PINE VALLEY, N.J. -- Down the street from the wooden roller-coaster, the antique Ferris wheel and a zigzagging lazy river, at the end of a wooded, there's-nothing-to-see-here stretch of road, sits the welcome sign.
For most of us, this is where the journey ends. Put the car in reverse, turn around and head back to the strip malls and convenience stores on the main drag. But for a select few, this is where it all begins. In the shadows of a 98-year-old amusement park, a place where kids flock all summer long to dream and play, the luckiest of adults come to do the same.
They look beyond the sign and drive over the railroad tracks, onto the private driveway, past the electrified chain link fence and up to the old guardhouse, where the ultimate sports' playground awaits.
The greatest 18 holes of golf ever created by man.
Pine Valley Golf Club.
"Variety certainly helps in life, but not when it comes to Pine Valley," said longtime member Hank See. "Once you get here, you stay here. For addicted golfers, it's like going to Mecca."
In all but one of the past 20 years, Pine Valley has finished No. 1 in Golf Digest's rankings of the world's greatest golf courses. Ahead of Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Oakland Hills or any other place you've seen on television.
For all the attention given to Northern New Jersey's Baltusrol, home of this week's 87th PGA Championship, these 623 acres of pine-infested swamp two hours to the south, just outside of Philadelphia, provide golf's greatest challenge.
"There is still nothing more thrilling in the game of golf than stepping on that first tee at Pine Valley or driving through that gate and crossing that railroad trestle," said 19-time PGA Tour winner and Pine Valley member Ben Crenshaw. "The place just endures. It is a true piece of art."
When Philadelphia hotelier George Crump bought the property in 1913, he had two goals: to find a plot of land where he could play golf year-round and to build the ultimate championship course for Philadelphia's amateur golf community. The result is 18 unique golf holes, set amongst pine forests, sand hills and wetlands. There are blind shots, doglegs, island greens and sand traps the size of grocery stores.
No two consecutive holes play in the same direction. No two holes lie parallel to one another. You can't see one hole from another. There are nine approach shots in which a competitor must carry a hazard to reach the green and nine approach shots in which the fairway rolls right into the green.
It's as unforgiving as any 18 holes in all of golf. Yet it's fair, fun and most of all, addicting. It's the Yankee Stadium of golf courses. A living, breathing sports museum with an intoxicating smell of pine permeating throughout. Just ask head pro and club manager Charley Raudenbush, as he steers his golf cart among the towering pines on a recent afternoon.
On No. 8, a 319-yard par-4:
"This is the hole that Gary Player kept looking back, shaking his head and telling his caddie to give him a second so he could, 'soak it all in,'" he explains.
On No. 13, a 448-yard par-4:
"This is the hole that Bobby Jones called the greatest par-4 in the world."
And on No. 7, a 578-yard par-5:
"This is a true three-shot. I don't know anybody that's hit the green in two. Of course, Tiger hasn't been here yet."
All this history at a place that most sports fans have likely never even heard of. The course has hosted a pair of Walker Cups -- once in 1936 and again in '85 -- but not one professional competition. And they like it that way.
"It doesn't seek notoriety. That's not what it's for," said golf writer Jim Finegan, a Pine Valley member. "It's a private club. And that's a good thing."
Playing here has little to do with who you are or how much money you have in your 401(k), but rather who you know. Each week, Raudenbush said he fields five to 10 phone calls from golf nuts asking what it would take for them to play Pine Valley.
The answer is always the same: Nothing. It isn't going to happen. The only way a guest steps foot on Pine Valley is to be invited, and accompanied, by a member.
A month after the 9/11 attacks, the course changed its policy for two days, opening its doors to the first 100 people who delivered a $1,000 check, per player, per round, with all proceeds going to the Twin Towers Fund. The response was overwhelming, with Pine Valley eventually raising close to $500,000 for the fund.
And nearly crashing its phone system.
"Every single line coming in and out of the place was tied up," Raudenbush said. "I had one lady who called and said, 'I'm sending a driver with the check right now.' And then she kept calling just about every half hour, 'Is he there yet? Is he there yet? Do you have it yet?' It was just nuts."
Who plays at Pine Valley, who the members are, how many members there are, where they all came from -- it's all kept quiet. Which only adds to the mystique. It's been rumored that just about every active president has flown in at one time or another during his tenure and walked these hallowed grounds. Babe Ruth reportedly played here once and, after making a 12 on the 15th hole, entertained the nearby members by hollering to his caddie, "Hell, I don't need to know where the green is. Where's the golf course?"
According to the official history book of the club, "Pine Valley Golf Club, A Unique Haven of the Game," Pine Valley has hosted everyone from Michael Jordan to Julius Erving, Clint Eastwood to Bing Crosby, Mike Ditka to Mike Schmidt and Bob Hope to Alice Cooper. Members include former President George H.W. Bush, Sean Connery, Nicklaus, Player and Arnold Palmer.
Palmer helped pay for his engagement ring for his late wife Winnie from his winnings on a bet that he wouldn't break 90 on his first crack at Pine Valley. He shot 68.
When a newly married Nicklaus visited with his wife Barbara on the couple's honeymoon in 1960, Mrs. Nicklaus had to wait outside the grounds in a car while Jack played his first Pine Valley round. The club is male only, although women are invited to play on Sundays.
"Barbara still doesn't believe that anyone who'd been around golf as much as I had by then would not know Pine Valley was for men only," Nicklaus wrote in his autobiography, "My Story," "But it was the truth -- I didn't.
"When friends ask what I shot there that first time, I tell them 74, but it wasn't a fair test because I was on my honeymoon."
Prior to one of Jordan's rounds, caddie Rocky Carbone handed Jordan a business card that read, "Rocky Carbone, Wind and Yardage Consultant." After consulting with Rocky on a 30-yard birdie putt on the first hole, Jordan missed the putt to the right. A frustrated Jordan pulled the card out and asked the caddie, "What did you give me here?" Said Carbone: "Pro, take a look at my card. It doesn't say anything about reading greens."
For all the history, tradition and exclusivity, Pine Valley couldn't be less pretentious. Once you're in, you're treated like royalty. A poster in the clubhouse basement demands as much, noting that Pine Valley's goal is to give each guest "the greatest golf experience ever."
Everyone smiles, waves. And it is laid-back. The clubhouse, although rich in tradition, would struggle to rival that of many public courses. Its pleasure is its simplicity -- plush leather chairs, wooden ceilings, golf murals on the walls. Although there are four new four-bedroom cottages, featuring putting greens in the backyard, massive fireplaces and room-length wet bars, the majority of overnight accommodations (there are 80 rooms on the grounds, not including the 23 homes) are dorm-like, with simple bedrooms and shared bathrooms.
"There are a lot of people who wouldn't have it any other way," Finegan said. "It takes them back to college life. They love it."
The message is clear: Pine Valley isn't about a fancy clubhouse, a sparkling locker room or the finest in luxury accommodations. It's about the greatest golf course in the world. Plain and simple.
Perhaps John Brooks experienced it best, after a recent trip in which the Minnesota native hit holes-in-one on back-to-back days at Pine Valley. Brooks was buying a sleeve of golf balls one morning when he turned around to leave the pro shop and bumped into former Masters champion Crenshaw.
"He just smiles, says hello," Brooks said. "Like it was no big deal. It was perfect Pine Valley. Modest. Humble. Understated. Everything there is about the golf. That's what makes it so appealing. It's all about the course."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com