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Golf: Best of the Best Courses: Pine Valley Golf Club

James Y. Bartlett

What is it about Pine Valley that makes it a nearly unanimous choice as the best golf course in America and one of the best in the world? Certainly not familiarity. The course belongs to a ferociously private club, tucked away in the boonies 20 miles southeast of Philadelphia in a region of New Jersey aptly called the Pine Barrens. Nor is it branded with any designer pedigree. The course was conceived and built by a hotelier.

However, therein may lie the answer. Pine Valley is a uniquely American creation. It is individualistic, idiosyncratic, bold, beautiful, and unapologetically challenging. George Crump, owner of the Colonnades Hotel in Philadelphia, acquired the land in 1912 and, determined to build his dream course, moved to a cabin on the site and spent the next year wandering through the piney woods, planning where the holes would be placed. Construction began in 1914 with workers felling trees and hauling away stumps. They stopped counting when they reached 22,000.  

When Pine Valley was finally finished four years later, after Crump had died, it was immediately recognized as something special. The leading architects of the day—Walter Travis, A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, Donald Ross, and Charles Blair MacDonald—all made special visits to see the course, and the latter two deemed it the finest golf course in America. Its acclaim has only grown.

Crump designed islands of manicured turf floating in a sea of unkempt sandy wastes. Nearly every hole calls for a forced carry over scrub brush and grassy clumps, followed by demanding approaches to tiny, lightning-fast, and devilishly tricky greens that are surrounded by deep pot bunkers and protected by the limbs of the 22,000-plus trees remaining in the ground.

Pine Valley demands the utmost in precision and execution on every shot, from the first tee ball to the final putt. There is no place to lay up, no easy route, and the penalties exacted by the course can be severe.

Bernard Darwin, the venerable golf correspondent for the London Times and a fine player himself, once took a 16 on the short eighth, walked off the course, and pronounced, “It’s all very well to punish a bad shot, but the right of eternal damnation ought to be reserved for a higher tribunal than the greens committee.”  

And there was the longtime club member who somehow managed to birdie the first four holes, came to the tee on five, which is adjacent to the clubhouse, and decided to head for the bar, declaring, “It’s gotta be all downhill from here. I’m quitting while I’m ahead!”  

Pine Valley Golf Club, 856.783.3000

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