Monday, May 28, 2007

Pine Valley Golf Club

Well, my friends, I have done it. That's right. I have played Pine Valley (ranked #1 in the world).

The Borough of Pine Valley

New Jersey is a very unusual state in many ways when it comes to something called local rule. Even though it is one of the smallest states in the U.S., it actually has 551 separate municipalities or governing bodies. Aside from being the #1 ranked golf course in the world year after year, Pine Valley is also its own stand alone municipality. The entire municipality consists of the golf course. Under New Jersey law every municipality has to have a town hall, a school district, etc. Pine Valley does have each of these and its own stand-alone police force as well.

Like the presidential retreat at Camp David, the location of Pine Valley isn't exactly unknown, it's just that you have go out of your way to find it. Pine Valley is located in a typically middle-class New Jersey suburb. The area surrounding the course is not grand and does not hint at the greatness that exists behind the fences that separate this special place from the rest of the world. To get to Pine Valley you make your way to the Clementon Amusement Park, which saw its best days in the 1940s, but still functions seasonally to this day. Behind the Amusement Park, down a two lane road, on the other side of the railroad tracks is the Pine Valley Administration building. This lilliputian building contains the entire infrastructure for the town of Pine Valley, population 20. This includes the municipal court, police headquarters, town hall, etc.

It sets the stage for what can only be described as the perfect environment for a golfer. Going behind the fence at Pine Valley is like going to Disney Land for a five year old. It's magic.

Being invited to Pine Valley

Speechless. This is the sensation I experienced recently when invited to play Pine Valley. What you have to understand is that I have been networking and trying to play Pine Valley for quite some time. I was sitting at my desk and a P.V. member called and invited me to play. Just like that.

"Hey, Joe, how does Sunday look?"

I couldn't speak. After a good thirty seconds it registered. Never mind that I would have to skip church, my son's soccer game and my wedding anniversary (just kidding on the last point, but that would be a tough call).

"Looks ideal!"

"Great, as long as the weather holds up, let's do it"

What does it feel like to get invited to play P.V.? Pretty damn good, at the risk of gloating. As I told my golf friends that I was invited, the jealously-inspired insults came quickly and then when they asked if there was room for someone else in the foursome - silence. One (now former) dear friend was so jealous, he hoped that Sunday's weather would bring a "Nor' easter".

For the next five days I checked the weather on-line every half hour.

I remember reading the accounts of those who have played the top 100 and was always struck by how they were invited to play at certain courses. One guy who completed the top 100 quest was called and invited to play Augusta rather than having to grovel for years. This stuff really does happen.

My game, like the game of all golfers, goes up and down. One can only hope that when you are invited to play P.V. it is when you are in an up-cycle. In a very good turn of events, I was invited to play P.V. after posting some of my best scores ever. My good karma on this quest is continuing (thank you Archbishop Tutu).

As it turned out, the Weather Channel forecast for Clementon, NJ for the day I played:

Mostly Sunny
High - 73
Low - 55
Humidity: 45%
Winds: WNW @ 13 MPH
Golf Index: 10 out of 10 (Excellent)

Now, I had to get ready to play P.V. I re-read Zen Golf to try and re-center myself. Focus on breathing. Meditate. I also re-read Golf is not a Game of Perfect. Stay in the present. pick a target. Relax, it's only a game. As usual with me before a big round, there was a lot of mental chatter: "Bring a lot of balls. Nobody breaks 100 the first time. Slope of 153. Hit the ball straight. Don't get too hyped up. It's a golf course like any other golf course, with tee boxes, fairways and greens."

Bull Shit.

P.V. is like any other golf course like the Pope is like any other priest or the Queen is like any other Brit. I would rather be invited to play P.V. than to a White House State dinner. This is a big deal.

On the morning of my round, I put on my finest dress slacks and best golf shirt. No fraying khakis at P.V. I prepared my car, filled it with gas, checked the tire pressure, oil and wiper fluid (OK, so I'm a little compulsive). Nothing could stop me now. I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike at 55 miles per hour, which is actually quite difficult to do since the average car/truck is going over 70. I was like a little old lady out for a Sunday drive. The last thing I needed was to be pulled over by a State Trooper on my way to P.V. I was taking no chances at all.

Playing Pine Valley

I was particularly looking forward to playing the par threes, which looked to me to be awesome. The tenth hole here is a short, downhill par-three with one of the wickedest bunkers in the world short of the green on the right side. The bunker is nicknamed the "Devil's ass hole", or as the gentleman at P.V. call it in the club history, "The Devil's aperture." I also looked forward to playing the dastardly 219 yard uphill (over water) par-three fifth, undoubtedly one of the hardest par threes on the planet.

Pine Valley's short par three 10th hole

The round went well. Although I was very nervous I had a nice drive onto the first fairway. The first three holes I was in such a trance I couldn't tell you how I did. It was just over-whelming. Eventually I calmed down and we settled into a very nice round of golf.

9th green (right hand green)
Even though I had previously walked the course twice as a spectator to Crump Cup matches, it was a different experience actually playing. I had previously stood on various tees and fairways and visualized how I would hit my shots. It is quite another thing to stand on the tees and fairways with a club in your hand and a caddie at your side and actually hit the shot. The primary difference being that your own 'aperture' tightens up significantly when you really have to do it.

Pine Valley Fifth hole - Hardest par three in the world

I hit the par-three fifth green with a driver, in one of the best shots of my life. I also hit an eight-iron stiff to the pin on the par three 10th. On a course of intimidating tee shots and forced carries, I actually found the most intimidating tee shot to be the downhill par three 14th, where you hit from a highly elevated tee. It is tightly tree-lined with water in front and behind. There are bunkers in front of the green and a sense of having to hit nothing less than the perfect shot. The general feeling standing on this tee was of claustrophobia, a feeling of being closed in.

The 8th green (right hand green)

Par three fourteenth from the tee - frightening!

I played the #1 handicap par five seventh well, I hit a good drive and then a lovely three wood over "Hell's Half Acre". Although I hit the ball well, I didn't score well, but that's P.V. I felt better that the three handicap player in our group couldn't score either, it's just that hard. Make one mistake and it multiplies.

To my utter astonishment, when we completed playing we walked directly from the 18th green back to the 1st tee for another round. By now, I had calmed down and in one of my proudest golfing moments ever, I hit the farthest and straightest drive of my life on the first tee. We saw perhaps three other groups out on the course during the afternoon round.

The essence of Pine Valley is its difficulty. Every shot has a forced carry off the tee, many of which are at an angle so you have to decide how much risk to take. A prime example of this is the view from the tee on the sixth hole seen below. The course is fair if you hit good shots. Driving the ball is not a problem if you hit it straight. The fairways are generous. I hit more than half the fairways. The difficulty is the second (and third) shots. I had to hit three wood, utility wood or five iron as the second shot on most holes. Accuracy in long approach shots is required to play Pine Valley well. Even on the short holes such as the eighth, one of the few holes you can actually hit driver and a short iron, there is no letup. This is because you have to hit from a downhill lie to a postage stamp green. It also goes without saying also that you must putt well at Pine Valley. The green complexes are as complicated and as good as you will ever see. I also noticed that a lot of holes start out being wide and get progressively narrow as you approach the green. This is most acute on the long part five 15th hole, which gets quite narrow as you get closer to the hole.

Forced carry as seen from the sixth tee box

One of the other things I found interesting about Pine Valley is the texture and variety of the sand. Built in a region of the state called the Pine Barrens, the sand texture varies from hole to hole and even within a hole often times. It is very important that you dig your feet in before hitting a sand shot (and you will no doubt hit many sand shots here) to test the texture. Sometimes it is like hardpan, other times it is fluffy. There are probably more than a half dozen sand textures that you have to be aware of and hit the appropriate type of shot. I don't know if there was ever a technical analysis done of the course, but my guess it that about 30% of the entire course footprint is actually sand hazards.

The Overall Experience

As far as the overall feel of the place, there are no frills at Pine Valley. The clubhouse is modest, understated and has little trappings. The place is about golf only. It is the perfect setting for golf, the cynosure of the golf world. It would do the officials at the U.S.G.A and P.G.A. a world of good to visit Pine Valley every so often as a refresher golf in what makes golf great. It is the true north of a golfing experience.

The course is no doubt one of the best in the world. It is an exclusive enclave. You are away from the world when playing P.V. The routing of the course is diverse, it is in great condition, it tests all aspects of your game and was a privilege to play. Is it the best in the world? I don't know where I would rank it yet. I find it best to give some time before trying to assign a ranking. It is certainly one of the most difficult and intimidating courses in the world. The entire experience had an out-of-body feeling to it that is still difficult for me to believe.

For those loyal readers on the lookout for me in my travels - I am now easier to spot. I'm the doofus walking around with all the Pine Valley logoed clothes on.

By the end of the day, I have never been more physically and mentally drained in all my life. Playing 36 at P.V. took it all out of me. After I drove home I opened up a bottle of whisky I have been saving for a special occasion. A 25 year old Bushmills Millennium Malt bottled in the year 2000, accompanied by a Bolivar #2. I passed out on the back deck a happy man.

The day also included a victory for my son's soccer team.

Can a day be more perfect?

The only unfortunate thing about the experience is the several ex-friends I now have who aren't talking to me anymore after finding out I played in a threesome and would have loved to be the fourth. Also, if you are lucky enough to be invited, the pro shop doesn't take credit cards so bring cash or a check to buy things.

P.S. - I recently visited P.V. again in the springtime and have some new pictures to share

The view from outside looking in - no sign of how special it is ahead

The guardhouse where you pray your name is on the clipboard

Pine Valley Clubhouse

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Secrets to Getting on the Top Golf Courses in the World

In one of my previous posts I committed to posting some of the secrets of my success to my loyal readers when one of three events happened: 1) I played 75 of the top 100 courses; 2) I played Pine Valley or 3) I played Cypress Point.

Well, I haven't played 75 courses yet, but I'm a happy man and will share some of the love on this post!

I have always appreciated the approach to golf in both the British Isles and Australia in that they grant outsiders access to even their most elite clubs. Granted, you have to book in advance, follow their rules and they don't allow too many visitors, but at least they are sharing their treasures with the world. It is a lot more difficult in the U.S. to gain access to most private clubs. The resort courses such as Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes are accessible to anyone who books in advance and pays the fee. Golfers everywhere should be grateful for people like Mike Keiser, the founder of the Bandon Dunes resort, for building some of the top golf courses in the world with a philosophy of making them accessible at a reasonable price to all golfers.

On the other hand, gaining access to Seminole, Pine Valley, Augusta National, Los Angeles Country Club or Garden City Mens Club is a lot more difficult. While doing research on these clubs I finally figured out why they don't have more liberal visitor policies like those in the U.K. and Australia. Most of the elite golf courses in the U.S. are organized as non-for-profit entities. Allowing access to the public and generating profit beyond the private pleasures of their members would jeopardize their tax-exempt status. I always thought they were just being snooty and no doubt some are, but there is some logic to their position.

There have been a handful of people who have played the top 100 golf courses in the world. The Americans who have done so have all been members of a top private club. This makes gaining access to other clubs a lot easier, particularly if you belong to one of the highly regarded ones, by being able to offer a return visit to a member who hosts you. I have been successful gaining access without being a member of one of these clubs. Nor am I a member of the R & A as some of the prior participants have been. Nor am I a member of the press. I am doing this the old-fashioned way, gaining access one course at a time through nothing more than the charm of my glowing personality. What is surprising when I look at the courses I have played is that in only two instances did I directly know the member. As the hypothesis goes, there are six degrees of separation between all people on the planet. In my case, I have never had to go further than three degrees to get on a course. In most cases it was only two - that is, someone who knows an acquaintance of mine.

So, how have I gotten onto so many of the top golf courses in the world? Well, here for the first time, I will reveal my secrets to gaining access to the top courses:

1. Pine Valley allows non-members access during early October for the playing of their annual club championship - the Crump Cup. While you can't play the course or visit the pro shop, you can walk it (sometimes in peaceful seclusion), which is closer than most people will ever get to playing it.

2. You can get on the normally difficult to access Muirfield on short notice by staying at the Greywalls Hotel, which is adjacent to the golf course. They have a small amount of tee times on Monday and Friday mornings that are allocated only to guests of the hotel. Overall, it will be expensive, but you are playing one of the top five ranked courses in the world, after all.

3. Your golf professional can be very helpful. The pro at your course can sometimes get you access to courses of other private clubs. Be discrete. Don't abuse the privilege. It probably won't work getting you onto the really elite courses such as Seminole, Shinnecock or Augusta, but you can get access to some of the lesser known, private courses on the list. Also, it is not free, you have to pay the greens fees. I have played about six of the courses this way thus far.

4. Make yourself known - Believe it or not I was called unsolicited to play two of the courses in the top 25 by getting my name out. Start a blog or a web-site. Chances are it won't be as insightful or wry as mine, but give it a shot.

5. Ask - but not for Augusta. If you ask a member of Augusta it's an automatic no. They have to ask you. Also, writing to or calling an Augusta member won't work. They've heard it all and get letters frequently requesting access to grant someone's dying wish. But aside from that one, as every effective sales person knows, you have to ask for the order if you want to get invited. You can lookup members of most golf courses in the United States by going to to see if people you meet or acquaintances are members of any courses you want to play. You'll be surprised at some of the names you see.

6. Network - knowing or meeting members of the private courses is the best way to gain access. You don't necessarily have to know them directly, sometimes your friends know people. Don't be obnoxious, but when appropriate, ask and you can often gain access. Have good etiquette, though. Always offer to pay greens fees. Always offer to pay the caddies and tip generously. Send your host a gift afterwards.

7. Join the club. This is not really a practical option for most private clubs in the U.S. since you need to be sponsored by multiple members, pay the initiation fee, etc. However, you can join several of the top 100 courses in the world, particularly those in the British Isles as an overseas member, usually by just applying. Turnberry, Cruden Bay and Ballybunion among others, allow overseas members to join for a modest annual fee.

8. Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews can be difficult if you don't book well in advance, book through a tour company or don't spend a small fortune staying overnight in town, as is normally required to secure a tee time. A certain number of tee times are allocated to a daily lottery. Your chances of entering the lottery to play the next day are roughly 65% in season, but your odds go up to an almost certain 95% off-season. I suggest going off-season. Put on a sweater and some gloves and enjoy yourself. Or, alternatively, if you are a single, just show up and wait on line. Believe it or not there are people that don't show up for their tee times or threesomes that need a fourth.

9. A member of the greenskeeping staff can sometimes get you access. You probably will have to play at a non-prime time and won't have access to the clubhouse, but as lovers of the game, greenskeeping staff and superintendents can sometimes be very helpful. I played one of the top 25 ranked courses on the list this way. Again, this is not one where you can cold-call them and ask, you have to at least know them or know someone who does.

10. Befriend the course architect if they are still alive, they can sometimes get you access. This worked on one of the top 25 courses for me.

11. Bid for a round at a charity auction. You will probably write a big check, but you can usually split the cost with two or three friends, and after all, it's for a good cause.

12. Half of the courses on the list are public or resort, including some of the best- Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst, Harbour Town, Kiawah Island, Kingsbarns, Turnberry, Casa de Campo, Kawana in Japan, Highland Links in Canada and Cabo del Sol in Mexico, are all public or resort courses. Just book in advance.

13. Follow the proper booking process to gain access to the elite private courses in the U.K. and Australia. You have to play on the days that they allocate for non-member play, have a valid handicap card, usually below 24, and follow their dress code. If you do, you can play some of the world's historic links and heathland courses such as Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Royal St. George's, Walton Heath, Sunningdale, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Birkdale, Wentworth and Royal Liverpool, Royal Melbourne, Royal Adelaide and Kingston Heath, among others.

14. Play in a Pro-am at one of the courses if you can. It might not be cheap, but again, the money normally goes to charity.

15. You don't have to wait in the parking lot all night to play Bethpage Black. If you know a New York State resident, they can book a tee time a week in advance.

16. Get a job at CBS or become a golf journalist. Select employees and journalists that cover the Masters get to play Augusta National the Monday following the tournament. The winner and runner up of the british and american Amateur championships also get to play in the Masters. There is another longshot way to get on Augusta National but it requires a change in lifestyle. It involves moving to Augusta, GA and joining Augusta Country Club which is the course behind Augusta National. Augusta National only sends out foursomes. In the unimaginable circumstance when someone doesn't show up (our imagination can't conceive of a valid reason for not being able to play) Augusta National has been known to call over to Augusta County Club to have them send over a member to round out the group. I can already mentally picture myself sitting in the Augusta Country Club locker room every day in my boxer shorts, smoking a cigar just waiting for the call to come!

17. Join a golfing society. There are several societies that sometimes will have an annual outing at a named architect's course that you otherwise wouldn't be able to get on. There are societies for many of the architects that designed some of the world's premier courses: Seth Raynor, Donald Ross, Stanley Thompson, H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast.

18. If the course hosts a PGA tour event, volunteer for the event. Depending upon the event, sometimes they let volunteers play the course after the event. You may have to work in the parking lot or at a non-glamorous job, but we never said this was going to be easy.

19. Work at a top consulting or financial firm. The unofficial best top ten employers to work for if you are golf crazed are McKinsey, Bain, The Boston Consulting Group, Booz Allen, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers or Sandler O'Neill. Chances are someone working there is a member, knows a member or has a client who is a member. Being in the right circles like these helps a lot.

20. Become a rater for Golf Digest, Golf Magazine or Golf Weekly. Many courses grant access to raters, although it is not universal.

21. Become a caddy at an elite course. Typically caddies are given playing privileges at off-times.

22. Become the US Ambassador to France where the Golf Club de Morfontaine has a tradition of granting the current post holder playing privileges. In the absence of becoming the ambassador you could freqently beseech him and his staff for access. Or, I am lead to believe that French professionals have reciprocity rights on certain days of the week and can help you get access to elite french courses.

24. Get invited to join The Links Club in New York City. Although his ultra exclusive club has no golf course, its member outings are at some of the world's best including Shinnecock Hills, The National Golf Links, Maidstone, Somerset Hills and Chicago Golf Club.

24. I've got no clue how to get on the private courses in Japan and would welcome any suggestions.