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Pine Valley Golf Club: 10 things to know about the world’s No 1 course

Pine Valley Golf Club
Pine Valley is one of the world's most private golf clubs. Credit: Billy Covert

There are no ocean views, towering dunes, sheer cliffs or plunging valleys and yet, Pine Valley Golf Club in the US state of New Jersey, has consistently been ranked the No 1 golf course in the world not just for years, but decades.

The likes of Cypress Point in California, Augusta National in Georgia and the Old Course, St Andrews in Scotland have all enjoyed moments at the top of the list, but more often than not it has been George Crump’s timeless design in the top spot. The obvious question is why? What makes Pine Valley Golf Club so special?

Well, in this guide we will attempt to give you some of the reasons this place stands out. Located close to the small town of Clementon, New Jersey but within reach of nearby Philadelphia, Pine Valley is a bewitching blend of Scotch broom, mountain laurel, hawthorn and poverty grass. And yet when it comes to the quality of the golf course, Pine Valley is rich in challenge, variety and beauty: its cavernous bunkers are the stuff of legend, as is the fact this is generally viewed as one of the most difficult golf courses in the world.

Pine Valley Golf Club
The Pine Valley bunkers are the stuff of legend. Credit: Billy Covert

The downside? Playing this golf course will be a challenge unless you know a member or you are one, quite frankly. And yet, if you can find a way beyond the gates of Pine Valley Golf Club you are in for one of golf’s great experiences. Here are 10 reasons it’s such a special place.

1.  Pine Valley: so good Jack played it on his honeymoon

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus have been married since 1960, having met in their first week as 17-year-old freshman on the steps of Menden Hall at Ohio State University.

Their marriage has endured, with Jack often saying that Barbara has been the greatest gift in gift in his life. And yet the lure of Pine Valley Golf Club proved too much for Jack when, during their honeymoon, he found himself driving through Clementon en-route from New York City to Atlantic City.

At the time, Jack did not know women were not permitted on the golf course, but member by the name of Dave Newbold stepped in and offered to drive Barbara around the perimeter of Pine Valley Golf Club, occasionally stopping to catch a glimpse of Jack playing over a hedge or a fence. Jack shot 74 and the pair carried on to Atlantic City and lived happily ever after. History suggests Tom Watson was not so fortunate when he turned up unannounced at Pine Valley one day, only to be turned away because he did not have a tee time. 

Atlantic City
Jack Nicklaus stopped off at PV en route to Atlantic City. Credit: Bruce Emmerling

2. Pine Valley just never lets up

One of Pine Valley’s great strengths is that every shot demands your best. This place is a bewitching blend of challenge and beauty, excitement and execution, mystique and peril. Danger is never far from your eye-line, even if the fairways are generally wide and the greens generous in size. Some will tell you it’s the hardest golf course in the world, but what it does brilliantly, certainly as well as any course on the planet, is ask you to play strategically and think your ball around.

If you’re out of position off the tee, you’ll be scrambling to recover. Unless you are prepared to take your medicine, one error will lead to another and a snowball effect will begin that will end in you making a real mess of your scorecard. In simple terms, this is a golf course without a single weak hole. If you had to pick a favourite, you’d struggle: the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 10th, 13th, 16th, would all surely be in the conversation but then how would do leave out the 5th, the 13th and the 15th? Or, for that matter, the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 14th and 18th?!

Pine Valley Golf Club
Pine Valley officially opened in 1919

3. The feeling of total isolation 

There is something wonderful about getting lost in the routing of a golf course. The rest of the world just fades away, you forget about the trials and tribulations life throws your way and melt into the magic of the hole in front of you and the beauty which surrounds you. That is certainly the case at Pine Valley Golf Club, when a feeling of genuine tranquillity descends.  Unless you are a regular at Pine Valley, it’s hard to be sure where you are on the routing at any one time. The corridors that frame the holes, mean you are often surprised to walk off the back of one hole and find another. It is a wonderfully disorientating sensation. Give into that loss of control and surrender to the isolation. Maybe because Pine Valley Golf Club shuns publicity and PR, relatively little is known about the club or the golf course before people visit and and that adds to the mystique. It’s magic.

PINE VALLEY GOLF CLUB MAP
Pine Valley Golf Club Map

4.  The journey to Pine Valley

The narrow road which leads to Pine Valley Golf Club is a dead end. The golf course is anything but.

The final part of your journey to this golfing Neverland lies at the far end of East Atlantic Avenue in Clementon, New Jersey. You make the turn and drive past a splash park. You may even ask yourself ‘have I taken a wrong turn?’ No you haven’t. Keep going. With the lake on your left, you’ll drive deeper into a forest before eventually coming upon signs which warn you of the dead end. But just before you reach it, there is a turn across a railway track, with a modest entrance gate beyond.

Just to the right of that gate is a small sign, no bigger than bedroom poster, which reads ‘Pine Valley Golf Club – private’. There you will encounter the Pine Valley police, who guard the golf course and its privacy and operate from a small white house with green walls. The PV force was formed in 1983 with the sole purpose of protecting the golf club. They’ll check you are on the list before allowing you in. .

You’ll find a pro shop, which features the rather daunting prospect of no price tags, a relatively humble clubhouse, with simple locker rooms, a traditional bar area and plenty of history on the walls, in the form of hickory golf clubs, trophies and portraits. Every guest is given a bag tag to commemorate their day at Pine Valley Golf Club, which is a lovely touch and throughout the welcome is wonderfully warm and unpretentious. Whether you are a dignitary or a relative duffer on a day trip to play with a member, Pine Valley sets out to treat everyone as equals. The course is always the star of the show here, the staff simply set out to create an unforgettable golf experience and to create an atmosphere where everyone who gets through the gates is made to feel incredibly welcome.

Pine Valley Golf Club
You won’t find prices on items in the pro shop

5. Pine Valley’s beastly bunkering

Pine Valley’s bunkers are the stuff of legend. Rather like the Old Course at St Andrews, their names go before them: Hell’s Half Acre on the 7th, or The Devil’s – ahem- Asshole on the par-3 10th. These can be graves of doom, with steep faces, coarse sand and, often, very little hope of escape. Pine Valley Golf Club sits on sandy soil, which meant that architect George Crump was able to place these pits of despair wherever he wanted. That means the bunkers at Pine Valley are a collection of some of the most varied and challenging sand areas you will find anywhere in golf. There are vast, wild, sand scrapes, there are narrow coffin shaped bunkers, which are three feet wide and six feet deep, there are quarries, half pipe bunkers, there is something for everyone. And you only really come to appreciate their menace, when they’ve made a dent in your scorecard.

Pine Valley
Pine Valley’s bunkers are not a place to spend time

6. Pine Valley: it’s very hard

This is not a golf course for the faint hearted or for bad golfers, quite frankly. From the moment it was conceived, Pine Valley Golf Club has been a place that has refused to soften to cater to the casual golfer. This is a golf course which feels like it is whispering in your ear, ‘if you’re not good enough to play golf here, don’t.’  The greens may be large, but like Pinehurst No 2 many are like upturned saucers with slopes running your ball away if it flirts with the edge of the green. The bunkers we have talked about, the waste areas are a no go, and the challenge is constant. It is hard to know whether the rumour that a member once made a 42 on the watery 14th hole is the stuff of myth and legend or a fact. And there are those who will tell you, no one has bettered a course record of 68 – three under par.

7. Elevate your game at Pine Valley

One of the great challenges at Pine Valley is the constant changes in elevation. Those dramatic ups and downs are best highlighted on the par-3s where you play downhill to the 3rd, 10th and 14th, while the 5th plays fiendishly uphill. Your last approach of the round at Pine Valley is uphill to the 18th green, the same goes for the previous hole. Why does it matter? Well, these changes in elevation add to the thrill factor at Pine Valley and they add to the challenge too. Rangefinders with slope may make that an easier challenge to overcome these days, but it all adds to the feeling that makes it hard to keep the smile off your face.

Pine Valley Golf Club course map
Pine Valley Golf Club Course Map

8. How to visit Pine Valley Golf Club every year

We have established that Pine Valley is famously private but for one day a year, anyone is free to visit. No joke. The catch? You can’t play the course, but you can walk it as you watch an amateur competition named after the man who designed the golf course. On the final Sunday in September, Pine Valley Golf Club hosts the final round of the Crump Cup. There are no ropes to hold the crowds back and it is a rare opportunity to pull back the curtain and walk these hallowed fairways. Spectators park along the road at the Splash Park, where a shuttle bus will take you through the gates. You aren’t allowed to take photographs, so cell phones and cameras are not permitted. But that’s a gift, open your eyes and your ears, drink it all in – you’ll never forget it.

PINE VALLEY GOLF CLUB SCORECARD

Pine Valley Golf Club Scorecard

9.  Pine Valley has a short course

Very few know Pine Valley Golf Club has a short course, which is made up of 10 holes. Having opened in 1992, eight of the 10 holes are inspired by holes on the main course (the 2nd, 3rd, 10th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th are all reimagined), while the other two holes are originals – one having been designed by Tom Fazio and the second laid out by former PV president Ernie Ransome, who had the idea for the short course. Ransome’s vision was to give members an opportunity to prepare for their round on the main course, by encountering approach shots they would find on the main course, minus the pressure.

10. Pine Valley Golf Club: famous faces

Every single day at Pine Valley the phone rings and rings with mad keen golfers pleading with the club to allow them to play this incredible golf course. The answer is always the same: unless you are playing with a member, you can’t play here. That policy softened in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, when for two days, Pine Valley opened its doors to the hundreds of golfers who were willing to write a $1,000 cheque, for one round, made out to The Twin Towers Fund. Pine Valley raised some $500,000 for the charity.  Those lucky few were able to join a unique hall of fame of the great and good who have played golf here. It is thought every active US president has played Pine Valley at one time or another, as has Michael Jordan, Clint Eastwood, Bing Crosby, Alice Cooper, Sean Connery, Bob Hope and even Babe Ruth. 

Jackie Stewart, Jack Nicklaus and Sean Connery
Jackie Stewart, Jack Nicklaus and Sean Connery

Pine Valley Golf Club: key facts

Pine Valley Golf Club
1 E Atlantic Ave
Pine Valley
NJ 08021
USA

Phone: +1 6856-783-3000

Pine Valley Golf Club: Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How much does it cost to play Pine Valley?

How much it costs to play as a visitor at Pine Valley, who the members are, how many members there are, where they all came from, are not subjects that are up for discussion at Pine Valley. The little details are kept quiet, which only adds to the mystique of the place.

Is Pine Valley better than Augusta National?

The question of whether Pine Valley is better than Augusta National is one only those who have played both can answer. And if you’re in that blessed position, then let’s just say choosing your favourite is a very nice problem to have.

What about Pine Valley Golf Club membership?

There are thought to be more than 1,000 members at Pine Valley Golf Club with a large contingent based overseas and around 300 more local. The Pine Valley Golf Club membership fees are a closely guarded secret and not one we intend to break.

Can anyone play Pine Valley?

In theory, yes – anyone can play Pine Valley but you must be invited to be a member if you are to gain access to the golf course or play with a member. Playing here has nothing to do with your bank balance, social status or even fame. If you know a member, you’re in business. If you don’t, make friends with one.

How do you get invited to Pine Valley?

Being invited to Pine Valley Golf Club ranks alongside being summoned to Buckingham Palace, or being called for a private audience with the President at The White House. While many of the world’s great golf courses are open to the public – Pebble Beach, The Old Course, St Andrews, Pinehurst No 2 – Pine Valley is famously out of reach. To play Pine Valley, you must either be a member or the guest of one.

How do I become a member at Pine Valley Golf Club?

Little is known about the process of how to become a member at Pine Valley Golf Club, beyond your nomination coming from an admissions committee but this is not a place where you can bargain your way in the door. Money isn’t the be all and end all. If you are fortunate enough to get invited to Pine Valley, you must be accompanied by your member at all times.

Pine Valley Golf Club logo

Pine Valley Golf Club logo

The founder of The Wandering Golfers, Ben grew up on the links of Scotland learning the game from his beloved Grandpa. Previously a writer and broadcaster for The Times and BBC

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