“Just have fun,” Bill, the security guard at the gate said after I asked him what one piece of advice, he had to offer me before I played the number one rated golf course in America. The final pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. After reading the email I sent out informing the people who were following my journey that Pine Valley and Shinnecock had become a challenge in the final weeks before my deadline for completing America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, Dave, who had hosted me at Scioto, introduced me to his friend Jim. He offered to help me with Pine Valley and for no other reason known to me other than him having a heart of gold, got a fellow member to host me there. It was just one more bit of that special magic that I’d experienced from the many kind and generous golfers that I’d met or been introduced to as I pursued the validation of my belief in the American Dream.
Bill directed me to the practice range where I found my host Chris, a young guy with a round face. He introduced me to his other two guest, Cory, a middle-aged fellow with sandy hair and his son Tim, a tall stout young man with a four handicap. We completed our warmup on the range and headed directly to the first tee where I met Owen, a barrel-chested Jamaican with a close-cropped beard. He sensed as many caddies before him had, my first tee jitters as I stood mesmerized by the narrow fairway bending from left to right between thick trees impinging off its left and right sides. I pulled out my scorecard to check the rating and the slope for the course from the regular tees. Though it measured just 6557, not surprisingly its rating was 73.6 with a 153 slope. If there was such a thing as a slope to yard ratio, Pine Valley would be at the top.
With his smooth Jamaican accent, Owen said, “just relax my brother, you got more room out there than you think.” I stood over the ball and reminded myself of Bill’s advice and sent my ball flying down the middle of the fairway. It leaked slightly to the right before dropping onto the short grass.
Owen said, “you got 162 yards to that back pin, but its into the wind and slightly up hill so play it 185 yards.” I grabbed my five hybrid and put a good swing on the ball. It started at the flag, drifted right then hit off the mound off the front right of the green and kicked into the bunker.
Owen said, “just get it out and anywhere onto the green.” I dug my feet into the sand and with the acumen of a single handicap golfer (that wouldn’t be me!) I hit the ball to 10 feet left of the pin. Owen said, “I’m impressed.” I said, “don’t be, it was pure luck.” My par putt slide by the hole. I tapped in for a bogey to open my round on the 96th course of my dream quest.
I couldn’t have imagined a worse result. I had chosen to hit a three wood off the tee on the 355-yard second hole. My ball hit into face of one of the many bunkers dotting the rough along the right edge of the fairway and plugged just below the thick prickly rough.
It was a harsh punish for missing the fairway by less than five yards. It felt as unfair as the brutal swats my sixth grade P.E. teacher used to administer to me with a wooden paddle every day for not suiting out for class. It mattered neither to him nor anyone else in the school that I couldn’t afford the white shorts and tee shirt that we were required to wear. It was one of the many early life experiences that taught me that life was not fair, so I’d better learn to deal with it.
I dealt with the plugged lie by hitting down steeply onto the ball. Owen and I breathed a sigh of relief as it shot out of the bunker and into the fairway. It turned out to be much less painful than those swats. My third shot landed three and a half feet from the cup. Still in disbelief that I’m made such a good recovery and with the steadiness of a jack hammer, I pushed by putt by the hole. Bogey.
The par three 185-yard third hole is all carry over sand with patches of prickly native grasses. It’s the green or a double bogey. My ball sailed over the sand and landed on the left side of the green just past the middle, but still 50 feet from the back-right pin. Owen said, “now we’re cooking, lets get a par.”
It seemed like it took forever for the ball to get to the hole, but only a fraction of a second to speed four feet past. My confidence grew as I watched the comeback putt drop into the cup for my first par.
That sense of confidence was fleeting. The fourth hole fairway on the other side of the vast waste area filled with sand and more prickly grass looked like it was the size of a postage stamp. My drive flew much father than the 200 yards needed to carry the danger but sliced just enough to land in the sand off the right side of the fairway.
Owen said, “just make a smooth swing and get it back into play.” Unfortunately, my smooth swing wasn’t good enough to get the ball over the bunkers in the rough between where the fairway ended and where it picked back up sixty yards farther. My third shot missed the green to left and sank into the rough on the upslope of the front left bunker. Three shots and not one into the short grass.
I pitched onto the green and two-putted for my first double bogey. I walked off the green murmuring “just have fun.”
If you want to know how hard Pine Valley is, just consider the par three fifth hole. There are ten holes easier than this 220-yard hole with a carry over water, rough, and bunkers all to reach a green sandwiched between bunkers and trees to the left and tight trees to the right. I pulled my tee shot into the gnarly native grass in the bunker well short and left of the green.
We had to dig through the rough like a hog rooting for food with its snout. We found the ball, but it took all the strength I had to advance just 10 yards. I hit my third shot onto the green and two-putted for another double bogey.
Every ounce of confidence had been sucked from my body. I was extremely relieved when my drive carried the treacherous waste area on the right side of the left to right shaped sixth fairway framed by very tight trees along its left side and trees to the right of the bunkers off its right side.
My heart sank a little when Owen and I approached my ball and discovered that it had rolled through the fairway and into the left rough. My ball was nestled down just one foot off the edge of the fairway, but I knew that would make all the difference in the world on my approach shot. I was born into circumstances with no margin for error. As a lad, I understood that the smallest and slightest of mistakes could mean the difference between my dream of becoming the first person I knew to graduate from high school and a life of continued poverty and struggles. That’s what it’s like on every shot at Pine Valley. There is no room for error. The slightest miss can spell disaster.
I closed the club face a little too much on my second shot. The ball stayed left and landed in the rough well short of the green. My third shot flew over the green. I chipped on to five feet but putting takes confidence and at this point I had none. I missed the putt and made another double bogey.
Have you ever watched someone with a wide foot try to slide it into a narrow shoe or someone with a 36-inch waist try to squeeze into a size 32 pair of jeans? That’s what it is like trying to hit a drive into the narrow strip of grass shoe-horned between the trees that stand just a few feet off the edges of the fairway on the 573-yard par five seventh hole at Pine Valley Golf Club. I hit my drive down the right side of the fairway. The ball hit a branch on a tree that stood just five feet off the edge of the fairway and dropped straight down into the rough.
Owen advised that I lay up short of the sand that separated the first 300 yards of the fairway from the last 150 yards. I didn’t take his advice and tried to hit a three wood from the rough. My ball fell five yards short of carrying the sand. Bill probably should have said I’d have more fun if I listened to my caddie. I listened to Owen on my third shot and laid up short of the sand off the front of the small turtle back seventh green before pitching on and two putting for a bogey.
At just 314 yards the eighth hole is the shortest and easiest par four on the course, but I thought back to a statement made by a former chairman of ExxonMobil during a tough time for the refining business. A reporter asked him if he was comforted by having some of the best refineries in the industry. He said something like, “I take no comfort in being the last man standing in a dying industry.” Like Lee Raymond, I took no solace in playing an easy hole on one of the most challenging golf courses in the world. 90 degrees may not be as hot as 100 degrees, but it is still hot. Owen said, “The fairway on this hole gets wider the farther you hit the ball.” You can’t see that from the tee. The view from the tee gives you the sense that you need to land a 747 on a helipad. I hit my three wood down the middle of the fairway.
After playing 95 of the most interesting golf courses in the country, I thought I’d seen just about everything. I had not. The eighth hole at Pine Valley has two greens separated by sand. The pin was set on the left green. I pushed my approach shot into the bunker separating the two greens. That was probably the absolute worse place to miss the green. It took two shots to get out of the bunker. I walked off the green with a six.
The 422-yard ninth hole offered no illusion of being easy. While I’d figured out that there was almost always more fairway than meets the eye when standing on the tee, there is just no coming back from missing the fairway. I hit my drive into one of the many bunkers along the right side of the fairway. Owen said, “just get it back into play.” I think he saw how frustrated I was getting. He said, “I can tell you know how to play golf, but you seem very tense. Just relax and swing the club.” It was easier for him to say than for me to do as I watched Chris dismantle the course hole by hole. Best I could tell, he had birdied one hole and made just two bogeys so far. My biggest problem was that I allowed myself to envy his game rather than playing my own. I did as Owen instructed me and hit my ball back to the fairway.
It took four more strokes to get my ball to the bottom of the cup and finish the front nine with a 49.
The back nine starts with the easiest hole on the course, a 142-yard par three with a narrow chute framed by trees and a carry over a treacherous swath of sand culminating in deep bunkers around a small green. Owen admonished me to take my time and focus on hitting the green. He said, landing in the sand on this hole was one of the worst things I could do. I took an extra half club, made a smooth swing and struck the ball as purely as I’d done all day. The ball landed twelve feet to the right of the pin. Owen gave me a nod of approval. My birdie putt slid by the hole. I tapped in for only my second par of the round.
I made bogey on the 385-yard eleventh hole following a member’s bounce to the fairway after my drive hit a tree. I guess that’s what happens when the trees are so close to the edge of the fairway. It balanced out however when my 8-foot par putt stopped after rolling 7 feet 9 inches. I followed with another bogey on the short par four twelfth hole with its wider than normal but still tree lined fairway.
Owen’s pep talk on the 10th tee had helped. My good fortunes continued on the 442-yard thirteen hole. I hit a nice drive down the middle of the fairway.
My confidence was starting to return and with it a little extra adrenaline. I hit my three hybrid onto the green, but it had so much juice that it rolled off and into the bunker. A good sand shot left me with a fifteen-foot par putt which I missed. I left the green a little disappointed with a bogey after having made two good swings.
The final par three on the course is another reminder that on a difficult course, even the easiest holes are challenging. The 187-yard fourteenth hole plays downhill but the slight reduction in distance to the mustn’t miss green is no consolation. The good news was the hole was cut on the back. The bad news was the hole was cut on the back. It was good news because it theoretically took the water and the sand off the front of the green out of play. It was bad news because it put the water behind the green in play. In addition to not having anywhere to miss long or short, I couldn’t miss right because of a bunker nor left because of the trees. This was a green surrounded by double bogey over here signs. Owen said, “look at the green and nothing else, you’re playing well.” That’s all I needed. He gave me my five iron and I flushed it to ten feet right of the pin.
Owen pointed to the line. I struck the ball. It headed toward the cup, stopping two inches from a birdie. Par.
It’s all right there in front of you on the 574-yard par five fifteenth hole. My eyes stared beyond the water in front of the tee box to the telescoping left to right sloping fairway that cut through more tight trees. The bunkers off the left side of the fairway seemed too close to be an issue. My drive landed on the right side of the fairway and rolled into the rough. With 340 yards between my ball and the pin, I tried to hit my drive. The ball traveled just 120 yards but made the fairway. My driver off the fairway traveled even less, leaving 130 yards to the pin. I missed the green with my fourth shot, pitched on and two-putted for my first double bogey on the back nine.
On the sixteenth hole I hit a pop up that landed in the sand between the tee box and the fairway. My second shot landed in the swath of rough that interrupted the fairway about 80 yards from the green.
It took four more shots to complete the hole. Double bogey.
Owen told me to hit a 200-yard shot off the tee on the 342-yard seventeenth hole to avoid reaching the waste area that spanned from the end of the fairway to the front of the green. My ball landed on the right edge on the fairway and rolled in a rare first cut of rough.
I overcooked my approach shot as I tried to fade it around the trees to reach the green. It took him a while, but Owen eventually found my ball buried deep into the rough short and well right of the green. I couldn’t put enough club on the ball to get it to the green. I chipped on and two putted for a disappointing double bogey.
Following my senior year of high school, I took a bus with several other high school athletes to Estes Park, Colorado to attend a weeklong summer camp with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the YMCA of the Rockies. It was the first time I’d seen the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. A group of us hiked up to Bear Lake during our free time one afternoon. Each peak along the way looked like the summit until we reached it, then we’d see the next one and then the next one. Once we made it to the beautiful alpine lake with the snow-capped mountains rising beyond it, it was the most heavenly sight I’d ever seen. That’s how I felt as we approached the final drive of the day at Pine Valley. It had been one relentless shot after another culminating with a view that was as awestriking and as it was frightening.
While the fairway looked uncharacteristically generous, the tight trees off to the left and the labyrinth of bunkers off to the right looked as menacing as any I had faced on this beautiful Tuesday afternoon.
I put the awe and fear out of my mind and focused on putting a good swing on the ball. I hit one of those drives that makes me think I know how to play this game. The ball sailed down the middle of the fairway then dropped from the sky and kicked right but remained well in the fairway leaving about 155 yards, a cross bunker, water, and a web of bunkers off the front of the green to reach the cup.
Owen said, “you got to land the ball on the left half of the green.” I over did it, pulling the ball into the deep rough to the left of the green. I chipped on and after an unceremonious two-putt, my round at Pine Valley was finished. I’d managed to make it around the back nine in four fewer strokes than the front nine for a disappointing total score of 94.
Following the round Chris introduced me to Charley and David, the General Manager and Head Golf Professional at the club. Charley asked what I thought of the course. I said, “I eventually figured out that there is more room off the tee than meets the eye, but you can’t use it all because there is no where to miss on the second shot.” Pine Valley is a course with no let up. There are no easy holes and you must hit every shot on every hole. Chris was the only golfer in our group that came close to doing just that, but he too was challenged on the back nine, shooting a 40 after his 36 on the front. Before I left the club, Charley presented me with a book from Jim on the history of the course. I will treasure it as a memento of my round on the 96th course in my one-year quest.
As my grandmother used to say when I was a young boy, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” over the remaining six days I will travel from New Jersey to Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho to play The Golf Club at Black Rock and Gozzer Ranch then to Kiawah Island, South Carolina to play the Ocean Course before heading to Cashiers, North Carolina to finish up at Wade Hampton.