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
Date: February 08, 2017