H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, George C. Thomas Jr., Walter Travis and Hugh Wilson all designed world-class golf courses. But it’s their combined effort that created what many consider to be the very best. While Pine Valley has topped just about every ranking since its opening in 1918, invitations to the fiercely private course—for both players and cameras—have been tougher to come by than a birdie on its legendary fifth hole. A chance tee time allowed a newcomer to see for himself, and he quickly found out that the hype is real.
A rare glimpse
On a Sunday afternoon in June 1961, Gene Littler was beaming, his bright smile offset by a dark cardigan sweater. With clapping fans surrounding him, he was standing squarely on the pinnacle of the golf world, basking in the glow of being a U.S. Open champion.
Littler passed golf’s most demanding test with a final-round 68 at Oakland Hills Country Club, a course so tough that when Ben Hogan claimed the same trophy at the same course 10 years earlier, he did so at 7-over par. Littler not only knew something about difficult golf courses, but he was better than most at toppling them.
Less than a year later, Littler was standing in a forest just outside Philadelphia, his hand on his head, confounded, lying 2 and staring down at a ball that had refused to move more than 3 feet after his most recent blow. He buried himself into a bush, contorting his legs and head for a stance, and took another lash, sending his ball toward a miserable bunker filled with heavy, unreliable sand. A bunker, like many of its neighbors, too narrow and too steep for anyone to make a proper swing. Littler was already 3 over through four before he blew his persimmon driver roughly 2 miles into the woods near Clementon, New Jersey. But now things were officially moving quickly. It had taken only a few holes for Littler to learn Pine Valley’s universal rule: A good shot is safe, a great shot is rewarded handsomely and a bad shot is punished like nowhere else in the world.
After chopping out of the bunker, the reigning U.S. Open champion lipped out his 10-foot putt for triple bogey and moved to 7 over through five.
Luckily for Littler, the stakes couldn’t have been lower in Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf—the first one televised at an American golf course. (Decent start.)
Littler surely got over his loss to a graying, 50-year-old Byron Nelson (74 to 76) by the time the evening’s snapper soup had arrived. But he had no idea how valuable his round would be to future zealots: With how little Pine Valley allows itself to be shown to the outside world, that 1962 televised match is one of the most important reference points everyday golfers have for what many have declared the greatest golf course in the world.
With Pine Valley, there are no famous major championship moments on which the general golfing public can draw to form a picture of the place in their minds. Unless you’ve played there or spent hours spelunking in books and on message boards about golf architecture, it’s tough to speak definitively on the brilliant strategy of the fourth hole or the sheer intimidation of the approach into No. 2. For most, “Pine Valley” exists as a concept, the way “gravity” exists as a concept. It’s a very big deal, even if most people aren’t great at explaining the details.
For some of the bigger-deal private clubs, regularly hosting TV cameras and pro golfers—part of the trade-off made by many, for many reasons—shatters at least a piece of that mystery. You may daydream about what it’s like to play Augusta National, but you’ll never struggle to picture the 12th hole.
But, outside of a few holes made famous by magazines or Instagram, the knowledge of a place like Pine Valley seems to remain surface level for most.
I was firmly in this camp until recently, when a golden-ticket invitation fell into my lap. Pine Valley, despite its glittering résumé of rankings and its Wonka-esque tradition of hosting public spectators once a year for the Crump Cup, was a blind spot for me. There are books, construction drawings and explanations of hole strategies out there. But reducing the place to black-and-white text ended up feeling like the impossible task of describing a trip to the Grand Canyon: I guess you kind of had to be there.
That’s why that Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf episode is so important to us daily-fee, YouTube vagabonds. It gives us a taste. The broadcast feels like an artifact preserved in a museum—something on loan to The Internet through a generous gift from the Crump family. It’s an expertly taxidermied representation of a place that, theoretically, still exists somewhere in New Jersey, even if you’ve never met someone who has seen it with their own eyes.
As arbitrary as that 1962 match may be, every shot struck that day now has its own outsize piece of history. Which is why you can’t talk about Pine Valley’s fifth hole without talking about Gene Littler, the owner of its most famous quadruple bogey.
Every single hole
It’s important to talk about that “No. 1 Golf Course in the World” idea because it’s tough to think about much else before your trip to Pine Valley. It’s what you think about when you trust the airline with your golf clubs on the way there. It’s what you think about when you drive through a strangely normal neighborhood before arriving. A wave of cynical fear sets in when you hit the Splash World water park that serves as your signal to turn off the main road and head toward the gates. There are around 40,000 golf courses in the world. The idea that one could live up to the idea of being a clear-cut No. 1 feels as likely as the place down the street really having the “World’s Best Margaritas.”
But a weird thing happens the deeper you get into your round: You realize that it’s actually doing it. Every hole—every single hole—makes your jaw drop. That’s not hyperbole. Each hole should have its picture on the front of the scorecard.
For four straight hours—and not a minute more if you’d like to come back—the golf course doesn’t let its foot off the gas. And if you’re playing poorly, it’s going to keep its other foot pretty squarely on your throat. The course checks every
box. It never repeats itself. You constantly notice little features that were smuggled
out and ripped off and exported to lesser golf courses throughout the world.
The greens—wait for it—are very good. They’re unique, wild and subtle, with slopes waiting to help or punch you, depending on your plan of attack. The par 3s are so varied and interesting that it’s a joke, calling for ultra precision one moment and heroic carries the next. No. 15, as one of my fellow first-timers said, “might be the last par 5 in America.” The place is so good that it makes you say things like that because you’re delirious by the time you get to that point in the back nine.
Very little of this is original analysis. But that’s kind of the point. What new thing can you say about a place that almost everyone in almost every circumstance
has rated as the best? Especially when you tend to agree?
In such a visual sport, it would be natural to think that the World’s Best Course would also make the World’s Best Postcard. But the thing that makes the best golf course the best golf course isn’t one standout moment. It’s a totality of standout moments. It’s an intolerance and loathing of any moments that aren’t standout moments. Every single day, it pitches a complete-game shutout.
After a long day of getting joyously kicked in the teeth, one of the more popular subversive dinner conversations (jacket and tie required) is the debate that rages over choosing the worst hole at Pine Valley. The wink in this, of course, is that 18 different people could pick 18 different worsts and that course would still satisfy even the most pedantic golf architecture snob.
While our table couldn’t pin down a unanimous selection for the honor of “worst of the best,” I couldn’t help but think of another award, to which the answer sprung to mind immediately: the shot I was most terrified to hit again tomorrow.
The best-laid plans
Had I not cold-topped and submerged my first-ever tee shot at the fifth, I’d be laughing uproariously at how deep the hole has burrowed itself into the heads of golfers all around the world.
Standing on the tee box for the first time, it doesn’t take long to understand why it has done so. The Wonderful World of Golf announcers brilliantly called it “an anthology of hazards,” as it contains just about every cause of death known to golf.
My ball the first time around was quickly put out of its misery by finding the water just off the tee box, but even if it had survived that flight, there was a rugged mixture of thick rough and jagged bunkers waiting to swallow any hopes of making par. A tree-removal project behind the green now brings into view even more scale, waste area and dark thoughts, but connects the fifth to the heroic par-4 sixth in a gorgeous and seamless way.
Stories abound of players buying, building and traveling in with hybrids, 3-woods and 1- and 2-irons all built specifically for the tee shot, which measures 238 yards from the back tees and 219 for the mortals. It plays significantly longer than those numbers with the uphill adjustment.
One caddie recounted a story of an equipment rep who, after hitting the green, asked the caddie if he wanted the custom-built long iron he’d used to do so. The caddie cocked an eyebrow and questioned whether he was serious.
“Of course,” the player said. “Where else am I going to need that shot?”
One of our playing partners employed a similar strategy. It was a repeat trip for him, and, as such, he couldn’t escape thinking about what he’d need to conquer the fifth hole. He spent the weeks before our trip searching golf shops around Los Angeles to find a Titleist Muscle Back 2-iron that he thought would give him the best chance.
It’s a freeing way to play an unbelievably difficult hole, since buying a specific club and carrying it across the country surely outweighs any standard thoughts of wind, temperature, hole location or firmness of the green and surrounds. You don’t really need a number to the front when you decided three months ago what club you were going to hit.
Of course, my friend’s master plan was undone by a light breeze in the face, which left him well short in the fairway run-up to the green. Or, as many players would call it, Position A.
There are two realistic game plans one can employ at the fifth. Option 1 is to aim for the only welcoming sight in view: the apron of fairway cut that stretches for 30 or so yards in front of the green.
This would also be known as laying up on a par 3.
With how uphill the hole plays, you still need a solidly struck and relatively straight shot of nearly 200 yards just to play it safe. And with a semi-blind chip up to the dramatically sloping green, you’re still only barely taking double bogey out of play.
Most players should give Option 1 some serious consideration before even entertaining Option 2. Most players will not do so.
Option 2 is to go for the green. And if you’re going for the green, I hope that your trusty miss is to the left. It won’t be easy, but from there you can make a full recovery. Golfers for generations have gone on to live relatively normal and fulfilling lives after missing left at No. 5.
Option 2 entails hitting a hell of a lot of club. (After a failed 2-iron on my second try, I’m not afraid to admit that by my third trip I hit an early morning sawed-off driver.) Going for the green means you’re willingly bringing in the right side, and with it some of the most penal bunkers and rough on planet Earth, from which there is almost no escape. (If you must know, my driver was a little too sawed off. I wound up in the right bunkers, nearly blew out an ACL trying to take a stance and am still down there right now, writing this magazine piece.)
Going for the green means you might spend the next 15 minutes humiliating yourself in the forest and getting pantsed by the ghost of Gene Littler. But it also means you’re trying to make a 1, even though you know you probably have a more realistic chance of being invited to become a member.
The tee shot on No. 5 is the most visceral example, an exaggerated representative of the decision Pine Valley forces you to make every day on every shot of every hole. It always gives you a way out—a way to make a pedestrian bogey. But it also knows that you likely can’t resist trying to hit “the shot.” The one that you’ll discuss at dinner. And at future dinners for as long as you and your golf friends are lucky enough to travel together.
The golf course makes sure you’re constantly face-to-face with an attack on your bravery. Or is it a test of your stupidity? Does it make a difference? Can you hit the shot or can’t you? Will you hit the shot or won’t you?
The answers to most of these questions are situational. Maybe you’ve got a wind you don’t like, or you’re playing a match and the safe play is simply a means to an end. But when you arrive at the fifth hole, should you ever be lucky enough, consider the opportunity in front of you.
Take a swing and try to pull off the heroic shot. Try your absolute damndest to make a 2 and peacefully accept the idea that you might make an 8. You may never be back in that spot trying to make either again. And whether you’re heading toward good news or bad as you climb the hill, at least you’ll know that you hit a shot for everyone who will never get the chance to embarrass themselves at the best course in the world.