After a 14-year absence, my return to golf's pinnacle -- Pine Valley -- reaffirms its greatness

After a 14-year absence, my return to golf’s pinnacle — Pine Valley — reaffirms its greatness

1. Pine Valley Pine Valley, N.J.More Top 100 Courses in the U.S.: 100-76 75-5150-2625-1 More Top 100 Courses in the World: 100-76 75-5150-2625-1
Larry Lambrecht

Before my visit this past week, I hadn't been to Pine Valley in 14 years. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back.

With my increasingly fragile golf game, my ego was certain to be battered. Did I really want that? No course more fairly, but ruthlessly, exposes weaknesses in one's arsenal of skills than Pine Valley. Yet no course so perfectly offers the parade of rewards available for superior ballstriking. At round's end, I was bloodied, but not beaten. Just the thrill of reexamining Pine Valley's matchless holes was enough to sustain me as my score mounted.

There's no secret as to why Pine Valley has been ranked No. 1 in the World by GOLF Magazine since 1985. As architect Tom Doak once expressed, "Deep down, it's still golf's most awesome experience, a shining example of golf architecture in the raw so that even the color-blind can understand it. The course possesses more truly outstanding holes than any other I've seen."

So, there's the rub. It doesn't fit Alister MacKenzie's definition of an "ideal" course, because honestly, it's not suited for lesser golfers. There's simply too much trouble and too many forced carries for all to enjoy, let alone finish.

So be it.

It's not meant to be for everybody. Doak is right. If you can carry a ball 150 yards in the air, there is no better experience in golf.

For those who that haven't had the pleasure, very private Pine Valley is situated 45 minutes southeast of central Philadelphia, in New Jersey. You enter the grounds via a modest lane that begins at an intersection that houses a bank on one corner, an amusement park on the other. Perfect. You can bet your last dollar that Pine Valley will yield the wildest golf ride of your life.

Uniquely beautiful and brutal, the No. 1-ranked course in the world serves up multiple forced carries on holes that hopscotch from one island of turf to the next. It's an unforgettable gallop through trees, sand and scrub. Hit it crooked and freakishly hard recoveries await, but make no mistake, you'll get that opportunity, because the superb caddies are remarkably adept at locating your errant shots. Some say wading into the scrub is half the fun. Not me.

Even though it had been 14 years, I hadn't forgotten these individual holes. Once you've played them, they're burned into your brain for life. However, here are my five other perceptions I took away from this visit:

5. Pine Valley's Short course, an Ernie Ransome-Tom Fazio design is totally worthy as a warm-up, or as a second round. Not surprisingly, the isolated holes are really hard, and a handful of them brilliantly mimic shots you'll face on the big course. I first played it when it opened in 1992 and thought the replicas were cool. Today, however, I wish there were more originals. The property deserves it.

4. Pine Valley has only two par 5s, the 7th and the 15th. Best known for its "Hell's Half-Acre" sand feature that bisects the fairway, the 7th is easier than I remember, though I didn't tee it from the 636-yard tips. The uphill, 615-yard 15th, with a left-to-right sloping fairway, is even harder than I remember. Hot weather meant the fairways weren't shaved down, which took a wee bit of fear away from any left-to-right sidespin imparted, but merely hitting the green in three shots is cause for celebration.

3. Maybe the quintessential shot at Pine Valley is the formidable uphill thrust at the par-4 2nd, where the green sits atop a mountain of sand and turf. With a sufficiently wide fairway and today's equipment, however, the hole doesn't terrify as it used to, at 368 yards from the tips. What still makes me queasy — for good reason — is the uphill, 238-yard, par-3 5th. This one-shotter completely holds its own, with a long carry over a lake and a steep fall-off to the right. Gene Littler, then the U.S. Open champion, made 7 here in his 1962 taped-for-TV Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match against Byron Nelson; my caddie told me it was actually closer to a 13, but they went with 7 for television purposes. I tried to squeeze-steer a driver. Predictably, I failed. I did find a sand path short of the green, but gagged on my sand wedge recovery on my way to a double.

2. This was my first overnight at Pine Valley. We did the Short course that afternoon, feasted (in blazer and tie) on Snapper soup at dinner, had an extra beverage and called it a night. (We sipped a Kummel-pronounced "kimmel," — an odd liqueur favored at British golf clubs, which made sense as we were imbibing with a father-son duo from Sunningdale.) The upstairs clubhouse rooms are modest, but comfortable, with no television set. Just as well. You need monastic-like focus to hone in on the task ahead. I tiptoed next door to the library in the John Arthur Brown Memorial Room (Brown was Pine Valley's long-running, oft-feared president), selected a copy of Hawtree's Colt & Company (British architect H.S. Colt completed the final four holes at Pine Valley upon the death of visionary founder George Crump) and after perusing a few pages, nodded off. What a feeling to wake up, knowing you were to walk downstairs in minutes and bare your soul to the world's No. 1 course.

1. Pine Valley didn't disappoint. I had few scoring highlights, but nary a disaster, either. In the past 20 years, every time I've been asked what I considered to be the best course I've ever played, I unhesitatingly answered "Pine Valley." After a 14-year-absence, though, you wonder. I relish seaside golf, I love a firm and fast links, and I worship at the altar of Cypress Point and the Old Course for favorite places in golf. But the best? Pine Valley. It proved itself again.