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Navigating the peaks and valleys in New Jersey

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,

PINE VALLEY, N.J. -- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the goofiest of times. I speak of my experiences at exquisite Pine Valley, the golfing Shangri-La in southern New Jersey considered by most to be the world's finest golf course.

What makes Pine Valley the pinnacle of the game? It's more than the course, an otherworldly combination of gorgeous and dangerous, where each hole burns a permanent imprint into the consciousness of all but the most scatterbrained golfer. The psychological demands of the layout are unending, as virtually every drive and approach shot require a forced carry, however modest, over sand, scrub and ominous vegetation. Perhaps because the golf itself is so relentless in intensity, the rest of the experience is so wonderfully agreeable.

The caddies are absolute marvels, and are able to unearth balls in the undergrowth and read double breaking putts with equal aplomb. The clubhouse is simple and unaffected, but drips with golf history. The showerheads are the size of Frisbees, the food is superb, the drinks are stiff, the beer ice cold, and the membership roster littered with names like Palmer, Player, Fazio and Thomson.

What more can one really ask for? Excuse me, I digress.

To appreciate the absurdity of this tale, one must first understand the normal state of my golf game. It's best described as occasional flashes of extreme competence interrupted by long stretches of sustained mediocrity. My resume is as sparse as a rye grass fairway in mid-winter, and contains but a single hole-in-one, a single round at even par, and a single digit handicap ever-threatening to move to 10 and points northward.

It was a wholly unexpected and delightful shock then, not only to be invited to play this garden of Eden, a golf course I never thought I'd see in person, but to overcome four 6s, several doubles, no birdies and a couple of three putts during my inaugural round several years ago and post a score of 78.

My spiked feet were 10 feet off the ground as we headed to the dining room for lunch as I contemplated the magnitude of the achievement. Common wisdom at Pine Valley states that no first-timer will tour the treacherously dazzling layout in less than 80 strokes, and somehow I defied the odds and my own inabilities to do just that. It remains my single proudest moment on the golf course, and I have the framed scorecard hanging in my office to commemorate it.

Fast forward two years later. I'm making an encore appearance, this time as the guest of none other than the club's former president and chairman of the board, a member with more than 50 years of tenure. This round is the antithesis of the first, forgettable from a playing standpoint in every way, other than the day's last shot.

Determined to overcome the weak fade that's left me short and right of virtually every green on the property, I overcompensated on the final approach, unleashing a vicious pull that veered thirty or more yards left of the target line. It went through the trees, into the tiny parking lot adjacent to the clubhouse, coming to rest only after detonating the rear window of a late model Mercedes.

Don't expect me to hit a medium sized green with a pitching wedge, but if you need someone wielding a fairway wood to smash a piece of tempered glass the size of a large breadbox from 200 yards away, then apparently I'm your man.

The shock and embarrassment were mitigated a bit by the odd physics of the incident. My wayward rocket somehow eluded the much taller SUV parked two feet away from the low slung coupe, and much like the magic bullet that killed Kennedy, mysteriously swooped down to the target in a flurry of flying glass.

The incredible irony of the whole thing was the identity of my victim. I was expecting to be castigated by a Pine Valley member; a captain of industry, international jet-setter, former amateur champion or some combination of the three. Instead the car's owner turned out to be another guest at the club, the executive editor of a golf magazine that I contribute to with some regularity. To his credit I never saw the slightest hint of a scowl, sigh, shrug or head shake when he learned of my misdeed. Although when I introduced myself as someone who works for his magazine, he cheerfully replied "not anymore," while offering a hearty handshake.

Only time and a timely insurance check will determine if that particular freelance outlet has dried up, but we exchanged information, I apologized profusely to all concerned, and we parted ways.

A few days later I was the guest of the professional at another superb club in the area, Metedeconk National in Jackson, N.J. I had apparently purged the troubling incident from my mind, the golf gods were smiling once again, and just like the initial foray at Pine Valley several years earlier, I unexpectedly walked off the 18th green having taken less than 80 blows.

My Pine Valley host is a member here as well, and I would relish the chance to someday return to Metedeconk. I'd no doubt play with unbridled confidence given an encore presentation, and it would have little to do with how well I played or the numbers adding up on the scorecard. You see at Metedeconk, there's a shuttle waiting by the final green. The parking lot, chock full of shiny, late model imports, is way over on the other side of the clubhouse, about 500 yards away.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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