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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, lies a golfing gem that has long attracted superlatives – the Pine Valley Golf Club. Continually judged as the finest course in the world, Pine Valley is a testament to the possibilities of awe-inspiring and enduring design. Pine Valley is considered as the first course 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.

The unique layout, crafted by George Crump, after consultation with some of the world’s foremost course architects and experts on sandy terrain, blends all three schools of golf design—penal, heroic, and strategic—often times on a single hole. The course’s beauty is rugged and fearsome, its challenges diverse and demanding, and its history rich and evolving.

From its recent decision to admit women members after 108 years, to its reputation for having the finest collection of one-shot holes, two-shotters, and three-shotters, Pine Valley is a course that never ceases to intrigue and inspire.

In this post, we’ll delve into the intricacies of Pine Valley, exploring its storied history and the unique challenges it presents to those lucky enough to play there. We’ll take a closer look at some of its most famous holes, and discuss why it’s often considered the ultimate thinking man’s course.

Obviously the imagery in this post is simulated and just to set the context. It has been hard to find video of the course with embedding enabled so you will need to go to YouTube for the hole by hole analysis. I’ll also link my favorite video from Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a match between Byron Nelson and Gene Littler. Poor Gene saw more of the course than he bargained for that day.

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George Crump and Pine Valley’s Origins

George Arthur Crump Jr., born on September 24, 1871, was a hotelier and golf course architect primarily known for designing and building Pine Valley Golf Club. Crump, along with A.W. Tillinghast, George C. Thomas, Jr., Hugh Wilson, William Flynn, and William Fownes, made up the “Philadelphia School” of golf course architecture. Together, the group designed over 300 courses. Crump’s 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 was founded in 1913 by a group of amateur golfers from Philadelphia. They purchased 184 acres of rolling, sandy ground deep in the pinelands of southern New Jersey, and gave George Crump, who knew the area from hunting expeditions, the opportunity to design the course. The course was built at a time when many golf courses were still constructed with minimal earth moving, leading some to dub the project “Crump’s Folly”. Despite the skepticism, Pine Valley was considered the most difficult golf course in the world at the time of its opening.

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Crump’s Vision

Crump’s vision for Pine Valley was born out of a belief that the golf courses in his home city of Philadelphia were not challenging enough. He sought to create a course that would 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. Golfers had to carefully calculate their shots, taking into account the wind, terrain, and potential hazards. The course’s length, exceeding 7,000 yards, posed a formidable test of distance control and accuracy.

Crump’s dedication to Pine Valley was unwavering. He lived on the grounds during its construction and played a significant role in saving the club from financial challenges. Despite years of cost overruns and construction issues, Crump spent more than $250,000 of his own money to support the club, with no expectation of reimbursement. 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. These holes were completed after his death, and since then, alterations have been made by several other leading golf course designers.

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History

Following the completion of Pine Valley Golf Club’s original design, the course officially opened in 1919. It 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 before anyone could complete a round in 70 strokes. This early period set the tone for Pine Valley’s enduring legacy as a golfing challenge that tests the skills of even the most accomplished players.

In the years that followed, Pine Valley Golf Club continued to evolve. The club expanded 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 kind of golfing 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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The Course

Pine Valley s renowned for its challenging nature, demanding precision and punishing poor shots.The natural terrain of Pine Valley is one of its defining characteristics. The sandy soil and natural landforms make it an ideal golfing terrain. The course is set amidst a variety of mature trees, providing a scenic backdrop.

The course layout is a blend of long and short holes, making it a thinking man’s course that rewards strategy over power. Each hole is distinct and memorable, offering a variety of challenges and requiring constant attention to detail. For instance, the par-4 11th hole is considered the most natural golf hole on the course, with a green structure that was left untouched and slopes severely back to front.

The 1st hole is a 425-yard challenge that demands clear thinking right from the start. The green starts as an extension of the fairway and ends as a peninsula with sharp drops, making it a formidable test. The design for the 5th hole, a 230-yard one-shotter, was suggested by Harry Colt, moving the green 60 yards further up the hill. The 486 yard par-4 13th hole is also highly regarded, with some golfers considering it the best hole on the course, others have stated it’s the best par-4 they have ever played.

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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.

The hole is characterized by a deep bunker that cuts into the green on the left, making it a formidable obstacle for golfers. The only escape from this bunker is to play backwards and the “nickname” reflects the daunting challenge that this hole presents. The 10th hole’s reputation for toughness has led to it being featured in various golf publications and even in artwork. On the “Shell” broadcast, they featured the hole but referred to it as “The Devil’s Hole.” The humor in that was lost on me until now.

Pine Valley is also known for its world-class conditioning, with firm fast fairways and true greens. The green complexes are all unique, with a mix of postage stamp greens and fairly large green surfaces. The course also offers four sets of tees, providing a variety of distances to play from according to a player’s handicap.

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Pine Valley Today

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

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 in its history. 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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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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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.


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