Reflecting on what one can write about Pine Valley you are left with an overwhelming sense of guilt that any other course review written before had inevitably been subject to a degree of over-hype. It is easy to embellish a courses greatness through benchmarking against mediocrity and maybe you can be excused for rating it higher through the way you played or the luck you had with the weather! Whichever way, Pine Valley is off the scale when compared to anything else you will ever play and that reality is comprehensively realised if you are lucky enough to play it.
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
Date: July 20, 2011