Course: In a remote location in South Jersey, about 30 minutes away from downtown Philadelphia, resides the best golf course in the world. While I’ve read and researched and basically played every course in the area to get some semblance of what the course could play like, nothing really prepares you for when you get through the gate and make your way to the clubhouse. Pine Valley was created by George Crump, who purchased the property in 1912. Crump had never designed a golf course before, but collaborated with several of the Golden Age architects (Colt, MacKenzie, Wilson, Thomas, Travis, MacDonald, Flynn to name a few), who most likely recognized the sandy soil, rolling terrain, windswept native grass and pines as ideal for a golf course that could play year long. Tragically, Crump’s health and finances declined during the years the course was built, ultimately dying before it was completed.
I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to play Pine Valley. While definitely excited, I was more anxious than anything else. For the weeks leading up to the round, the questions and concerns piled up, all of which convinced the round wasn’t going to happen. Would the weather hold up, would the round get cancelled for some reason, would I suffer some freak injury that would prevent me from playing? If I did play, would I forget how to hit the ball? Beyond all that, however, was what would I think of the course. While I have played highly rated and regarded courses in the past, Pine Valley was by far the highest ranked and most exclusive I have had the opportunity to play. I wondered whether the ranking, prestige, praise and exclusivity would in any way impact what I really thought of it? Would the realization that I was fortunate enough to get invited factor in at all? I mean, many regard Pine Valley as the best course in the world. Better than anything in Scotland, better than anything in Ireland, better than every course I’ve played or seen on t.v. It is certainly hard to ignore when a course has such accolades heaped upon it, but while I was certain I was going to enjoy myself, I was determined to remain undeterred in evaluating my thoughts of the course independently of such accolades.
In any event, the day came and I made my way down there. In pouring rain. This wasn’t as disastrous as it seems, however, because the plan was to arrive in the late afternoon, try to play the short course, then have dinner in the clubhouse, stay over and play in the morning. The entrance was as unassuming as I had heard. You are literally in a residential neighborhood when you go over a set of railroad tracks to a small guardhouse, with no signs or anything else altering you where you are. After giving my name to the guard, I made my way inside.
The first thing that made an impression on me was the immense size of the property. It really shouldn’t have surprised me that much because Pine Valley is its own municipality within New Jersey, meaning it has its own post office, police department, etc. Yet as a classic course where the holes and everything else are typically very close together, it was apparent that Pine Valley was immense, with large impressive houses throughout the property, all with names instead of addresses. When the houses have names, you know you’re some where good. In fact, the property was so immense, I got lost. Panic set in as I started worrying that I’d end up some where I wasn’t supposed to be and I couldn’t tell you whether or not that happened, but eventually I found the cottages where we were staying. Again, I was taken aback by how simple yet impressive they were. A fireplace, several leather chairs in front of a t.v., another table for eating or even to play cards (a poker set was there for such purpose) and a kitchen area stocked with drinks and food, all with vaulted high ceilings with a porch and patio, it had everything you could want on a golf trip.
It ended up raining a little more than we expected that first day, but we were able to play a few holes of the short course before dinner. The short course is comprised of 10 holes that resemble approach shots you encounter on the championship course. It’s such a novel idea that provides a great way to practice the course, all in a casual setting. The holes we played were in great shape (despite all the rain that just hit), diverse and set on the same rolling terrain we would encounter on the course. It was a slight preview of what was come tomorrow, but just enough to fuel the flames of excitement and suspense. Dinner at the clubhouse was special, including the famous Snapper Soup, and you get a sense of the history of the place by looking around at the names listed for the club championship and other pictures and paintings. We learned we were the only group on the property, which meant as far as we were concerned, we had the best course on the planet to ourselves, which we of course reminded ourselves of a number of times back at the cottages while sitting around a roaring fire. As far as golf trips go, I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
There’s a sense of surrealism that seizes upon you as you enter those gates. Realizing where you are, and how fortunate you are to be there, was very poignant to me, which added to the wonder and splendor of the place. The clubhouse and staff are all friendly and down to earth, making you feel as welcome as if you were at your own home course. It’s about the golf here, not about pomp, prestige or anything else. Caddies refer to the members by first name and the members know the names of their kids, cracking jokes about this and that throughout the round. I instantly felt comfortable, all while staying in awe the whole time.
After breakfast in the clubhouse, we warmed up at the driving range. Each hitting station is independently calibrated so you know the exact distance to each flag. It’s in an expansive part of the property and yes, I could have spent the entire day there.
On to the course. While I was determined to stay objective in my thoughts, I quickly realized there was no need; it’s as good as they say. The collaboration, and what Crump incorporated from it, resulted in the finest test in golf that calls upon the depths of all your golfing acumen and fortitude to manage it. The course blends the penal, strategic and heroic design philosophies very well, and all can be seen throughout. There simply is not a weak hole and in fact, every hole is all-world. The terrain, variety, visuals, are ideal. While difficult, it’s fair and great shots are rewarded. Great shots are also demanded and I can say I hit some of the best shots of my life during that round. I also hit some of the worst, either from fatigue, intimidation, difficulty of the shot, or a combination thereof. The course’s capacity to draw these shots out of you is one of several ways in which the rounds, holes and shots here become immortalized in your memory. The visuals, and how they’re revealed as you advance towards the green, are outstanding, which evoke inspiration, intimidation and temptation, yet provide strategic options and reward course knowledge. One of the more surprising aspects is how difficult it was to lose a ball. Most wayward shots were found and there was a realistic chance for recovery. It’s also great for match play because of the distinct challenges and the different ways each hole can be played depending on how your tee shot ends up and how hazards are handled. Finally, the routing is impeccable, accommodating the diverse terrain, which in turn produces a diversity of holes and play.
When all was said and done, it’s difficult for me to adequately describe how much I enjoyed Pine Valley. It is the most well designed course I have played and beyond that, now my favorite course. There wasn’t a dull shot on the course. It was all thrilling, keeping you on your toes and demanding your complete attention throughout.
Indeed, we have the holy grail of golf in our backyard.
The First is a 399 yard par 4 (from the Regular tees). Placement of the tee shot is critical, as the fairway dog legs right to an elevated green and the turn of the dog leg is reachable from the tee. Anything off to the right ends up in the tree line or bunkers, both of which run up the entire side and possibly block your way to the green, while the tree line on the left leaves with you a look at the green at least. The green is large, which runs off on all sides except the front, amplifying a tough shot back up to the green on mis-hit approach shots that hit the slope and bound and roll further away from the green.
The First, looking from the back of the green
The Second is a 355 yard par 4. The hole proceeds uphill with a forced carry tee shot over native scrub and a large bunker area, with the fairway ending into a hillside with a few bunkers to a blind green, which is quite large but drops off on the back side. After a bad start on the First, I hit a great second over towards the right side of the green, which happened to hit a bunker on that side. No matter, I was happy to reach the green and clear the hill, since everyone else in my group ended up in there. This was during my first time playing here.
Second shot territory
Looking back from the green
The Third is a 181 yard par 3. Scrub and mostly sand lead up to the green, which is below the tee and framed by pine trees. The green significantly moves from right to left, a lot more that it appears from the tee. I was elated watching my tee shot move towards the pin and settle within birdie range, which ignited my round. A great par 3 where hitting the green is vital, but then negotiating the green is a challenge unto itself.
This guy with an awesome tee shot, just missing the Ace
The Fourth is a 438 yard par 4. The tee shot is intimidating, as there is a substantial area of native scrub and sand that must be carried off the tee, with pine trees lining the hole on both sides and the fairway turning to the right and downhill. The fairway leads downhill to a bunkers that bisect the fairway, which longer hitters could likely reach from the tee if they’re not careful. The fairway then curls to the right a bit, still downhill to the green, with the clubhouse off to the right. I was sure this was a par 5 when I saw how far the green was on my second shot, but no, it’s just a long second shot. So a well executed tee shot and a longer second shot are necessary to get to the green in regulation and flirt with par. Of course, there are various ways to approach the hole with the accessible green and fairway leading up to it. I opted to hit short of the green on my second shot and rely on my bump and run shot to get close to the pin for a one-putt par. And that’s what I loved about the course, is that these options were available, and readily apparent by the presentation of the holes, and shots for each hole as you proceed down the fairway.
Second shot territory
Same shot, a couple months later
The Fifth is a 219 yard par 3. Recharging at the clubhouse, the tee is just outside the backdoor and presents one of the tougher if not the toughest par 3’s on the course. A forced carry over a stream to an uphill green where an array of bunkers await you on either side and severely sloping downhill on the front leaves you with the sobering thought that the green is the only place to hit your tee shot. Apparently the trees were cut back this off-season on the right side, opening up the view of the swatch of bunkers on the hillside. What I liked about the hole is that in my experience, classic longer par 3’s typically provide some sort of relief area for those that want to essentially lay up and rely on their short game while this hole remains a stern test of your acumen with the long clubs. And if your acumen is not up to snuff, then you’re ability to scramble is severely tested. But I doubt anyone is aiming for the bunkers; here there is no other option than going for broke at the green and dealing with the consequences if you don’t hit it.
The Fifth, a few months later
The Sixth is a 383 yard par 4. The fairway angles from the tee, presenting the option of how much of the hillside and bunkers you want to carry off the tee. The further right you go, the more you must take on, but the more you’re rewarded with a shorter approach to the green. The green has bunkers on either side of it, with the ones on the left being a lot deeper. The wind was a factor on this hole and I was very glad I had my caddie to advise to take 2 extra clubs into the green. Otherwise, I likely would have ended up in the deep bunkers off to the left.
Second shot territory
The Seventh is a 573 yard par 5. The first par 5 of the round also features one of the course’s most notorious hazards, “Hell’s Half Acre.” This hazard comes into play on the second shot and is essentially an enormous sand area bisecting the fairway for at least 200 yards. The hazard presents a number of problems, but mainly puts pressure on the tee shot, as you need to get into a position to carry the hazard on the second shot. Otherwise, you’ll need to punch out or use a stroke to get into position to avoid it, or try to carry it from a less than ideal lie and try to carry it. I fell into the latter category, as my tee shot pushed right into the trees. I had to use a stroke to get the ball in position put a good fairway wood on the ball to carry the hazard and get to the green in 4, happy I had a longer putt for par. The green complex was pretty tricky and anything above the hole seemed especially tough to handle. The hole is on some of the flattest land on the property, and the trees seemed to protect it from the wind, so it seemed like the green and Hell’s Half Acre were very good defenses in lieu of the terrain.
Approach shot territory
The Eighth is a 314 yard par 4. I always measure a course by how good its short par 4’s are, mainly from a personal preference, but I also find it’s one of the better ways to find out the true character of the design of the course. The hole has to be adequately defended yet remain a stern test beyond simply hiding behind sheer distance. Things like tricked up greens or excessive use of trees are lazy way out in my opinion. But a hole that provides options off the tee, various ways to the hole and emphasizes a challenge with the wedges are all great characteristics. Here, the Eighth provides a tee shot to a fairway that eventually goes downhill. The green is small and it’s apparent the test of your short game acumen is at stake, as anything above the hole is very difficult to contend with, especially back right, whereas anything short or left in the bunker leaves you with a difficult sand shot that runs the real risk of running off the opposite side. The stance you have on your approach is also an issue, based on the contours of the land. It should also be noted there is a second green for this hole, off to the left, which is more uphill than this green. I believe they switch greens every now and then because of the smaller sizes, it helps to limit the foot traffic on them. After playing both greens, the one on the left is a little more playable while losing none of the challenge. The right green is very tough and is possibly the toughest approach shot on the course.
I hit one of the better shots of my golfing career here when I played the right green. My tee shot bounded into the trees on the left, but my caddie indicated he found it. I had a shot through the trees, so with a mid iron and a downhill lie off of the native sand scrub, I was able to get it through the trees and onto the green, 10 feet from the pin for a run at birdie. That made the round for me.
The Eighth green
The green on the left
The Ninth is a 422 yard par 4. I’ll be honest; the first time I played this hole., I spent a lot of time on this hole in the trees off to the right, never once setting foot on the fairway. It was likely the triumph of the Eighth and playing a lot better than I thought I would where I came back to earth a little here so to speak. This is a longer par 4 that dog legs slightly to the right. The tee shot is a forced carry over the native scrub to a wider fairway, with bunkers smartly placed in various spots on both sides of the fairway. The green is above the fairway, with a deep bunker off to the right and a green with a lot of movement. There are two greens to this hole as well, to the left (more uphill) and to the right. I actually liked the one on the right better, mainly because it was a little more of a punchbowl effect, getting to feed the ball closer to the pin, while the green on the left was more of an uphiller.
Moving down the fairway
Off the back left of the green
The front nine was a great collection of holes, with two of my favorite par 3’s and short par 4, as well as some absolutely thrilling par 4’s, including a stellar opening hole hitting the right chord. I’d rank them 5, 8, 3, 4, 1, 2, 6, 7, 9. Beyond any single hole is the diversity and sequencing of them. For instance, the par 3 Third is a much different shot and play than the par 3 Fifth, and you have an opportunity to test both distances of par 3’s on holes before it. So it’s both the individual character of each hole and how they work together that was so impressive to me.
The back nine starts with the 142 yard par 3 Tenth. The shortest par 3 on the course and demands the accuracy of a shorter hole to properly defend itself. Another famous hazard, the Devil’s Asshole, is in front of the green and looks as hellish as its name. I heard that members engaged in club tournaments or matches will likely tee off again rather than play out of it, as it’s extremely deep and almost makes hitting out to the green impossible. The green’s top and lower tier continue to defend the hole even if you hit the green, further narrowing down the area you need to hit in order fora real chance at a birdie or par. A very well done short par 3 that does not overly rely on wind to remain challenging.
The “Devil’s Asshole”
And just to show how deep and severe it really is
Trying to capture the absolute depth of the hazard with respect to the green
A player trying his luck out of this infamous hazard
A view of the back of the green
The Eleventh is a 385 yard par 4. I sensed a bit of a change in the course at this point; a little more spread out, a lot more property covered and the trees kind of subside. Here, the fairway is wide and cants from left to right, then dog legs right. The fairway branches out, with the green more towards the right, with bunkers short of and above the green, then bunkers off to the right, below it. There’s just so many slopes to use and different ways to play the hole off the tee and the approach. It’s a great hole. After playing it a couple more times, I appreciate this hole a lot more. It sets itself apart from the other holes, mainly because of the sunken bunkers, yet maintains the challenge of needing well executed shots in order to score well.
Second shot territory, one of my favorite shots I took of the course.
From the green, looking back at the fairway
After the Eleventh, you get the halfway house. The display of golf balls is reason enough to go in, but they have everything you’d want to eat or drink as well. You pass by it after the tee shot on the Eighth as well.
The Twelfth is a 328 yard par 4. While the tee shot is a forced carry, it’s not that difficult to get over unless you top your shot. The hole dogs legs sharply to the left, so a drive as long as you can make it off to the right gives you the best angle into the green and away from the bunkers on the left. There are bunkers on either side of the green, which means getting out of one could put the other side in play. The dynamics of the green and its angle from the fairway make the tee shot almost mandatory to hit off to the right.
The Twelfth. This is the native area you must carry off the tee and shows you what you have to hit with a really bad tee shot. No I didn’t hit here; you walk through here to get to the fairway!
A look at the green
Looking back at the Twelfth from the Thirteenth tee
The Thirteenth is a 442 yard par 4. The fairway cants from right to left after another forced carry off the tee. The fairway keeps descending and as you proceed down the fairway, more and more hazards reveal themselves, reminding me very much of Alistair MacKenzie’s design at Pasatiempo. The second shot is at the top of a bluff looking over the fairway as it sweeps left to the green. There’s lots of room off to the right to play with how you’d like to approach the green as well, which amplifies the variety of the hole.
The Thirteenth, from the left tees
Moving down the fairway
Further down, with the green off to the left after the bunkers
Looking back from the green
The Fourteenth is a 187 yard par 3. The last par 3 is a drop shot, over bushes, water and bunkers to get to the green. If there’s a place you want to miss off green, it would be the right side where the bunker area is. The green is fairly flat, a reward for hitting the green. The one surprise about the hole was how you could find your ball even if you hit it into the trees (although there is a drop area closer to the water).
A few months later
A view of the water from the left side of the green
The Fifteenth is a 574 yard par 5. The par 5 on the back nine is the tougher one, with the biggest forced carry over water on the course and a fairway that gets narrower and increases its slope from left to right the closer you get to the green. The green is above the fairway and bunkers line both sides of the fairway starting at about 130 yards out. Most shots will be below your feet, increasing its difficulty. I had another never before shot here, as I hit out of a bunker to 2 feet from about 100 yards out. I think you need to elevate your game just to keep your score respectable, as that shot was actually just to save bogey.
A few months later
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Hazards awaiting on the right side
Looking back from the green
The Sixteenth is a 434 yard par 4. A forced carry over a sand area to a green that angles and runs from left to right leaves you with the option of trying to take off as much as you ant to leave yourself with a shorter shot to the green, while the left side of the fairway also gives you a better angle to the green, which is tucked off to the left of the fairway and water along the right. The green is immense and runs towards the water. Indeed, I saw one of my group’s chips run from the left side, all the way down, and into the water, which terrified me as I had the same chip. Yet another all works par 4 where both shots are strategic and countless options around the green.
Approach shot territory
The Seventeenth is a 339 yard par 4. I’ll just say that the Seventeenth and Eighteenth are probably my favorite closing holes in golf and are the perfect combination of challenge, inspiration and redemption that leave you with all the right feelings when the last putt drops. The tee shot features sand area, mainly climbing up and dominating the right side of the fairway, but ends into fairway even though you can’t see it from the tee. The fairway climbs uphill and the green is perched above it, with another sand area surrounding the green and bunkers on the far side. The hole is short enough that you have options off the tee to optimize your preferred tee shot.
Looking back at the hole from the green
The Eighteenth is a 425 yard par 4. A great view of the hole from the elevated tee and a wide fairway welcome your first shot on the last hole, providing you the opportunity to set yourself up for a tough approach shot over the road, over water and over a hill of bunkers to the green. When I look at my photo of the bunkers in front of the green, it’s apparent that additional bunkers have put in, which I think adds to its challenge and presentation. After hitting the trees on the left with my the shot and ending up in the front sand area, I hit my second shot to the end of the fairway, then with the ball way below my feet, got it to 15 feet from the pin. With an uphill putt for par, the ball had the line and was rolling in, until it stopped one revolution short. But as I walked off that green, I felt a unique appreciation of the game, felt like I learned about myself as a golfer and as I battled back from playing some holes terribly, felt the experience fortified my golf aptitude.
From the tips
A look at the fairway from the Tenth tee area
The upcoming hill with bunkers, fronted by water, that must be carried to reach the green
The water and hill of bunkers protecting the green
The back nine was yet another collection of all world holes, with excellent par 3’s, a diverse character of par 4’s and a challenging par 5 that used the terrain in a few different ways that most of the holes in great form. I’d rank them 18, 17, 14, 15, 10, 13, 16, 11, 12.
In general, I consider playing Pine Valley the pinnacle of my golf experiences. While I was certainly aware of the praise, accolades and rankings bestowed upon it, I was still surprised how good the course was. The variety, challenge, relentless in its charm, focus and intrigue, chances for recovery from almost any where, the visuals – – it’s simply a legendary design and routing on ideal terrain. Beyond the design, the club is free of pretentiousness, instead deriving its charisma from a simple, comfortable and familiar ambience full of history and tradition. After the round, we had lunch, hit the pro shop and said our goodbyes. At that point, the clubhouse was empty so I took a seat and spent the last few minutes taking in where I was. Drained from the battle of the round, I just sat there thinking of all the people that have walked through before, including some of the most well-known names in golf, and was fully and completely content. A great place to enjoy the game we all love.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE
I was extremely fortunate to get invited for a couple more rounds here. It was even better than my first time here. Getting to play the course a couple more times meant I learned more about it, learned the best ways to attack some of the pins and learned that some holes had my number no matter what I do (ahem, 15). My scores were pretty consistent, but my last nine was definitely the lowest, which tells me I just need a few more rounds to get dialed in!
I’ll add photos and any new thoughts into the review above. For me, its by far my favorite course. The variety, character, challenge, the sheer brilliance of the design that makes you hit some of the more memorable shots you’ve ever hit; it epitomizes what you want from a course and what you want from a golf round.
This time there were other people there and we stayed at the Annex, which is a building next to the clubhouse. Everyone had their own room, but there was a shared bathroom and we used the clubhouse for television, drinks, etc. Hanging out on the patio with drinks and cigars, talking over the round with yet another to go was one of the highlights of the summer. The dinner was fantastic and there was a breakfast buffet in the morning.
And again, everyone who works here is a big part of what makes this place so special. I was struggling on the Fourth and let’s just say my ball was over near a parking lot. I ended up punching out to within 8 feet of the hole. After we finished up and were walking to the Fifth, one of the guys came out of the pro shop and asked who hit the punch shot. Everyone pointed to me and he said it was the best shot he ever saw from over there. He didn’t include it was probably the ONLY shot he saw from that area, but it got me back to a good place for the stoic Fifth tee shot. There were a lot of stories like that, very interactive and personable staff that kept the memories coming.
It is difficult for me to adequately describe the experience here. It’s even more difficult to convey without seeming superfluous. Someone else wrote that passing through the gates, one gets the feeling of achieving a physical and spiritual wholeness. I’d agree with this. It’s simply golf nirvana, epitomizing all that is pure and true in golf.