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Pine Valley: The Story Behind Golf’s Most Elusive Gem

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Nestled in the pine barrens of southwest New Jersey, just 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia, the Pine Valley Golf Club is consistently ranked among the finest courses in the world, currently ranked #1 by all major publications. It is also considered the first in the US to adopt a naturalist approach to course design, fitting the course to the terrain, like the great links courses of Great Britain. Pine Valley blends all three schools of golf design—penal, heroic, and strategic—oftentimes on a single hole (see the 18th). The course’s beauty is rugged and fearsome, its challenges diverse and demanding, and its history rich and evolving.

The unique layout was crafted by hotelier George Crump, his first and only design. He made it his life’s work, consulting with some of the era’s foremost course architects and traveling throughout Europe to study world-famous designs.

Crump held Pine Valley to a defined set of principles: no hole should be laid out parallel to the next; no more than two consecutive holes should play in the same direction, and players should not be able to see any hole other than the one they were playing. Crump also felt that a round of golf on his course should require a player to use every club in the bag.

In this post, we’ll learn the story of Pine Valley, exploring its origins, history, and the unique challenges it presents to those lucky enough to play there. We’ll also take a closer look at the first episode of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, filmed at Pine Valley, and some of its most famous holes. Finally, I suggest some further reading and link a few videos to help bring the course to life.

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Origins of Pine Valley

George Arthur Crump Jr. (1871-1918) was a successful hotelier from New Jersey who held memberships at Philadelphia Country Club, St. David’s, Torresdale, Huntingdon Valley Country Club, and Atlantic City Country Club. His journey to create Pine Valley began in 1910 when he and his friend Joseph Baker embarked on a European trip to play and study the best golf courses. Their itinerary included rounds at St Andrews, Prestwick, Turnberry, Hoylake, Sandwich, Deal, Prince’s, Sunningdale, Walton Heath, and Swinley Forest, as well as courses in France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy.

Pine Valley Golf Club was founded in 1913 by a group of amateur golfers from Philadelphia who purchased 184 acres of rolling, sandy ground deep in the pinelands of southern New Jersey. The group gave Crump, who knew the area from hunting expeditions, the opportunity to design the course. The site proved challenging, and the project became an obsession for Crump, who sold his hotel in Philadelphia and put his money into the course.

Crump paid Harry Colt as an advisor, and he provided the initial routing plan for the course. George Thomas, William Flynn, Charles Blair Macdonald, Walter Travis, Robert Hunter, A.W. Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, William Fownes, Charles Alison, and Perry Maxwell all visited Pine Valley during construction and provided input that Crump incorporated into the design.

Marshlands had to be drained, and 22,000 tree stumps had to be pulled with special steam winches and horse-drawn cables. This was all done when many golf courses were still built with minimal earth moving, and the course was called “Crump’s Folly” by some. After years of cost overruns and construction issues, Crump spent over $250,000 to support the club with no expectation of reimbursement.

Crump’s vision for Pine Valley was born from a belief that the golf courses in his home city of Philadelphia needed to be more challenging. He sought to create a course to test even the most skilled golfers. The course’s design was groundbreaking, with each hole presenting a unique set of challenges, varying distances, and elevation changes.

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Crump’s dedication to Pine Valley was unwavering. He lived on the grounds during its construction and significantly saved the club from financial challenges. Tragically, Crump died on January 24, 1918, before the completion of the course. At the time of his death, four holes—12 through 15—were incomplete and Hugh Wilson and his brother Alan finished routing them after Crump’s death.

History

Pine Valley Golf Club officially opened in 1919 and quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most challenging and well-designed courses in the world. The course’s difficulty was such that it took three years for someone to break 70. This early period set the tone for Pine Valley’s reputation as one of the most difficult courses in the world. The course exceeded 7,000 yards which was long for the time, and posed a formidable test of distance control and accuracy.

Pine Valley Golf Club continued to evolve, expanding its land holdings to 623 acres, with a significant portion remaining untouched woodland, preserving the natural beauty and rugged terrain that contribute to the course’s character. The club also added a ten-hole short course designed by Tom Fazio and Ernest Ransome III, offering a different experience while maintaining the high standards of the main course.

Pine Valley’s exclusivity and commitment to maintaining the integrity of the game have been hallmarks of its history. It has remained a private club, accessible only to members and their guests, which has helped to preserve the course’s mystique and allure.

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Did You Know?

The first match filmed for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was held at Pine Valley in 1962. Writing in his memoir “My Mulligan to Golf,” the show’s producer, Fred Raphael, tells the story of the early days of the show, where an inexperienced crew, many of whom had little to no knowledge of the game, set out to revolutionize the way the game was packaged for television. Eventually, it was a huge success and one of the game’s treasures, but things got off to a rocky start.

Lee Goodman was the director and described his vision for filming the game based on his previous work with Sam Snead. When finally questioned about the match where he had filmed Snead, Goodman replied, “What do you mean match? It was an Alka Seltzer commercial!” The staff was initially unimpressed with Pine Valley and needed help understanding how this seemingly random collection of sand, water, and small fairways was a prestigious course. They thought it was a joke.

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After securing approval and meeting the demands of the Club’s President, John Arthur Brown, the match was set and would feature Byron Nelson and Gene Littler. Gene Sarazen would be on hand as commentator, with George Rogers as the show’s host, a duo that would define the show’s early years. They were joined by Brown, who served as the match official and was shown throughout touring the grounds with Sarazen.

Nelson had the honor on the first tee and hit the preferred left side of the fairway, opening up the approach to the green. However, legend has it that the cameraman jumped down from his tower, grabbed the ball, and threw it back, shouting, “Ask him to hit it again; we missed it!” At the conclusion of the match, the crew realized they did not have enough footage and had to make a return trip to the course for more filming. They even filmed balls rolling down the fairway to fill gaps in the footage. There was nowhere to go but up!

Unfortunately, I cannot embed the show’s video, but it can be found in all of its glory on the YouTube channel of the PGA Tour. Poor Gene saw more of the course than he bargained for that day, and even though the match took place over sixty years ago, it provides a look at Pine Valley that doesn’t get old. I purchased this episode, as well as the Sarazen vs. Cotton match from St. Andrews on VHS in the late 90s, as I wanted to experience those courses. At the time, I had yet to learn that Pine Valley was the first and was equally ignorant of the match’s colorful backstory!

The Course

Pine Valley plays to a par of 70 at 7,200 yards and demands precision. The course punishes poor decisions and is unforgiving of wayward shots. Set amidst a scenic backdrop of mature pines that frame the fairways, the course blends seamlessly with the natural terrain. Its defining characteristic is its large waste areas, made up of rugged sandy soil and natural landforms, serving as hazards. Each hole is distinct and memorable, offering a variety of challenges, making it a thinking man’s course that rewards strategy over power.

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The first hole is a 425-yard challenge that demands clear thinking. The green starts as an extension of the fairway and ends as a peninsula with sharp drops, making it a formidable test. Harry Colt suggested the design for the fifth, a 230-yard one-shotter, moving the green 60 yards further up the hill.

The “Devil’s Asshole” or “DA” is a nickname for the par-3 10th hole, often considered one of the most challenging in golf. It measures 161 yards and is the shortest hole on the course. Despite its length, it presents a significant challenge due to its layout and the surrounding hazards. Characterized by a deep bunker that cuts into the green on the left, the only escape from this bunker is to play backward, and the “nickname” reflects the daunting challenge that this hole presents. On the “Shell” broadcast, they featured the hole but called it “The Devil’s Hole.” The humor in that was lost on me until now.

The par-4 11th hole is considered the most natural on the course, with a green structure left untouched, sloping severely back to front. Many consider the 486-yard par-4 13th hole the best hole on the course, with Bobby Jones calling it “the best par-4 in the world.” Requiring a dramatic approach to an elevated green, the hole was part of Crump’s initial vision but was completed by Hugh Wilson after Crump’s passing.

The 14th is a long, downhill par-3, followed by a 615-yard par-5 that gets progressively narrower the closer you get to the green. This leads into a stretch of three closing two-shot holes, two of which are over 470 yards long, with the short par-4 penultimate hole offering a “respite” at 345 yards. The 483-yard home hole plays from an elevated tee over the familiar sandy waste. The approach is played to an elevated green protected in the front by ragged-faced bunkers, making the final approach to a massive green, one last heroic forced carry.

Pine Valley Today

Pine Valley Golf Club continues to be a significant presence in the golf world today. In 2023, it was once again ranked as the No. 1 golf course in America by Golf Digest. The course is also listed on the 11 most challenging tee times in America and the 11 toughest tee times in the world (golf.com must be out of ideas) lists.

In recent years, Pine Valley has made significant strides towards inclusivity. In 2021, the club changed its membership bylaws to admit women for the first time. This was a historic move for the club, which had been a men-only private enclave since its founding in 1913. The first female members included LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam and accomplished amateur golfers Sarah Ingram and Meghan Stasi.

Looking ahead, Pine Valley Golf Club is set to host the 2034 Curtis Cup, an elite competition for women amateur golfers. This will be a significant event, as it will be only the third time in the club’s history that it has hosted an elite competition. The hosting of the Curtis Cup is particularly noteworthy given the club’s long history and recent strides towards gender inclusivity.

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PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and the confidence they instill in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, as is Pine Valley!

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Further Reading

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Pine Valley: 100 Years of Mystery At the World’s Number One Golf Course 
by J.E. Souders

Summary: Pine Valley: 100 Years of Mystery At the World’s Number One Golf Course” by J.E. Souders is a deep dive into the enigmatic world of Pine Valley Golf Club, a course that has consistently been ranked as the top golf course in the United States. Souders, a local author who grew up in Camden, New Jersey, the same city where Pine Valley architect George Crump spent most of his life, was inspired to write a fact-filled book about the course after initially being tapped to pen a small story about it.

The book explores the history of Pine Valley, its unique land, and the people and events surrounding the course. Despite some criticism for being self-published and lacking new information about the golf course or its history, the book is praised for its extensive research and intriguing insights into the mystery and allure of Pine Valley.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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My Mulligan to Golf: The Hilarious Story of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf & the Beginning of the Senior Tour
by Fred Raphael

Summary: Fred Raphael was the producer and director of the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf Series from 1960 to 1970, and this book reveals his experiences in that role. The book also tells the story of how the Senior Tour, now called the Champions Tour, was born with Fred’s creation of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament.

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Anatomy of a Golf Course
by Tom Doak

Summary: The book explains the thought process and strategies used by golf course architects in designing courses, including factors like hole length, placement of hazards, and routing. It aims to help golfers understand why certain design choices are made so they can better approach playing the course. Written by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak, it appeals to both knowledgeable golfers and beginners interested in course design and architecture. The book also includes an appendix with examples of noteworthy golf courses that are worth studying.


Videos

Pine Valley Golf Club
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Playing the Course

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