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Into Pine Valley: The Crump Cup

Note: This article was originally published in the September 2007 issue of Travel + Leisure Golf. With the 2009 Crump Cup around the corner (Sunday, Sept. 20), I thought it would be worthwhile to reprint it with some new photos, courtesy of Chip Gaskins and GolfCourseClassics.com.

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Clementon Amusement Park in South Jersey is not exactly a place brimming over with good cheer. Although it is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, the park carries a distinct aura of hard luck—all faded paint and sharp edges and arcane dangers.

But once a year, usually on the last Sunday afternoon in September, the park becomes a portal to another world. A yellow school bus idles in its parking lot; the driver collects ten dollars from those who board. The bus heads down a nondescript lane and then, minutes later, pulls up at the end of a gravel road, where local kids sell burgers and hot dogs off a grill and soft drinks from a cooler. Nearby, a small green-and-white building serves as both town hall and police station and hints that the territory beyond is a separate and sovereign place, far removed from the strip-mall tedium of the surrounding burbs.

A man in a blazer waits near a guardhouse and hands the visitor a scorecard. “Have a nice time,” he says. And just like that, one steps, blinking in disbelief, inside the sylvan fold and onto the grounds of what’s commonly regarded as the greatest golf course in the world: Pine Valley.

2699912361_0637eb800e_bThe combination of a famously private club and its notoriously challenging course creates a powerful effect. The first-time visitor half expects to witness the secret rites of some kind of eastern Bohemian Grove—captains of industry wandering shirtless among the trees, their faces painted with smashed berries, the sound of drums just over the next ridge. But alas, it’s just a golf tournament, and a very good one at that.

The event is the Crump Cup, a four-day amateur invitational in which two rounds of stroke-play qualifying are followed by four rounds of match play. Only for the last round, on Sunday afternoon, is the public invited in. Since its inception in 1922, the Cup’s roster of champions has run from Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans to Billy Joe Patton (five-time low amateur at the Masters) and nine-time winner Jay Sigel. You will not, in short, find many dates on the amateur-golf calendar that are more prestigious.

There are essentially three ways to enjoy the Crump Cup, none of which involves throwing a folding chair down on a par-three—the course must be seen in its entirety. The biggest galleries follow the drama of the championship match, but some visitors might choose to check out the scoreboard near the eighteenth green and select a pairing of special interest. And others might well decide to follow no one at all: The course is sparsely populated enough that one can seek out entire holes to walk in glorious solitude.

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Hell's Half Acre, without the pressure of having to blast a fairway wood over it!

When it comes to absorbing the design of a great course, attending a high-level amateur event like the Crump Cup is light years better than punching a ticket to the local PGA Tour stop. True, there are no sandwiches or beer for sale on the grounds, but neither are there ropes to keep spectators off the fairways. The small galleries walk the course just as the players do, following groups at a respectful distance and, of course, staying off the greens. Visitors get a much better sense of sight lines and land contours when they aren’t shunted off to the margins, much less buried in a gallery.

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.

Exploring the long par-three fifth, Crump Cup visitors will discover plenty of places where you *really* don't want to hit the ball.

Exploring the par-three fifth, Crump Cup visitors will discover plenty of places where you *really* don't want to hit the ball.

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.

The history of golf architecture can be viewed, at least in part, through twin lenses: strategic and penal. If the bumps and hollows of the Old Course embody the strategic ideal, and Oakmont’s merciless hazards represent the apex of the penal, then Pine Valley manages to square the circle, with glorious results—and nowhere more so than on the thirteenth. Here the player must choose between blasting his second shot down the left side over 190 yards of snarling scrubland or playing safely to the right.

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The approach to the thirteenth at Pine Valley

Later, Smyers recalled an insight from one of the game’s greats: “Jack Nicklaus once told me that the toughest discipline in golf is to shoot away from your target. He was referring to the Road Hole at St. Andrews, but I think it also applies to the thirteenth at Pine Valley, because it lures you into going right at it [on your second shot]. But if you have a hanging lie or your angle’s not absolutely right, you can hit it left and make a huge number. It is true risk-reward.” (On this day, a mediocre drive forced Smyers to bail out to the right. In taking the “chicken route,” as he put it, he would fail to secure his par.)

The very next hole, however, tilts the scale decisively toward the penal. Measured at 225 yards, the fourteenth is a par three playing downhill to a green surrounded by sand and water, and the foursome to a man cited the tee shot here as one of Pine Valley’s most harrowing moments. Intimidation, of course, has been a critical strand of the course’s DNA from the beginning, and this has hardly been lessened in the Pro V1 era—the club has added several new back tees in recent years, including one on fourteen. In certain places, however, the added length goes well beyond preserving shot values and introduces new dimensions of terror. On playing fourteen from its highest tee, Smyers said: “It’s such an unsupported shot. The green is just floating out there.”

Considering the hole in stroke play, McGimpsey shuddered. “There’s always a crosswind there. You think, ‘My God, what am I going to do?’”

“There’s no margin for error,” said Kuehne. “You step up on the tee box and find out whether you’re a man or not.”

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The fourteenth--just "floating out there."

By the time the group had made the turn, another aspect of Pine Valley’s greatness had become evident: The course does not favor any one type of player. It allows skilled golfers to play to their various strengths. Buddy Marucci, deadly accurate if not long, might view it as a second-shot course. “It’s pretty generous off the tee even though it doesn’t appear so,” he said, “and from that point forward it gets to be really strategic, because the greens are extremely demanding.”

But a bomber like Kuehne, capable of unleashing shots with the force of a Tour player in his prime (he recently qualified for the U.S. Open at Oakmont), sees the course in a different light. “The most difficult part about Pine Valley is getting it off the tee. Once you’ve done that [successfully], a lot of holes, depending on where the hole location is, become birdie holes.” And Smyers, perhaps informed by his career in architecture, places a high degree of importance on heads-up, strategic play based on constant awareness of the environment—”trusting your senses” and selecting shots based on the wind, the firmness of the turf and the type of lie at hand.

McGimpsey admitted that his Pine Valley education remained a work in progress. But in the months after the tournament, he’d clearly been contemplating some of the questions posed by the course, especially that of the approach to the second green’s unforgiving plateau. With his tee shot finding the nest of fairway bunkers on the right, he’d laid up to the base of the hill.

“I hit a hard gap wedge and thought, ‘Right, that’s all over the flag.’ But walking up the hill I see the ball coming back into a bunker. Completely wrong way to play the hole.” He resolved that the demands of the steeply pitched green required a seven-iron approach—a wedge would simply spin too much. A variant of the Nicklaus discipline—playing away from the target—was sinking in: “If I’m in that fairway bunker again, I’m not going to chip it up the fairway, I’m going to come out sideways.”

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The fearsome approach to Pine Valley's second hole.

The relationship between the penal and the strategic at Pine Valley is fully revealed in the difference between match and stroke play, which players agree is night and day. The Crump Cup contains both formats, and in order to fire at flags in match play, one must first endure an epic and often perilous grind. That was the case for Kuehne in last year’s stroke-play opener, during which he played four left-handed shots from the wilderness en route to an eighty-five.

“Trip’s a fabulous player,” observed McGimpsey. “He should never have been in the third flight.”

But that’s the way it goes at Pine Valley. And although Kuehne will surely be back to contend for the Cup this year (his final-round seventy-four won the third flight; the 2006 champion was another big-time amateur, Carlton Forrester of Birmingham, Alabama), it should be noted that the flaming train wreck of a round is an esteemed facet of club lore and always has been. As Henry Long­hurst wrote back in 1936: “There’s a tradition at the club—I know of no parallel—that the cup of misfortune must be drained to the dregs, and no man shall pick up his ball midway to save the ultimate ignominy of revealing his score.”

Maybe it’s wise that the stroke-play segment of the Crump Cup is closed to the public. But for those who would find pleasure in watching crisp shots take flight over Hell’s Half Acre—the infamous, expansive waste area on the seventh—the format hardly matters. On that one charmed afternoon, we’re just happy to be there.

The best halfway house in golf.

The best halfway house in golf.

Discussion

4 comments for “Into Pine Valley: The Crump Cup”

  1. Fantastic piece on Pine Valley and terrific website. We’ll be featuring you for a while in our BuffaloGolfer.Com e-newsletter. Happy Holidays 2009.

    Posted by Ronald S. Montesano | December 25, 2009, 5:08 am
  2. how can i get a pine valley golf shirt-played there about 15 years ago with general compton-what a course

    Posted by jack gruber | August 30, 2011, 8:34 pm
  3. Is the Crump Cup tournament going to be played this year? Can the public go on the course? if so what time?

    Thanks
    Vicki

    Posted by Vicki Orzechowski | September 18, 2011, 6:13 pm
  4. Vicki,

    It sounds like the 2011 Crump Cup will be open to the public starting in the early afternoon of Oct. 2.

    Posted by td | September 19, 2011, 3:18 pm

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