Awesome, flat-out awesome. I don't know how else to describe Pine Hill Golf Club in South Jersey.
|At a glance|
| Getting there: Pine Hill Golf Club is at 500 W. Branch Ave., Pine Hill, Camden County. From Philadelphia, cross the Walt Whitman Bridge and take Route 42 south to the Blackwood/Pine Hill exit. Turn right at the stop sign. Go 2.6 miles to the eighth traffic light, then turn right onto De Cou Road/Branch Avenue. The course is seven-tenths of a mile on the right. The phone number is 856-435-3100, or toll free, 1-877-450-8866. The Web site is www.golfpinehill.com.
Greens fees: Weekends and weekdays including cart $130, after 2 p.m. $100, after 4 p.m. $70.
Carts: Walking discouraged, if you choose to walk, expect some long hikes between holes.
Amenities: Banquet facility, pub and grill, driving range, putting and chipping greens, fully-stocked pro shop.
Rating: Excellent, potential 4 1/2-star to five-star course. Best daily-fee course in the area, like Bulle Rock without the drive. Upscale country-club-for-a-day facility. Still a work in progress; clubhouse will be completed in the spring.
Information accurate as of 8/22/2002
But I have now played a preview round at Pine Hill, and I am here to tell you that you can count me among the officially optimistic, the excited, the totally converted believers. Pine Hill, which is scheduled to open in the spring (limited public play is available now through Dec. 10), is nothing short of breathtaking, beautiful and brutal.
Let's be honest, though. Pine Hill is not Pine Valley. There is only one Pine Valley, the world-famous enclave discreetly tucked away in the piney woods near Clementon, Camden County, and universally ranked by the golf magazines as the No. 1 golf course anywhere. Beyond the exquisite golf course itself, there are also the history and mystique of the ultra-private Pine Valley.
For us nonmembers, Pine Hill will have to do - and that is not such a bad thing.
As far as I am concerned, as of the day it opens, Pine Hill will become the undisputed No. 1 daily-fee course in the area.
Think half-again better than Fazio's other recognized work in the area, Hartefeld National. Think Bulle Rock without the 90-minute drive south in Maryland. Think of a golf course where most every hole is a treat for your eyes and a test of your game, a golf course where fairways are engulfed by trees, isolating most holes from the others.
Naturally, Pine Hill is also a strain on your finances - greens fees will be in the $125 range - but worth every penny of it.
"We are going after people who want something superb," said developer Eric Bergstol, who eventually will sink $20 million, including $6 million for the clubhouse, into Pine Hill. "We think there is a market for it."
With stratospheric greens fees and posh country-club-for-a-day treatment, Bergstol realizes Pine Hill will attract a few corporate memberships and a ton of expense-account and special-occasion golf. That means few golfers ever will get a chance to learn every nook and cranny of the course.
So, the solution was to have Fazio, who is masterful with a bulldozer, design a course with a Pine Valley look and feel, but not make it so difficult and penal. He has done just that. Though Pine Hill, at 6,969 yards, pitches and pitches, twists and turns, it has nothing like the teeth of Pine Valley.
"It is an accepting golf course," said Bergstol, a single-digit handicapper. "The carries are shorter, and the greens are bigger and gentler. The whole course is more subtle."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
As with most every other Fazio course I've played, the real test of your game comes on the second shot. He perches greens above the fairways, he tucks them behind high-faced bunkers, he somehow makes even the most routine approach shot seem intimidating.
At Pine Hill, he also had a wonderful piece of land on which to work his magic. Fazio gives you sandy waste areas, but not on the scale of Pine Valley, and not so hair-raising. Rare is the hole that is flat. Equally rare is the hole that doesn't have you standing on the tee, shaking your head at the view, the whole scene. On three holes, when you step to the tee, looming in the distance is the Center City skyline.
"Do you realize this is about the eighth hole you've described as gorgeous or beautiful?" a buddy informed me as I made notes to myself into a tape recorder during our round.
Even if Pine Hill isn't as difficult or penal as Pine Valley - who would want it to be? - it is more than enough of a challenge, even for the best of players. The course hasn't been rated yet, but I suspect it will likely come in with a slope of 130-plus.
It's impossible to pick a signature hole at Pine Hill because at least half a dozen qualify for a picture postcard, but the 10th had to be one of my favorites. From the back tee, it's a monster par 4, 477 yards, that requires two monster shots.
It starts high up on a hill with a commanding view. No matter how hard you hammer your tee shot, you're looking at 200 yards to a green that's guarded by an imposing-looking, ball-eating crevasse and a couple of sizable, nasty bunkers.
"Do you believe this hole?" my buddy asked me.
No, I didn't. Except, yes, I did.
If there is a disappointment about Pine Hill, it is that it's not a course you'd want to walk. Because of wetlands and environmentally protected areas on the 360-acre property that were off-limits to Fazio, the trek from one green to the next is considerable on several holes.
That complaint aside, however, Pine Hill is out of this world.
Orginally published Sunday, Oct. 22, 2000