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

No comments:

Post a Comment