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Pine Valley is not just a day’s golf

17 June, 2011

"Pine Valley is not just a day’s golf"

"It might just be the ultimate golfing experience on the planet"

The following Pine Valley course article was written by a reviewer who wishes to remain anonymous

Photos courtesy of Rob Jewell

For me it is easy to tell the mark of a golfer and maybe even a person by simply talking to them about their favourite golf courses, the ones they really want to play, the one they would like their last round ever to be played upon. The casual, laid back fair weather golfer always talks of places such as Pebble Beach, TPC Sawgrass and in a different way Augusta National (purely due to its affiliation to the Masters) as these are places their like-minded friends speak of or that they see on TV. Those who are more in the know and are slightly more serious about their golf, yearn for Cypress Point, Turnberry and Valderrama. Before I continue let me state that all of the aforementioned are outstanding golf courses, in particular reference to Augusta National I place it the first category purely based upon its worldwide TV coverage, they are all courses that I would play at the drop of a hat, without hesitation. Then there is the last category, the ones that the pure golf architecture nut wants to visit before all others, the so called Mecca’s of golf, places like Merion, Muirfield, Royal County Down, the National Golf Links of America, Royal Melbourne and of course the king of them all Pine Valley. The members of the above two categories know all about Pebble Beach and Augusta and when many are asked the question of what course is consistently ranked the world’s best? When they hear Pine Valley, the first thing they often say is “never heard of it”.

Pine Valley is not just a day’s golf, it might just be the ultimate golfing experience on the planet, bar none! Located in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, only 20 miles from Philadelphia, when you are inside the gates of this oasis, one may as well be on a different planet, given the serene sense of seclusion one feels. The golf course was the dream of a Philadelphia hotelier by the name of George Crump. The club holds the annual Crump Cup, an invitational Mid Amateur tournament every year in his honour, interestingly on the final day of this tournament every year the course is open to the public to come and walk with the matches. Crump built the club with idea of creating a golf course that provided the ultimate test. In those early days, the cities of Philadelphia, New York and Boston regularly played matches against one another, Crump became tired of being beaten week in week out by the opposition, he felt the courses in the Philly area did not pose a stiff enough test to raise ones game as the North East’s other courses such as Garden City or the Country Club did. Therefore Crump sought out a property where golfers could play year round upon sandy soil so as to hone their games for the matches. Two stories exist as to how he came across the land at Clementon, one is that as a boy he used to hunt there with his father, the other is that he came across whilst onboard a train travelling to Atlantic city, Thomas McWood in his article on George Crump (which can be viewed on discussion group page) contends that both stories may contain an element of truth.

Many other stories exist as to who actually designed Pine Valley. Crump took on a near obsession with the place, he moved out to the property and lived there alone with his hunting dogs, devoting all his time and endevours towards achieving his goal of building the world’s greatest golf course. The collaboration of architects who worked upon and consulted at Pine Valley reads like a who’s who of golden age golf course architects. Colt, Tillinghast, Alison, Maxwell and Wilson all left their mark at Pine Valley. Having made a golfing tour of England years previously, Crump was so taken with Harry Colt’s work that he invited him to come and review the site, with the 5th hole in particular being the one most associated with Colt’s recommendations. Sadly Crump reportedly took his life before the course was finished, many believe the length of time the course was taking to finish had taken its toll on him driving him to suicide. Holes 12-15 remained unfinished and it is believed (though again many theories exist) Hugh Wilson and his brother oversaw the construction of the unfinished holes, based along the plans that Crump had devised.

On the day I was to play Pine Valley, I left no stone unturned. I gave myself more than ample time to arrive at the course. I had heard all the stories of it being notoriously difficult to find, that the area surrounding the course is a complete surprise for the location of the world’s greatest golf course. However no words of wisdom could have prepared me for what lay ahead. I turned off the motorway and kept following my GPS, as it took me down a very seedy road full of Petrol stations, off licence’s and other types of unremarkable shops (interpret as you wish). I was fully certain I was in the wrong place, worried sick that I would miss my day at Pine Valley. I ploughed ahead following my GPS and then it emerged, the tell tale sign I was in the right place, Clementon Splash World, the run down waterpark that I had heard so much about, which, from my extensive reading, signals that you are indeed very close. From here you take a narrow road that runs alongside a train track, to the point where it reaches a dead end. A narrow gap in the woods is the only point where you can see anything except towering pines, at this spot you cross over the train track, drive up to the guard house and pray your name is on the list!

The drive from the entrance to the clubhouse is surreal in itself, passing the 18th green along the way and arriving and seeing things for real that I have viewed so many times by way of photographs. Once you enter the property, which I will concede is a very exclusive privilege, the people at Pine Valley might provide the most welcoming reception to a golf course anywhere in the world. The staff immediately make you feel incredibly comfortable, taking your bag, escorting you to the locker room and doing everything in their power to make sure you have a great day. Again, I had the feeling of all my dreams becoming a reality as I walked around the clubhouse. This was something I really couldn’t believe.

As noted above I made sure to arrive in plenty of time, so I made my way to the range, catching glimpses along the way of what was to come. The practice facility at Pine Valley is without doubt one of the finest I have ever had to pleasure of viewing. It leaves places like Valderrama and Trump National in its wake. Pristine verdant green turf, good quality balls and a huge area to hit from, all framed by the pines that dominate the property make for a majestic setting. One could happily spend the whole day at a facility such as this. From here it was back to the clubhouse for a wholesome lunch, including the famed snapper soup and YES! It is as good as everyone says. And then it was time, time to set foot on the real reason I so badly wanted to make this pilgrimage.

To be honest the first four holes for me were a complete blur. Hearing so much about the difficulty of the course and the penalties for hitting a poor shot, certainly plays on your mind from the moment you stick the peg in the ground to start your round. The first is definitely the best opening hole in the world (although I must say the 1st on the Strand course at Portstewart does run it very close). Crump’s thought process when designing the hole was genius. For he recognised that although it may well be the opener, it could also be the hole that would decide a match on the 19th, hence its demanding nature. The tee shot calls for a well-placed drive, where left of centre is favourable. As from this angle one is hitting up the dangerously sloping green as opposed to across it from the right side of the fairway. The view that greets the golfer from this tee is the one constant throughout all 18 holes at Pine Valley. An island of lush green fairway sits resplendent between the sandy waste areas that characterise the course, flanked left and right by dense pines. On first glance the fairways appear incredibly narrow, some people have been know to liken it to the artistic effect of tropme l’oeil, where the design deceives the eye. The reality is that Pine Valley’s fairways are quite wide, most certainly wider than the average, but it was the master artistry of Crump through his design which makes them appear such daunting prospects to keep the ball upon.

At his golf course, Crump wanted to impose a very strict set of design philosophies on the layout. Most likely garnered from his trips to Europe and also his time spent playing the North East’s other courses. At Pine Valley, he insisted that no two holes should play in the same direction, no two holes should play parallel to the next, no hole should be visible from the other and that a player should be required to use every club in his bag. The first three features help to harvest the feeling of ultimate seclusion from the outside world when playing at Pine Valley, while the last point without doubt gave rise to the most interesting blend of golf holes found anywhere. The 2nd is the first of the great short par 4’s. It is of paramount importance to hit this fairway, above nearly all the others, the sand on the right, 7 times out of 10 leads to an automatic lay up. While the scrub on the left more often than not leads to a pitch out sideways. Many of my counterparts attest that the 2nd green at Pine Valley might be both the best contoured and most naturally placed green site in all of golf. It sits perched high on a hill above the fairway, like a speaker looking down on you from a pulpit, it slopes treacherously from back to front and is gargantuan in size. At less than 400 yards this hole is not long by modern standards, but any budding golf course architect could do well to use this hole as an example of how the short par 4 can play tougher than the 500-yard one by employing certain design elements, which make the hole no less tough but eminently more enjoyable than a long slog.

The par threes at Pine Valley have been long acclaimed as the best collection of one-shot holes in all of golf. There may be courses that possess better par threes, like 15 & 16 at Cypress Point, but nowhere can match the diversity of what all four short holes at Pine Valley offer. The 3rd is maybe easiest of a very difficult lot, the green sits like an oasis in the middle of a sandy expanse, the green is one of the strangest shaped you will ever see, it is almost star shaped, and offers some of the most fun pin placements on the golf course. Here, maybe even more so than any other hole at Pine Valley, the decision of the greenkeeper as to where to cut the hole, dictates the scoring of the day. The 4th is again another tough tee shot, this time blind over a hill, doglegging to the right. If you carry your ball far enough down the right side cutting the dogleg its can kick down the slope leaving a much shorter approach. The approach shot here, as seen again on the 13th, highlights the genius of the design. Both are long par fours and are completely open in front. Probably the best way to attack is along the ground, for there is an apron of short closely mown grass, stretching back some 30 yards from the front of the green. The green slopes from front to back, and is fitted perfectly to the hole. The lack of any hazard at the front allows the weaker player to run the ball up with a longer club, but the severity of the green still protects the hole from being an easy touch for the stronger player.

So to the real first heart stopping moment of the day – after a trip into the clubhouse for a mandatory Gatorade to settle the nerves and re-focus the mind. And there it was, sitting atop the hill looking gazing down on all below, Everest like, as if saying, “try and conquer me”. For me there has been no hole that I have wanted to experience more than this, Sawgrass 17th, Royal Portrush 14th, The 8th at Royal Troon all terrific, but the 5th at Pine Valley is exceptional! Again the obvious option is not always the best route to making par. Left is dead, right is dead, go long and a 3 putt is a certainty. The smart player will land his approach short, always trying to keep his ball below the hole; this route almost takes a double out of the equation, one of the keys to playing well around Pine Valley. At the 6th one intimidating tee shot follows another, an almost 90-degree dogleg to the right must carry what appears to the golfer to be a vast chasm of sand. The reality is that the shortest route over the san is only 140 yards, but this leaves 200+ to another difficult green, which this time around is heavily guarded front left by a bunker. If you choose to take the longest carry is 275 yards, but leaves obviously a much less difficult approach. Risk reward at its finest. Evidence that, although Crump definitely adopted architecture of the penal kind, he still afforded the player a chance to make a score.

As you walk to the 7th tee – if the course has not already beaten you up – you can actually make a score. The day I played I was +7 through 6 (with 3 pars) and I finished +7. The 7th however appears daunting because your second shot must carry the famed Tillinghast Sahara Hazard, known at Pine Valley as “Hell’s Half Acre”. As is written so often about Pine Valley, the reasons why it is consistently ranked the world’s best is for a number of reasons, summed up brilliantly by Golf Club Atlas in saying: “Many would argue that a) it possesses more world class holes than any other course, b) the finest eighteen green complexes of any course, c) the finest collection of three shotters, d) the finest collection of two shotters (especially those under 370 yards), e) the finest collection of one shot holes, f) the finest three hole start and g) the finest three hole finish” The 8th again fits comfortably into the above description. On the day I played, I hit a 17-degree hybrid, nicely down the right side. All I had left into the green was a knock own lob wedge to a back pin. It came to rest maybe 8ft from the pin (or so I thought) and I walked up to the green a happy man, only to find my ball right down at the front of the green 40 feet from the cup. The front nine closes with another strong par four, the architectural ploy of forcing the golfer to hit towards what he can see on a blind tee shot as opposed the best line of play. The right side is visible from the tee, but deep narrow ruts of sand lie in wait. In an interesting aside, both the 8th and 9th holes have an alternate greens constructed by Perry Maxwell, built to give the other two greens, which are relatively small some relief.

Any golf course aficionado should be well acquainted with some of the world’s greatest names for bunkers, the Sahara at Royal St George's, Hell/Principal’s nose at St Andrews, Spectacles at Carnoustie and the Cardinal at Prestwick. But the Devils Ass might be the most apt. The 10th hole, might the shortest hole on the golf course, but I feel it is the one that might best characterise the intimidation factor of Pine Valley. The hole is less than 150 yards, but never have I approached such a short hole with such a huge amount of trepidation. How deep is the Devil’s Ass hole? Not as deep as the Road hole bunker for certain, but it is the size and shape of it that make it most difficult, for there is barely enough room to take a stance and make a full swing. Anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, steer well clear. Many members, who hit their tee shot into the DA, have been known to simply play three from the tee rather than elect to escape from the Devil’s grasp.

The 11th and 12th are holes that would both be standouts on many of the world’s best courses. At the 11th, again the obvious line from the tee is not always the best, I kept mine right of centre with a slight fade, however the preferred line is indeed down the left where the ball should gather towards the centre of the fairway. The 12th receives criticism, from some corners as being the only “weak” hole on the golf course, but I would completely disagree with this. The tee shot is far from easy and one must resist the temptation from being too greedy as there is nothing but trouble on the left side. As with the 3rd the pin position on this hole can drastically change how well it is scored upon. A front pin affords a very real chance to pick up a stroke, while anything towards the back makes things much more difficult.

So begins what I feel is the single best stretch in all of golf. Four of the world’s par fours (all of different make up), the worlds toughest par five, and maybe the most visually terrifying par three known to man. The 13th is the most demanding par four on the golf course, although I suspect there was a element of Trent Jones’s hard par easy bogey moniker at work here too. Depending on what side of the fairway your tee shot ends up, this hole can appear to play right to left or left to right. The green sits pitched at an angle against the fairway and is guarded sentry-like by sandy scrub all up its left side. The temptation to take on the pin, via the aerial route, can end in pure agony for the golfer, as his heroic attempt falls short and moments later the pencil records a six. But as I discussed at the 4th, Crump affords the player the option to use the natural contours to their advantage by working the ball in from the apron short right, which kicks the ball left off its sloping turf. Hard par… easy bogey!

For me it is the placement of the tee box high above the landing area, which makes the 14th hole frightening. Atop the hill by the 13th green, all the trouble that lurks below is there, evident and waiting to receive errant shots. I truly feel if this hole were dead flat it would play nowhere nearly as difficult. The green is one of the flattest on the course, which my caddy told me makes it incredibly difficult to read. By now I am sure you are sick of me discussing how visually intimidating the golf course is, but it is something that is a constant throughout your round. From the back tee your drive on 15 must carry a lake. In reality the carry is only 140 yards, but because of the design of the tee, and how close it lies to the waters edge, it seems like 250 yards. From here your shot plays sharply uphill and up until a few years ago, it was rumoured that no one had ever reached the green in two from the back tee. But apparently, last summer, Paul Casey achieved the feat and hence a new back tee was promptly constructed. For most mortals, the third shot must be so precise because the green lies well above the level of the landing zone, and any shot with too much spin will back up quite considerably.

As at 13, depending on what portion of the fairway your tee shot finds, the hole can be a left to right dogleg or a right to left one. The drive is semi-blind and the right side is where the green becomes most accessible. The green is again open in front, allowing the creative player to chase his ball down the hill and onto the green. However the terrain and green slopes push balls to the right, as if by magnet, and anything missed left leaves one of those less than comfy sand shots played back towards water.

I liken the 17th, to the calm before the storm of 18. As is noted in many writings about Pine Valley, Crump was not a complete sadist. He did afford the golfer a certain element of give and take. At 17 he felt that the player should be allowed to have a chance to make a birdie to pick up a stroke, whether it be to post his best ever score, or that ever important stroke to break 70/80/90 or even 100. There are murmurs that the fairway on this hole used to be split level, with the left side being the safer option, but giving rise to a more difficult approach while the right one the riskier option but with a nice reward. At present the green is semi bowl shaped, and balls can gather towards certain hole locations.

There is one question I continually ask myself about Pine Valley, is the 18th the best finishing hole in the world? As you can gather from the above writing I am indeed a huge fan of the golf course, if a flawless golf course exists it may be it. It certainly does not have the history of St Andrews, The beauty of Pebble Beach or the sheer drama of a Sawgrass, but then again these three holes, all regularly host televised tour events, which only add to their exposure. I am certain if Pine Valley ever had a tiny fraction of the coverage the other three receive, it would be recognised the world over. As it stands, it is an exceptional golf hole, one which I feel was made for a strong fader of the golf ball. For I believe a hard cut drive and a soft landing fade of a second shot are the optimum way to play the golf hole.

If heaven were anything like Pine Valley I would happily reside there. The golf is pure and understated, the food top notch, the accommodation outstanding, their short course is a great complement to its big brother. Even the halfway house is unique with its collection of golf balls from all over the world. Once inside the gates you feel completely shut off from the outside world. The golf courses and practice range takes up roughly 200 acres, of the 600 odd the club owns, thus protecting their property from any encroaching developments. Pine Valley is in itself actually its own incorporated borough, consisting of a number of very small administrative buildings, with a population of 12 people. This gives the sense of an almost private village behind the fence.

Pine Valley is an experience. It has been without doubt the best day of my golfing life up until now. The chance to finally get to see first hand tracts of land that I have read about since I was a teenager was incredibly special for me. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing vertically all day. Even as a scratch golfer, I would be lying if I did not say the course’s reputation affected my golf game, especially early during the round. If I am ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to play the course again, I would be hopeful that I would not be so easily overawed. Now and again I make my own personal lists of things such as, the best par three/four/five I have played, my favourite eclectic 18 holes, best short par three, long par four etc. I never seem able to to exclude one hole at Pine Valley. Is it the best golf course in the world? For me, as a purist, a low handicap and a lover of golf course architecture, it wins hands down. Others who enjoy more of a stroll among beautiful surroundings may prefer, the courses of the Monterrey Peninsula or the Irish/Scottish courses like Royal County Down, Portrush, Turnberry and Waterville. For me there will forever only be one Number 1!


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