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Pine Valley's Mythic Moment

Another neat thing about top amateur events is that they expose imperfections. Touring pros are simply too good, their swings animated by an alchemy most of us just can't understand. This is not to say the amateurs aren't very fine players in their own right, but it's fun to watch swings that can sometimes be a little closer to our own. Plus, compared to the pros, amateurs are more likely to commit the odd tactical error. "So many times," says noted course architect Steve Smyers, "you'll hit a good shot, but it'll be the wrong shot."

At Pine Valley, the wrong shot, no matter how well struck, nearly always lands in a world of trouble, and this is to say nothing of the shot both poorly planned and executed. It is not unusual to wander into the woods in search of a sliced tee ball only to find it in an ancient, unkept bunker. This isn't exactly by design—tree growth over nine decades has naturally thinned playing corridors in places, but the club hasn't seen any reason to cut them back, either. Which is very much in the spirit of Pine Valley's founder, Philadelphia hotelier George Crump, who believed poor shots should be penalized severely.

James Finegan, in his club history, provides a rich anecdote to illustrate Crump's mind-set. During a 1915 round, a playing partner buried his ball high in the face of one of the course's deepest bunkers. "If I fall off here, I'll break my neck!" the man complained, to which Crump replied, "Now you've got it. We build them so high that the dub golfers would all break their necks. This is a course for champions."

Note that Crump did not say a "championship course," instead emphasizing the players themselves. Pine Valley was founded to enable its members, as Finegan explains, "to develop the well-rounded games that would make them contenders in national championships." In pursuit of this goal, Crump enlisted a murderer's row of the day's finest architects to lend their expertise. Harry Colt, who made major contributions to the routing, is at the top of the list. He is credited with solving the problem of smoothly moving the player from the low ground of the fourth green to the ridgeline of the sixth tee by creating the uphill 235-yard par-three fifth, one of the most daunting holes in golf.

Among others to visit the site and provide feedback were George Thomas, C. B. Macdonald and Walter Travis, who enthused about the idea of a reversible routing (a short-lived conceit). Hugh Wilson, of Merion fame, completed the stretch from twelve to fifteen after Crump's death in 1918. And A. W. Tillinghast wrote later that the founder's decision to use a few of his suggestions, including the concept for the par-four thirteenth, would always be "the source of great satisfaction."

It was on this hole that I first caught up with the group I followed at the 2006 Crump Cup. In it were Buddy Marucci and Trip Kuehne, two of the preeminent amateurs of our time (both were runners-up to Tiger Woods in the U.S. Amateur); Northern Ireland's Garth McGimpsey, who competed in the last major international event at Pine Valley, the 1985 Walker Cup; and Steve Smyers. Remarkably, this was a third-flight foursome—the pitfalls of the stroke-play qualifier are so intense that such national-caliber players can fall well out of the championship flight.

They had started on the back nine, and because morning rains had washed out the early session, the championship was being decided by one round of medal play rather than the traditional matches. So the 486-yard par-four thirteenth was their fourth hole, delivering them early in their round to the psychic crux of the course.

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