Too good

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Too good
By Toby Ingleton

Golf courses sometimes inspire negative feelings; whether it be an incoherent routing that turns a good walk into an unfriendly trek, paying a major championship green fee for a Monday medal golf course, or the feeling that you are about as welcome as an outbreak of anthracnose basal rot.

But you don't expect to feel negative about a golf course consistently ranked best in the world.

Almost from the moment I passed through the innocuous entrance gate at Pine Valley, I began to experience mild depression. At first, I put this down to the fact that heavy rain looked like threatening our chance to play – rather like showing a child the toy that was at the top of her Christmas list and then taking it away.

In fact, the cause was altogether different and became increasingly apparent from the moment the clouds broke and we went out onto the course.

It all boils down to the fact that Pine Valley is too good. Maybe it is a personality flaw, an inability to live in the present. But I found it all too easy to spend the entire round rueing the fact that I'd probably never get to play there again, and that nowhere else could possibly compare.

When later asked to describe Pine Valley, one of my playing partners said: "Take the very best hole from your very favourite of the Surrey sandbelt courses, inject it with a high dose of steroids, and then make it twice as good. Now put it alongside seventeen others and you have a course that is about half as good as Pine Valley." High praise indeed, but those lucky enough to have visited might understand the sentiment.

While recognising that my awe might be in part down to the exclusivity of Pine Valley and a knowledge of how privileged I was to be playing there, it is an experience that isn't even close to having been matched elsewhere. Quite apart from the clubhouse, which is full of character, charm and history, the course delights at every turn. It's impossible to single out a highlight, as there's one with every shot.

The best-known holes are maybe the par threes, and you could stand on any of those tees and happily hit balls all day. But that's the same from almost any spot on the course. I wasn't overanalytical while there, I didn't try to decode what makes it great, and I guess a sign of a truly skilled architect is that nothing seems contrived, it simply leaves you wanting; to come back the next day, and every day for more of the same.

With so many superlatives, why the negativity? Perhaps it is the sense that the rest of your golfing years will be spent playing an inferior product. The problem is one of yardsticks. For each course I visit now, Pine Valley is there, like a little demon sitting on my shoulder, saying: 'I'm so much better than this'. You inevitably compare, but you know that is unfair. It's not solely down to the skill of founder George Crump, or Harry Colt, or the other architects who visited and advised on the course. Other architects aren't blessed with that landscape and are likely to be burdened by planning regulations and budgetary restrictions or a client that doesn't share their vision of greatness.

So I'm trying hard to be more positive.

Pine Valley has made me realise what a huge contribution a good canvas can have in making a great course, particularly in the hands of great designers and a visionary owner. I have an increased admiration for the great courses that don't have notable elevation change, as I think that has a huge role in Pine Valley's appeal. And I'm trying my very best to silence the demon when visiting a new course.

Maybe your Pine Valley is the Old Course, Cypress Point or Muirfield. But it could be worse. There may be some poor individuals for who these feelings were inspired by Lido, CB Macdonald's grand design that, before falling foul of the Depression and World War Two was ranked alongside Pine Valley and National Golf Links of America as the United States' finest. At least my favourite course still exists.

This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.

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