By Erik Matuszewski
Every year, groups of devoted golf fans make a pilgrimage to Georgia for the annual Masters Tournament. It’s a rare opportunity to stroll through one of the most picturesque and historic golf courses in the world—one that 99.9 percent of golfers won’t ever get the chance to play themselves.
Now imagine if you could experience one of golf’s most exclusive clubs even more intimately, and at a fraction of the cost. Well, you can, and many golf junkies aren’t even aware of it.
While the Masters is played annually in early April, the Crump Cup is contested each year in late September at Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey. Pine Valley, like Augusta National, is among the most elite of the game’s private clubs. Unknown to many locals at the congested shopping plazas just down the road, the stunningly strategic course has been regarded as the finest design in the world, built on sandy soil and weaving through the scrub and pine trees of South Jersey.
And one Sunday afternoon a year early in the football season, Pine Valley opens its gates to the public to view the final round of one of the premier amateur events.
The invite-only George Arthur Crump Memorial Tournament has been held for 94 years in honor of Pine Valley’s founder, who enlisted a host of the game’s most celebrated golf architects—names like A.W. Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, George C. Thomas Jr., Walter Travis, and Harry Colt—to help create his masterpiece that sits midway between Philadelphia and the Jersey shore. Whether you’re a golf architecture buff or hardcore fan, the date to plan a trip for this year is Sept. 29, with access to the course starting at 12:45 p.m. local time.
The experience is drastically different than that at the Masters and other professional golf tournaments.
There’s off-site parking (at the Dan Dougherty Sports Complex on Berlin Road) that costs $25 per car and benefits the local youth athletic association. Buses shuttle fans to the course itself, passing a nearby waterpark before driving down a narrow, non-descript gravel road and unloading outside one of the club’s secondary gates. From there, you’ll cross a train track and pass the guard shack before setting foot on the grounds of a golf course that a select few ever get to see.
Unlike the abundance of food and beverage options at the Masters or other big golf events, there’s a simple refreshment stand set up inside the front gate of the club. Again, proceeds benefit the local youth sports organization.
While there are limited concessions and no merchandise pavilion, there are also no ropes, so it’s almost unfettered access to what’s ranked by Golf Digest as the No. 1 course in the U.S.
As long as they’re not interfering with play, visitors basically get to walk wherever they want, from the perfectly manicured fairways to the challenging, complex, and undulating greens.
Born and raised in New Jersey, I’d long heard the tales and seen pictures of Pine Valley. But there’s truly nothing like being there and seeing in person the fearsome tee shot on the 230-yard, par-three 5th hole, traversing the massive waste bunker on the par-five 7th known as “Hell’s Half Acre,” or getting an up-close look at the tiny and fiendishly deep bunker that guards the front right of the par-three 10th hole— a pit widely referred to as the Devil’s… well, let’s go with “aperture” to keep it clean.
I’ve visited Pine Valley for the Crump Cup several times over the years, including at least one occasion in which I never even saw a single golf shot. The last time, I walked the course from the first tee to the 18th green, imagining how I’d tackle the course if given the opportunity. Even without a club in hand, it’s fun to visualize just how much of the yawning waste area you’d challenge with your opening tee shot. At one point, I found a lost golf ball in a gnarly bush and rolled it on a few of the greens to get a feel for the speed and breaks.
The amateur competitors in the Crump Cup aren’t household names, but there will be players in the five flights known to diehard golf fans. Among the 2018 competitors were Stewart Hagestad, who this year became the first amateur in 34 years to qualify for the U.S. Open three times in a row, and Matt Parziale, the firefighter from Brockton, Mass., who grabbed headlines at the 2018 Masters and made the cut at last year’s U.S. Open to tie as the low amateur finisher.
For many visitors, though, the course is the star of this show. Just be forewarned that photographs aren’t permitted at the Crump Cup, meaning that cameras or mobile phones aren’t allowed—no different than on tournament days at Augusta National.
For one afternoon of the year, Pine Valley offers unique access for golf fans. It’s well worth a visit, while holding out hope that just maybe you’ll play it yourself someday.