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, Clementon 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.
The 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.
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.