Monday, June 15, 2015

What Makes Pine Valley Pine Valley?

You know you're having a good summer when it includes an early invitation to play Pine Valley! I am blessed to live an hour away.

Perennially ranked as the #1 golf course in the world, Pine Valley has it all. While many courses have some or many of the elements outlined below, none have the distinct combination of them all.  After being exceptionally lucky to have played the best golf the world has to offer and after my return visit and a period of reflection, below are my thoughts on what makes Pine Valley Pine Valley. Eighteen reasons (one for each hole); but it's the 19th reason that gives away the true secret:

Pine Valley Tea House near #8
Pine Valley's half-way house between the 8th fairway and 12th tee

1.       A visionary founder – George A. Crump, an affluent, low-handicap Philadelphia hotelier and sportsman, who had toured the British Isles and played its great courses before envisioning Pine Valley.

2.       The routing – It’s elegant, unforced and unparalleled. A subtle (yet difficult) use of water as a hazard enhances the design. Crump abhorred “parallelism” and it shows. 

3.       Pedigree – While clearly Crump’s vision, the list of those he consulted and who had a hand or influence over the course is a who’s who of the Golden Age of architecture’s greats: Hugh Wilson, C.H. Alison, Alister Mackenzie, George Thomas, C.B. Macdonald, Robert Hunter, H.S. Colt, Donald Ross and Perry Maxwell. Too many cooks didn’t spoil this stew.

4.       It’s unorthodox approach – There are expansive waste areas, no rakes, and no yardage markers. Quite the opposite of the typical course today’s professionals’ play, where you hear howls of protest if every lie isn’t perfect.

5.       Perfect fairways – Land on the fairway and the unorthodox approach ends. The fairways are manicured to perfection.

6.       The greens – A significant part of Pine Valley’s difficulty emanates from the greens. The fairways are in fact wide, but hitting and holding the greens are the real challenge in Clementon. And they are among the best conditioned on the planet (honorable mention to Winged Foot, Augusta and Carnoustie).

7.       Privacy – It is largely true, you don’t see other golfers or holes most of the time you are playing because of the pine trees and the routing.  And you really are cut off from the outside world. Especially notable in this regard is the 13th-hole and its splendid isolation.

8.       Forced carries – Off almost every tee!

9.       The difficulty – Par of 70, rating of 75.2 and a slope of 155 from the 7,009-yard tips. The course deserves its fierce reputation. Okay, you're not a big-hitter so you play the white tees. Sorry, it doesn't get much easier at 6,532 yards, the slope rating only goes down to 153.

10.The risk/reward options available – There is always a shorter carry available off the tee for the safer player. And an aggressive line available for the tiger. The issue is missing your intended line. The penalty isn’t small. It’s like stepping on a land mine.

11. The mix of long and short holes – With a par four of 320 yards and a par three of 145 yards, the course doesn’t overwhelm the golfer like other difficult courses such as Oakmont and Bethpage Black. In fact, the course is deceptive in that you often think it shouldn’t be that hard if you play it properly. It is the ultimate thinking man’s course that rewards brains over brawn.

12. The intangibles – The hidden location, the mystique, the little town hall and their own police department, the legendary stories, the snapper soup, the sherry on every table, the coleslaw, the discrete valet car parking, the wet towels on a hot day, the enforced no cellphone policy, the understated clubhouse, the overnight cabins, the quirky halfway house, the short course, the pro shop, their esteem for amateur golf, the speed of play, the Crump Cup…

13. The driving range – Among the best in the world, although calling it a driving range is an insult. It is a multi-faceted practice area that has everything you need to warm-up for the stern test to come.

14. The members – Low handicappers and gentleman. Their selection process somehow weeds out what many clubs miss, douches who are overly impressed with themselves because they are good at golf. Pine Valley just has good golfers who love the game. You can feel the reverence for the game while on property. Bravo.

15. The caddies – The Navy Seals of the caddie corps.

16. The natural terrain - The sandy soil makes this ideal golfing terrain, as does the natural land-forms and elevation changes. Unlike many esteemed golf courses Pine Valley achieves greatness without awe-inspiring views of the water. It does so purely on merit and not on beauty, (the course's beauty is rugged and fearsome) or based on memorable shots that professionals have hit during tournaments.

17. It has no weak holes – How many other golf courses can you say honestly that about? Bobby Jones said it best when referring to Pine Valley, “…I do remember every unusual hole, and I can tell you that I will remember every hole on that course.”

18. It’s longevity – Who many other courses have stood the test of time and are almost unchanged from their inception? It is a testament to the quality of the effort.

19. It’s in New Jersey - When people talk about great golf regions they mention “Philadelphia.” You do fly into the City of Brotherly Love to play Pine Valley, but it is in the Garden State indeed

6th hole from tee-2

The par-4 sixth hole from the tee

#12 green

The approach to the short par-4 12th green

13 green complex

The approach the difficult par-4 13th green

15 from tee

The difficult par-5 15th hole. The entire hole tilts from left to right, and notice how it gets progressively narrower as it approaches the green, which plays up-hill and has a false front

When traveling around and experiencing different clubs and their traditions, several common threads appear, and there are certain clubs others like to emulate. You hear often about Augusta, obviously, since they have such great traditions. The other course I have heard about often is Pine Valley: "Our course is like Pine Valley... you can’t see other golfers out on the course, it’s like Pine Valley…the clubhouse is very understated…it’s like Pine Valley…the club is trying to replicate the feel of…Pine Valley…the waste areas are like…Pine Valley..." You get the idea. But there is only one Pine Valley.

My favorite hole on the course is the second. It is the quintessential Pine Valley hole with a forced carry over a waste area to a generous fairway, although one hemmed in by trees. The second shot is UPHILL to a green that is accurately described as challenging. Hit good shots and you are rewarded. Be a little loose and a snowman isn't far off. I'm also a fan of the par-4 12th hole, which is only 327 yards but is the only true dog-leg left on the course (the 13th is also a dogleg left, although does not bend as sharply at #12) and is an understated but challenging hole since the green is narrow and set at an angle to the fairway. I also like seventeen with a fairway set at an angle to the waste area, and another hole which has an uphill (and blind) shot to the green.

P.S. and good news – the pro shop now takes credit cards, with one exception. It seems like the bean counters in corporate home offices are wary of two things being charged to corporate cards: visits to strip clubs and loading up on logoed merchandise at Pine Valley, thus the club only takes personal credit cards and no corporate cards.

For my original write-up of Pine Valley: click here