing is wonderful. Every green complex is perfectly designed to receive varying length shots so that you are challenged but know the hole was a fair test. So, my answer to whether or not I think Pine Tree achieves “greatness” is a resounding YES! I walked off the 18th green wishing I was heading right back to the 1st tee to play a second round. There is nothing not to love about Pine Tree and I hope I have the privilege to play there again really soon.
One of my favorite courses in FL to play. I will always remember the experience and joy of playing this course. I would love to try it again someday.
Others have weighed in so I will keep my comments brief. I am not a fan of Florida golf but there are certain places that avid devotees of architecture need to see firsthand. Pine Tree is clearly on the short list.
The Wilson style can often overpower other sites he worked with but here in Florida and most specifically at Pine Tree his design motif works very well here.
Among the first things that capture your attention is the "clean" look of the course. It helps to have turf conditions that truly maximize the design elements. There are trees but they don't really envelope the course - they simply frame it well.
The key thing that pushes Pine Tree up the leaderboard for me is the quality of the approach shots one must play. The targets are often elevated -- set on angles -- and well defended. When the pin is cut tight to whatever side it's placed the need for utter precision is called upon. Being so near the Atlantic Ocean often means a hefty dosage of wind that can really destroy the flight of any approach that is not executed with top tier precision.
Pine Tree is a pure shotmaking delight. There are no gimmick holes and Wilson did include the silly mounding that came to many other southeast Florida courses in the years to follow.
Achieving hole quality on land that has almost no elevation change of note is no small feat. Far too often architects opt to be "creative" and the end result is like someone going in for plastic surgery and coming out looking worse than what they were when they started,
The dog-leg right 7th is one of the finest holes you can play in Florida. It's simple in its presentation but a true beast in what it requires -- especially when played into any serious wind or crosswind.
The inward half of holes starts with a hole that can play as a par-5 for members but a par-4 for low handicap types. A quality drive and approach are once again called upon.
The 12th is first rate long par-4 -- often played back into the prevailing wind there's water on the left side of the drive zone but it pays to come as close as possible without making a ball donation. The green is set on an angle and just over the same water.
I have always been a fan of the par-3 13th -- the amount of sand would have you think you're in the movie, "Lawrence of Arabia!" The angling of the green is also testament to Wilson's brilliance. When you get some serious wind blowing and the pin is cut to the far right rear area it takes a wonderful marriage in terms of proper club selection and trajectory.
The 14th and 15th are both relatively short par-4's but each plays in a different direction so whatever wind pattern encountered will be different. These two holes provide an opportunity to pick up some momentum but nothing about them is easy per se.
When you reach the par-5 16th it's hard to fathom how a 666-yard par -5 could have been created when people were using persimmon woods and original blade irons. Often the wind is with players but even with that assistance it takes three quality shots
The concluding 18th is a strong hole. Can often play into the prevailing wind and the key is avoiding the bunkers that bracket the fairway. The green is defended by water which must be carried with the approach but again it is the angled green that places a high priority on shaping the correct shot to find the putting surface.
Pine Tree is often forgotten by many. That's regrettable. The design is well routed -- constantly moving about so adjustments are central to one's success or lack thereof. Flat land can be a heavy anchor for any course to carry but Pine Tree does so admirably. For those fortunate to garner an invitation it's one to savor.
M. James Ward
Terrific layout, well manicured and beautiful bunkering. Nice mix of hole lengths in a few stretches, lot depends on the wind.... I think they have 6 diff tee boxes so pick the right one to have more fun! Great shape all around! Nice green complexes on the whole course and in great shape today.
Some very cool architecture and history await the golfer lucky enough to find themselves on Pine Tree. The first tee has a plaque with a Ben Hogan quote calling it "the best flat course in the country", and this may be so.
The beauty of Pine Tree is that you can make double bogey from anywhere on the course. On three of the first five holes I had wedge in and made 5 or worse because the green complexes are firm and angled so as to not forgive a less than perfect shot.
I really loved the "runway" or "landing strip" tee boxes. One even goes 170 yds and really allows for the maintenance crew to change how the hole will play that day.