There is the good life. Then there is the very good life. A few weeks ago I had the great fortune to experience the latter, over one, surely never to be repeated, long weekend: three tee times at three bona fide golf shrines in four days. From right to left on your Google map of Southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania, my pilgrimage looked like this: Thursday: Pine Valley, Friday: Merion, Saturday: drive and rest, Sunday: Oakmont. Here’s how it unfolded.
STOP 1: PINE VALLEY (N.J.) GOLF CLUB
Just as directions to Augusta National might raise eyebrows (“Head past the Hooters and several strip malls until you see the large water tower…”), you might be surprised to hear that the nearest major landmark to Pine Valley is Splash World, complete with loop-de-loop water slides. Just beyond the waterpark, you continue down East Atlantic Avenue to a gravel parking by a train line. A small “members only” sign on your right marks the club entrance.
Intruders, good luck getting any further. Rumor is that of the 12 full-time residents, seven are police officers, the better to keep out unwanted guests. Even if you somehow get past the guard shack, you must traverse a long, winding road before finally crossing a stream and pulling up to the understated clubhouse.
Anyone expecting lavish displays of old money at Pine Valley is at the wrong golf club. There are no polished monuments. No fountains. No gaudy branding trumpeting that you’ve arrived at the world’s best course, according to the latest Golf Magazine ranking.
Like the clubhouse at its equally demure West Coast soul mate, Cypress Point, Pine Valley’s facilities are unfussy. Seven tables fill the dining room, where the snapper (turtle) soup is the signature dish. A wall is lined with a list of winners of various amateur tournaments, including the Crump Cup, the one event each year during which the club welcomes in the curious public as spectators. You’ll also find the names of course record-holders.
Among the names on the Pine Valley Wall of Honor: World Golf Hall of Famer Craig Wood, 1983 U.S. Amateur winner Jay Sigel, two-time U.S. Senior Amateur champ Gordon Brewer, amateur legend Buddy Marucci, sports agent and serious stick Vinny Giles, former PGA rules official David Eger and 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur winner Michael McCoy, who recently tied the course record of 64.
The upstairs locker room has metal lockers, which look like they were ripped out of a 50s-era high school gym. Large fans circulate air through the cramped facility. A friendly attendant immediately greets you by name.
The “Pine Valley” name is not posted on any facility building or tee box. Whether you’re there as a member or guest, you don’t need reminders as to where you are. No hole signs. No posted yardages. No directional aids. Course queries are answered by members and caddies.
Most striking about the George Crump design is the variety of holes. Many of the opening holes feel tight and tree-lined like a New England course. Others, including the famous Hells Half Acre par-4 7th, are dominated by huge bunkers and appear more suited to Cabo San Lucas or perhaps Kiawah Island where the ocean pushes up huge quantities of sand.
On the back nine, more surprises, including a lake, where members have fished for decades, and dramatic elevation changes from tee to green, most notably at the par-3 14th, which feels like it was out from a Rocky Mountain layout. The par-4 18th has a large trench in front of the green, bunkers guarding the putting surface and a short walk back to the clubhouse for drinks at the understated bar.
Pine Valley has close to 40 private homes tucked away on the course for longtime members. There’s also a two-story dormitory for guests and out-of-town members.
The simple pro shop (noticing a trend here?) is a must-visit, if only to prove to your pals that you mounted one of the game’s grandest peaks. Browsing through the shirts, sweaters and hats, you’re struck by one more unique Pine Valley feature: no prices, on anything.
So you push a small pile of cash toward the register and wait to hear the total. Not that the cost matters, because the whole Pine Valley experience is priceless.
STOP 2: MERION GOLF CLUB, Ardmore, Pa.
Distance from Pine Valley: 40 miles
It's just an hour’s drive from the relative wilderness of Pine Valley in southern New Jersey over the Delaware River to the upscale Philadelphia suburb that is home to Merion Golf Club. But, if you make the trip, be sure and build in time for a pit stop at Pat’s or Geno’s, the warring cheesesteak institutions, in Philly proper.
Unlike Pine Valley, which is ringed by fences and secrecy, Merion is fully exposed in the middle of a neighborhood, with the course bisected by a busy city street. During the 2013 U.S. Open, some of the large houses adjacent to the course served as player and client hospitality centers. On some of the back-nine holes, trains zip by.
Playing golf at this five-time Open site, where Bobby Jones closed out his 1930 Grand Slam bid on the par-4 11th hole and Hogan hit his fabled 1-iron at the ’53 Open, is like taking a walking history lesson. Especially when you peg it with club historian John Capers.
Capers, whose mother was a multiple-time club champion, has been at Merion for decades. Upstairs in the white clapboard clubhouse-turned-museum, he has a super-cool office chock full of artifacts. One of his best stories is about the two days he spent with Phil Mickelson. Before the '13 U.S. Open, he and Phil walked and talked, surveying seemingly every inch of the course. About the only question Lefty didn’t ask, Capers says, was how various pin placements affect club selection the short par-3 13th -- you guessed it, the same hole where in the final round Mickelson flew the green with a pitching wedge and made bogey, dooming him to his sixth runner-up Open finish.
The 13th is also the same hole where Hogan, nursing a string of bogeys and sore legs, tried to withdraw during the final round of the ’53 Open. His local steelworker-caddie called Hogan a quitter, then told his man that he’d be waiting for him on the next tee box. Hogan dutifully followed.
A small cement plaque in the 18th fairway marks the spot where Hogan and photographer Hy Peskin collaborated to produce perhaps the most iconic snapshot in golf history. It’s staggering to see how far past the mark today’s players bomb their shots.
Less known is that in the 18-hole playoff the next day, Hogan hit the same shot from roughly the same spot. A photographer also captured this moment, but the crowd during the playoff was half the size, so the image didn’t resonate like the one snapped a day earlier. (If you get to Merion, be sure to check out both pics.)
The club also has replicas of all four of Jones’s Grand Slam trophies, including the mammoth U.S. Amateur trophy he won at Merion. There are photos and scorecards from every national championship player here, and Capers has plenty of the signature Merion wicker-baskets flagsticks displayed in his office in various degrees of disrepair.
If history makes you hungry, you’re in luck. The grill serves up a cheesesteak sandwich that should not be missed.
You have room for one more, right?
STOP 3: OAKMONT (PA.) COUNTRY CLUB
Distance from Merion: 298 miles
The drive from Merion to Oakmont is long (nearly five hours) but you won't get lost. You can take the Pennsylvania Turnpike just about all the way, from the flatlands of Philadelphia to the rolling hills of Pittsburgh.
Once the home of countless steel mills, not to mention legendary golfers like Arnold Palmer and football legends such as Tony Dorsett and Joe Namath, the Pittsburgh area still has a hard edge, but with more of a high-tech business vibe. The newly renovated and opened Hulton Bridge leads you to the small, unguarded gate for Oakmont Country Club.
This year’s U.S. Open site has hosted more national amateur and professional golf championships than any course in America. Among the highlights: S. Davison Herron’s U.S. Amateur win in 1919, the original Tommy Armour’s U.S. Open victory in 1927, the epic Jack Nicklaus takedown of Palmer in 1962 in the King’s backyard, and Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 in the ’73 Open.
Oakmont has long been known as one of the toughest, meanest, furrow-raked, Church Pew-bunkered, Stimp-ed out layouts in the country. Angel Cabrera won the 2007 U.S. Open here with a score of five over par.
The sprawling white clubhouse with a distinctive green and white awning out back is jammed full of golf history, including the original winning scorecard of Tommy Armour from the ’27 Open and a replica U.S. Open trophy with Jordan Spieth’s name etched on the bottom line.
The Pro’s Cabin, a surprisingly plush four-bedroom pad, is positioned just right of the 18th hole. The house is typically occupied by out-of-towners on site for a 36- or 54-hole and for some lucky there during Open week this June there will be no better place to bunk.
One of the most interesting and oft-cited nuggets of Oakmont trivia comes by way of the Oakmont staffers who know the place best: its caddies. Walking past the massive Church Pews bunker to the left of the fairway on the par-4 3rd, a couple of the caddies confirmed that the USGA slows down the green speeds for the Open.
“There’s no way the Open could have green speeds like the members have them here,” said one of them, a 12-year Oakmont veteran. “It could get ugly.”
Maybe so. But on this unforgettable golf expedition, Oakmont made for a beautiful closing act.