A then and now look at Pine Valley and what has made its greatness endure for a century
The early days of golf in America were imbued with enthusiasm. The quirky little stick and ball game that had migrated across the Atlantic from the British Isles captured hearts and minds with its blend of outdoor recreation, a test of physical and mental abilities, competition and camaraderie. It did not take long, however, for a sense of restlessness and discontent, particularly directed at our playing fields, to set in. “Why,” players asked, “are our courses so inferior to the Scottish links?” Nevermind that those courses had evolved and improved over centuries on ground that was ideal for golf. Such is the nature of American culture—we want the best, and we want it now.
It was this impulse that sent Charles Blair Macdonald across the pond on a search for the ideal holes that he would use as inspiration for the National Golf Links of America. He was not the only one pulling on this thread. In Philadelphia, a group of avid amateurs led by George Crump was turning their own dissatisfaction into a plan. It is not clear that these men intended to create a course that would be considered among the world’s best for decades to come, but at Pine Valley that is exactly what they did.
“The late George Crump must have had more than a touch of prophetic imagination…what was in Crump’s mind when he first thought of Pine Valley was that somewhere there ought to be one course where as far as humanly possible, the best man of the day should win because every bad or indifferent shot should meet with its reward.” – Bernard Darwin
To onlookers, the man who is doggedly pursuing a dream might not appear as a visionary. Instead, he is crazy, or to the more charitable, a poor fool. Perhaps that is why those who could not see the picture in its creator’s mind labelled Pine Valley “Crump’s Folly”. And given the hardship that was endured to bring the course first to life and then to long-term sustainability, their short-sighted judgment was not entirely baseless. In the end, which George Crump would tragically not live to see, his detractors would be proven quite wrong about the course in the New Jersey pine barrens.
George Crump surveys the land that would become Pine Valley
Along with New York, Boston and Chicago, Philadelphia was a hotbed of activity in golf’s formative years. At the center of that scene was George Crump. Hospitality was his business, but the word also applies to the way he lived. By all accounts, he was the kind of genuinely engaging and friendly person to whom others naturally gravitated. It is no surprise then that he was at the center of a group of Philadelphians who shared a love of the game of golf, and each other.
These men, who were referred to as “the fraternity”, were avid sportsmen, successful businessmen and bon vivants. They were members at local clubs including Merion, Philadelphia Cricket Club and Huntingdon Valley. They played matches against one another, traveled to Atlantic City and beyond for winter golf, and supported the growth of the game in the city through the creation of Cobb’s Creek. Their ranks included architects George Thomas and A.W. Tillinghast, and Merion’s Hugh Wilson, as well as George Crump’s close compatriots Howard Perrin and Reverend Simon Carr, who was described as America’s Top Priestly Golfer”. Not only did they play together, but they also collaborated and wrote about the issues of golf administration, architecture, rules and handicapping. They were leaders in this nascent period of the game.
Fraternity members William P. Smith, A.W. Tillinghast and George Crump
How often have men gathered and, fueled by libations, indulged in the making of grand plans that never progress beyond the threshold of the barroom? In order for dreams to become a reality, there must be an individual who acts as a catalyst. For the fraternity, George Crump played that role. The group had been disgruntled both with winter course conditions in Philadelphia, and with their own performance against rivals from Long Island and Boston. A new, better course located off the train line to Atlantic City would kill two birds with one stone—Crump set about making it happen. He took a study trip to the British Isles and Europe, and while there met Harry Colt. Sunningdale and the other courses of the London healthland were particularly inspiring, and so it came as no surprise when Crump sought out the famous architect for assistance with his dream chasing.
Prior to Colt’s arrival, George Crump had exhaustively explored the land, and he held strong inclinations about holes to build. Nonetheless, he let his architect work unencumbered by preconceived notions. After a week spent studying the site, Colt produced a routing, which Crump then married with his own. This marked the beginning of a year’s long process of soliciting ideas and then synthesizing them into the bigger picture. Input was readily accepted, but the final decisions were Crump’s. In his brilliant history of Pine Valley’s creation Crump’s Dream, author Andrew Mutch summed up the collaborative process. “A friend to all, Crump was the colander into which countless experts poured their ideas,” wrote Mutch. “He sifted the collected intellectual property retaining what he intuitively knew would prove useful. Behind the affable sportsman was an uncommonly driven—even stubborn—man who would stop at nothing to attain his dream. The real genius of Crump was in using the gifted minds from the Philadelphia Fraternity to assemble his mosaic upon the beautiful lands of Sumner.”
Harry Colt’s plan for Pine Valley
The hard work of clearing the land of trees and building golf holes got underway. Progress was slow but steady, with Crump unafraid to deviate from the plan when a better option presented itself. For example, William Evans wrote of a change to the 13th in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, “Ground for the fairways had been cleared along the ridge…It occurred to Mr. Crump that the panoramic view from this ridge would be very desirable, and consequently he sent a gang of men in there to fell the trees. When the work was done, a magnificent golf hole was in evidence, a far greater hole that the one originally planned.”
In addition to being an architectural savant, George Crump also had a knack for promotion. He pioneered the concept of preview play. As holes were finished, play began as soon as possible for members and guests. A steady stream of high profile visitors stopped by to see the new course including C.B. Macdonald, Donald Ross, Robert Hunter, Walter Travis, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, William Fownes, Ben Sayers, Glenna Collett, Francis Ouimet, Chick Evans, Grantland Rice, Bernard Darwin, Max Behr, Jerry Travers, Alexa Sterling, John G. Anderson, Long Jim Barnes, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. Reviews were almost entirely glowing, but these visits served another purpose. Crump’s intent was for the course to evolve based on observing players and listening to their feedback. He continued to make mental notes and tinker as construction progressed. Over time, he expected the course to make a steady march toward perfection.
Progress was acutely painful at times, however. The field of agronomy was far from the established science that it is today. Growing healthy turf involved trial and error, which in the case of Pine Valley, amounted to a great deal of dead grass on the fairways and putting surfaces. Once again, Crump gathered ideas and anecdotes from all quarters, but the troubles mounted. Coupled with the financial and operational strain of attempting to build a golf course during war time, as well as other health issues, the visionary’s will to proceed finally ran out with fourteen holes completed. Tragically, George Crump took his own life before he was able to see the entirety of his dream course materialized.
Following through on what he started would fall to his friends in the fraternity.
A Cast of Characters
“George A. Crump, who died in 1918, loved golf for its own sake, and he loved the good shots of the game. More than most men, however, he realized that the making of good shots must be encouraged by good courses. Mr. Crump’s ideas led to the building of a course that will always be a monument to him. The Pine Valley course to a greater degree than any course that I have ever seen possesses individuality…Mr. Crump worked constantly on the whole landscape garden as if it were a picture, adding the needed touch here and there with the patience of an artist.” – Chick Evans
In spite of the deep sorrow felt by Crump’s friends at the loss of their ring leader, they resolved to carry on and complete Pine Valley. Hugh Wilson was the first to make a big impact. He built the remaining four holes from the Crump-Colt plan and managed to solve the agronomic issues. The turf would finally be on par with the design.
Next, it was decided that the intended improvements should be carried out to the fullest extent possible. A two day Advisory Committee meeting led by founding members Howard Perrin and Simon Carr was convened in which participants racked their brains for any recollections of Crump’s intended tweaks. C.H. Alison was tapped to provide his thoughts on course upgrades, which neatly dovetailed with the findings of the Committee. That work was carried out faithfully, and it was agreed that it finally met George Crump’s lofty standards.
The course continued to evolve in the years that followed as it matured and was played by more members, guests and competitive golfers. The pimple was removed from the putting surface on the 18th in 1928. William Flynn added a second green on the 9th and softened the bunkering in front of the 18th green. In 1929, Perry Maxwell, who by then was a member, made further modifications. He tuned up several greens and their surrounds, including the 4th, 5th and 9th. Through all these changes, present was the steady hand of greenkeeper Eb Steiniger, who consistently delivered playing surfaces that allowed Pine Valley to shine.
Eb Steiniger studies the bunkering on the 15th in 1954
Today, the course is under the care of Superintendent Richard Christian and consulting architect Tom Fazio, who has been a member since the 1980s and whose Uncle George was the club’s playing pro in the 1940s. Fazio built the companion short course, and has undertaken some tree removal and bunker renovation. George Crump did not intend for Pine Valley to be a static golf course—he desired continuous improvement. Would he want trees cleared and vistas restored? Would he like the new aesthetic of the bunkers and sandy wastes, or would he prefer they be more rugged? What would he make of modern agronomic capabilities? We, like Fazio and the membership, are left to speculate and debate. One thing is certain though, he would have loved to be in on lively discussions with friends, and he would hopefully take some satisfaction in Pine Valley’s position among the greatest golf courses in the world.
The Course Then & Now
“I personally feel that of all the golf courses that exist in golf, Pine Valley may be the only one where by moving a tee, fairway or green, you may not be able to improve it. You may be able to move something for the sake of change, but in terms of actually moving or recreating or adding something relative to the design of the golf course, I personally don’t think you could make it any better.” – Tom Fazio
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
In hindsight, there was an alchemical process that led to the creation of Pine Valley. Inspiration drawn from Scotland and the London heathland, applied to suitable ground that had been meticulously studied, influenced by brilliant design minds like Colt, Tillinghast and Wilson, allowed to freely evolve as opportunities for betterment arose. A formula that seems destined to yield greatness as we look back at it now was far less apparent when the alchemist was working through the steps. George Crump gave himself completely to Pine Valley, and through the course, his dream endures.
A course as timeless as Pine Valley is worthy of a tour delivered through both past and present lenses. Fortunately for the curious, the historical record is filled with the observations and impressions of many of golf’s greatest minds from the last century. To the fullest extent, their words have been employed, with links allowing for further exploration. Simon Haines (@Hainesy76) has generously opened up his treasure trove of historical photos covering almost every hole, which are contrasted with the modern photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems). A fortunate few players are afforded the opportunity to directly experience Pine Valley’s brilliance. For the rest of us, the hope is that the tour that follows allows for vicarious pleasure. Enjoy!
HOLE #1 – 421 yards – par 4
Crump was a match player, and he thought of his opener as both a first and potential 19th hole, drawing inspiration from one of his personal favorites at Hoylake—scorable, yet able to cause acute difficulties. Ran Morrissett of GolfClubAtlas wrote of Pine Valley’s 1st, “The demand for clear thinking is immediate: with the front portion of the green ample in width, is the golfer content to take two putts to get down? Or is he confident enough to chase after back hole locations where the green narrows? A wonderful dilemma posed by a bunkerless green site.”
HOLE #2 – 368 yards – par 4
Players quickly realize that, at Pine Valley, the yardage on the card is meaningless vis a vis a hole’s level of difficulty. “My word, do you play this hole, or just photograph it?” wrote John La Cerda in his profile for The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Golf Digest’s Jerry Tarde further describes the experience. “The 2nd is the longest, most treacherous 368 yards in golf,” he explained in his flyover video tour. “Church pew bunkers run up both sides of the fairway to a rising hill with a lunarscape of sand pits. You can only see the top of the flagstick.” Tom Fazio referred to the second shot on the 2nd as the impetus for building the short course. He just wanted to hit that shot over and over. “The green is even more perilous,” continued Tarde. “A missed shot is a death sentence. As the members say, Welcome to Pine Valley.’”
HOLE #3 – 198 yards – par 3
The collection of one-shotters at Pine Valley may be the best on the planet. They are varied, and all demanding of well-struck tee balls. “As sightly a hole as the golfing artist could wish to view; and as severe a test of golf skill as the expert iron player could crave,” wrote founding member Simon Carr in a 1915 issue of Golf Illustrated. “The green, a perfectly beautiful natural conformation, lies about fifteen feet below the level of the tee, with every part of its surface fully in view…A weakly hit ball, or a slightly pulled ball, needs no urging to trickle, or to shoot, into the depths of the graceful, serpentine bunker that winds around the whole left side of the green. On the right side, just at the distance the ball should carry, the bunker pushes two hungry mouths partway into the green, ready to gobble a ball the least bit too far to the right…There is no puzzle, no trick, no blind chance of play. It just requires the skill and nerve of a very finely controlled long iron shot.”
HOLE #4 – 499 yards – par 4
Crump was not shy about confronting players with intimidating looks from the tee. The experience elicited colorful reactions from early guests and visiting journalists. “(The course) has sandy wastes so extensive that they should be crossed only by camel,” wrote John Kieran from the New York Times. “From the fourth tee, the indignant visitor looks out over nothing but sand. The caddies point somewhere along the skyline and say, ‘Aim up there.’ There should at least be a pyramid or an obelisk as a roadmark for wayward golf traffic.” There is more to this stout four-par than the tee shot, as explained by Morrissett. “Crump was a master at fitting the green to the hole,” he wrote. “It comes as no surprise to find the green is open in front and is one of the biggest on the course. The green itself follows the general slope of the land, which is from front to back.”
HOLE #5 – 238 yards – par 3
There is a distinct satisfaction in successfully producing a shot at the very limits of one’s ability. The architects of the Golden Age often included a long par-3 to provide the opportunity for this thrill, and at Pine Valley, it comes at the magnificent 5th. Bernard Darwin described the experience well when he wrote, “What a memorable short hole is the fifth—one full spoon shot over a tremendous chasm stretching from tee to green, a wilderness of firs on the right, big bunkers on the left. To land the ball on that green—and there is no reason in the world why you should not do it if you are not frightened—provides a moment worth living for.”
HOLE #6 – 394 yards – par 4
“When the ridge along the 6th is reached, the panorama is so magnificent that it grips and holds hard like a spell,” gushed A.W. Tillinghast in American Cricketer magazine. “I defy any bred-in-the-bone golfer to stand on the ridge, gazing over that marvelous sweep of country, without feeling a glow of great satisfaction stealing over him, and he must say in his heart, ‘It is good to be here.’” Although the maturing of the forest has changed the view from that which Tilly saw in his day, Pine Valley is still spell-binding on every hole, including this dogleg right par-4 that invites players to challenge the corner for an advantageous approach in to the angled green.
HOLE #7 – 636 yards – par 5
In the modern age, where three-shotters often only take two, Pine Valley holds players to a more demanding standard, requiring consecutive shots that are both well conceived and struck. “The 7th is the longest hole on the course, 636 from the back, with Hell’s Half Acre, the hazard at its midpoint,” said Tarde. “You might say there are no bunkers at Pine Valley. It is one big bunker with occasional patches of grass. There also are no rakes at Pine Valley. Golfers are asked to smooth their deepest footprints, but otherwise the sand is left to be tended by the wind and rain.”
HOLE #8 – 328 yards – par 4
The clever architect creates a variety of challenges. As noted by Morrissett, “Since Crump’s death in 1918, Pine Valley has never once fallen prey to the false quest for length that first gripped courses in the 1960s.” The greatest courses test skill with every club in the bag, including the short clubs. When players are given an opportunity to have wedge in hand, those shots, including the approach to either of the two greens at the 8th, are no gimmes. “Pine Valley is generally considered to be the most terrifying course in the world,” penned Darwin, “and I, for one, have small doubt that the eighth hole is the most terrifying on it. After a good drive, the trembling wretch takes his mashie niblick and pitches for that little triangle of safety. If he fails, well…”
HOLE #9 – 458 yards – par 4
The 9th is the second straight par-4 that had an alternate green added, although it plays quite differently than the 8th. The approach shot to Crump’s original left green is the more demanding of the two. According to course historian James Finegan, “The player’s instinct is to take plenty of club in order to get up. Shallow bunkers in the back may contain the too aggressive shot, but eight or nine feet beyond the green, the earth falls abruptly away down a wooded slope so long and steep that the ball, if it doesn’t fetch up against a tree trunk, may actually edge out into the 18th hole, which, for all practical purposes, might as well be on another planet.”
HOLE #10 – 161 yards – par 3
If there is one hole that has come to embody Pine Valley in our consciousness, it is this short par-3. Simon Carr summed up the experience beautifully. “The tee is built out on the very edge of the ridge, with the valley on the left, 50 feet below,” he wrote. “The green is located on a knoll in the side of a huge sand hill. In the distance, the green looks like an uncut emerald, as it rests amid the yellow and white sands of the surrounding bunkers. It is the jewel of the round…The wind always blows out on the edge of the ridge where the tee is placed; it tests one’s judgment soundly to gauge this important factor accurately in playing the shot. Tee shots at this hole are either good or bad…One must play the shot just right, or fail.”
HOLE #11 – 397 yards – par 4
“Every hole at Pine Valley is dramatic and memorable,” wrote Tom Doak in Golf Magazine, “even the holes that nobody talks about, like the medium-length 11th, with its perfect tee shot into a saddled fairway and perfect pitch back up a narrow valley.” This hole presents subtler challenges, but playing an approach from an uneven lie to a well-defended green is no less demanding than facing a wall of sand, water hazard, or the Devil’s Asshole.
HOLE #12 – 337 yards – par 4
In the modern era of aerial golf, angles still matter at Pine Valley. From the right tee, the fairway is wide and allows for advantageous positioning into the long axis of the green. Finegan explained the versatility of the 12th, “If the hole is played from the oft-neglected left-hand tee, elevated and tucked well back in a glade, the forced carry is more like 170 yards than 150, the landing area is not in view, and the subsequent shot to the narrow green is longer and rather on a sharp angle, with only the top half of the flagstick visible. The left-hand tee was built in 1962 for the express purpose of toughening this hole. It succeeds admirably.”
HOLE #13 – 486 yards – par 4
One of the course’s many strengths is the variety. Lengths, directions, elevation, constantly shifting, keeping players on their toes, epitomized by the stretch from eleven through thirteen. “Pine Valley blends all three schools of design—heroic, penal and strategic—over the whole course, often on a single hole. For rugged grandeur, 13 may be the best of the best,” gushed Tarde. “486 yards, first to a perched landing area on the right, then a long second sweeping left, with death or glory at hand.” Simply put, an all-world four par.
HOLE #14 – 220 yards – par 3
Wiley architects often use beauty to mask peril, a tactic that players must guard against at the par-3 14th. “For the photographer or painter, the hole is enthralling,” wrote Finegan. “For the player, it is unnerving. The ‘island’ green awaits far below in its picturesque setting of water and trees and sand. Because of the falling nature of the shot, the hole plays less than the measured distance. The breeze, generally off the port bow, can be tricky, often hurling a softly flighted ball directly into the water short of the green or into the forest that is everywhere the water is not, yet sometimes failing to influence in any fashion a crisply lined iron that, alas, now splashes in the water beyond the green.”
HOLE #15 – 615 yards – par 5
The second of Pine Valley’s two par-5s is straightforward, and just plain hard. “It might have been 15 that Robert Trent Jones had in mind when he called Pine Valley the most difficult course in the world,” explained Tarde. “For most of us, this par-5 requires four full shots and a putt. Is it unfair at times? Maybe so. But isn’t that the ultimate test? Can a player hit a good shot, only to be crushed by a horrific result, and still find it within him or herself to rise to the occasion on the next one?”
HOLE #16 – 475 yards – par 4
The 16th switches back and runs down to the water, before the course turns and heads for home. Position off the tee is important to approach the green set up against the lake. “Those who can clear the sand from the tee on the optimum line will have the luxury of hitting an iron from the right side of the fairway to the left side of the largest green on the course, which is to say hitting away from the lake,” expanded Finegan. “A grand and wonderful hole it is, and one which, like its predecessor, fully rewards the big basher.”
HOLE #17 – 345 yards – par 4
One can imagine how exciting match play can be coming down the stretch. Opportunities for triumph and disaster abound. Morrissett peeled back a layer when he wrote, “(The 17th) highlights how revolutionary George Crump truly was and how well he understood the psychology of the game. Like Donald Ross, Crump understood that there must be give and take by the course architect and he allows the golfer a chance to birdie the penultimate hole to break 80…or 90…or 100. Of course, rash tactics that place the greedy golfer above the day’s hole location on this sharply pitched green can be the undoing of an otherwise fine round.”
HOLE #18 – 483 yards – par 4
The home hole encapsulates much of the spirit of Pine Valley. There are forced carries on both shots, first over sand and then over water and sand. There are intimidating hazards complemented by subtle contours. There is incomplete visibility—it’s all there on the 18th, but not necessarily all there in front of you. Both the fronting bunkers and green surface have undergone changes, making both less penal than they were in Crump’s day. Newspaperman Ted Hoyt described the infamous feature that was later removed. “The famous pimple on the 18th green at Pine Valley,” he wrote, “has probably been cussed out more by aggravated linksmen than any other single hazard in the country.”
“The world doesn’t need a lot more courses that are just like Pine Valley. Designers have been trying to imitate it, and they will forever fall short. But if more golf courses were developed by guys who cared as much as George Crump did, we’d be on the right road.” – Tom Doak
Is Pine Valley difficult? Of course it is. In fact, although many consider it to be the greatest course in the world, those who prefer a more relaxed feel for their everyday golf would not designate it their favorite, precisely because it is relentlessly demanding. But it is so much more than a hard golf course. From the use of the land in the routing, to strategic placement of hazards, to the contours of the greens, it is evident to all that the course was a labor of love for a group of golf’s best minds during the Golden Age. Its greatness endures because it taps into the satisfaction one feels having overcome a true challenge, even if only for one shot. At Pine Valley, every victory, large or small, is earned.
Beyond the play of the course though, let’s not forget that the founders sought to create a place of natural beauty where enjoyment of time spent on sport with one’s fellows would reign supreme. As was often the case in the early days, Simon Carr put words dripping with a religious fervor to the feelings of visitors then, and now: “It is then a golfing Paradise. It is so peaceful, so secluded, so restful, that you feel as if you were a thousand miles from the rout of the big city…As you wander over the Pine Valley hills and through its dales, your eye is feasted, with nature’s sweet, wild beauty; the odor of the wholesome pine delights your nostrils; you seem to gather health and cheerfulness at every step. There is the peace of seclusion, nature’s godly beauty, the pure joy of most excellent golf. With a sturdy old friend by your side to share it all—what more could an earthly paradise be?”
Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf