Golf enthusiasts may be thinking of this week’s Ryder Cup taking place in the birthplace of golf, Scotland, but a quick trip can transport fans to the sport’s home of history in Far Hills, New Jersey.
“We preserve the game’s history by collecting and acquiring artifacts and preserving them through storage and conservation programs,” says United States Golf Association Museum (USGA) director Robert Williams. “Then we leverage the collections to develop content for both internal and external uses. We have a research library here that golf writers use by appointment, and club historians and club archivists and other researchers use and support the story-telling we do here in the museum.”
From Williams’ office on the second floor of “Golf House” — as the whole USGA complex is affectionately known — construction work can be seen for the new Jack Nicklaus wing of the museum, opening in 2015.
If you’ve never been to the USGA Museum, or you were there years ago, now is a good time to check back at this facility, easily one of the greatest sports museums in the U.S.
In recent years the museum, archives, and library have kept expanding with the golf boom of the 1980s and ’90s that continued into most of the first decade of this century, until the Great Recession of 2009-2014.
It’s also different from my first trip there — one hot July day when I was 10. My mother, Ruth, packed my two older brothers and me up in her Oldsmobile 88 and drove us to the then-newly opened museum. She had seen something in the newspaper about its move to Far Hills from New York City.
My mother knew how her three sons were enamored of all things golf-related — my oldest brother, David, built a bent grass putting green in the backyard for us to use in backyard golf games. So she took a day off from work and took us up there — even though we were all raised in a thoroughly working class family in a thoroughly working class town in southern Middlesex County.
Golf’s image in the mid and late 1970s was that it was an old man’s game and a hoity-toity sport, though all golfers who were around back then know nothing could be further from the truth. This elitist image still plagues the sport of golf today, mostly by legions of environmentalists and non-golfers who may never understand golf’s role in preserving wildlife and open space in densely populated states like ours.
I do not remember much about the trip other than staring at astronaut Alan Shepard’s 6-iron that he used to hit his famous golf shots on the moon, and a number of interesting oil paintings and photographs of champions — amateur and professional, men and women. That included Bobby Jones, a well-heeled lawyer and amateur golfer; Babe Didriksen Zaharias, a pioneer women’s professional from Texas who revealed in her autobiography she would hit practice balls until her hands bled; and of course, such well-known figures as Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, and Arnold Palmer, who helped revolutionize the sport in the late 1950s.
These days, thanks to the hard work and research of former museum director Rand Jerris — who has a Ph.D. in fine arts from Princeton University — and his team, the museum is the largest collection of golf films, videos, photographs, sheet music, magazines, and books in the world.
To give some sense of how much the sport of golf has grown, when USGA first came to Far Hills from just off Fifth Avenue in 1972, there were 12 employees. Today the USGA’s much-larger adjacent administration building and museum/library employ 330. Ten are staffers at the museum and library.
“Since I came here in 2011 a lot of what we’ve focused on is finding ways to deliver content outside of here. We get 10 to 15,000 visitors each year, and we’re not only sharing with them the story of golf in America and what the USGA is doing for golf, but also the experiential chance to go back in time and use old hickory golf clubs on our practice putting green,” says Williams.
Indeed the USGA’s practice putting green, filled with all manner of moguls and slopes to make for challenging putts, has proven to be a hit with museum patrons who visit in fair weather months on fair weather days. Patrons can use four different types of older golf putters to test their skills at the nine-hole practice putting green. The museum also gives tours of the nearby equipment testing center on days when testing center staff members are not testing golf balls or clubs with the use of “Iron Byron” and a range of other sophisticated equipment there.
“Having people on site here is a great experience, but we realized we’re not on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. We focus a lot of attention now on how we can share stories on our website, through our broadcast partners, our digital media partners,” Williams says, noting the USGA works with ESPN, the Golf Channel, ABC, CBS, NBC, and others. “We’re an equal opportunity lender of information.”
Interestingly for golf-obsessed fans who feel like they can spend more than a day browsing the various exhibits and watching various short videos at Golf House, only about five percent of the 70 to 80,000 artifacts in the collection are on display. The USGA makes loans of collections to the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida and to the birthplace of golf, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, Scotland.
While Jerris was museum director — he has since moved on to another position at the USGA — “short-form video became an integral part of the expansion of the museum, and we also have more interactive components that are not only here on site, but on our website as well,” says Williams.
As Internet technology and broadband technology have evolved, it is now possible to watch many short form videos on the USGA’s website, www.usga.org.
“In 2008 streaming videos wasn’t always possible,” Williams says, “and part of our job now is to virtualize — not everything — but to pick and choose the key stories that explain the evolution of golf in America and why golf matters in America. Two major components of this since I’ve been here have been expanding our minority collection and content and our women’s collection and content. We see these two as very important demographics in growing the game to make sure that everyone feels welcome. Currently there are some very interesting stories on golf’s role in the civil rights movement.”
The museum currently has a large exhibit on Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, not far from the NFL Hall of Fame, a club designed and founded in 1946 by African-American golfers who did not have access in those days to private or public golf courses. Shady Rest Golf Club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, is another club started and still run by African-Americans. But neither of these places has ever excluded whites, or women, from participating at these facilities. “The people at Clearview Golf Club demonstrated to everyone else in America from the get-go, by taking the high road. This is how America should be, so they allowed everyone to play,” says Williams.
Before the exhibit on Clearview Golf Club, there was the exhibit on African-American contributions to civil rights in America through the lens of golf, with photos of people like tennis star Althea Gibson, who was Governor Tom Kean’s Counsel on Fitness, as well as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, both of whom became avid golfers after their respective heydays as boxer and baseball player.
African-American interest in golf goes back to at least the 1920s, when a group of men formed the United Golfers’ Association, Williams explained, and even though they were predominantly African-Americans and minorities, he says, “there is plenty of evidence of Caucasians playing in their events.” Williams also noted famous jazz musicians Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald played at Shady Rest in Scotch Plains. It makes sense that Fitzgerald would play, as she was married for a number of years to bassist Ray Brown, an avid golfer who lived in Hawaii until his death in 2002.
While the museum and putting course experience higher volumes of patrons from spring through fall, the USGA also holds winter time seminars about great amateurs, great pros, and the history of the sport and its equipment. Most of these seminars are open to USGA members, who receive E-mail updates of upcoming seminars, film screenings, and lectures.
Although golf in the U.S. began as a sport for the gentry, that all changed in 1913 when Francis Ouimet, an amateur working class caddy, won the U.S. Open and became a national folk hero. Notes Williams: “He was a young amateur and caddy of no social standing whatsoever and the game grew tremendously between 1913 and the 1920s because he brought golf to the people.” Another icon of the game, Georgia amateur and lawyer Bobby Jones, is another story Golf House does well.
Most golfers familiar with the game know the golden age of private golf course building went on to 1929 and the start of the Great Depression. But what they may not know is the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had a great role in building many public and municipally run golf courses around the country through most of the 1930s up until the dawn of World War II. Many of these courses are still in operation today. Similarly, private golf saw a decline with the more recent Great Recession, and private clubs have opened their fairways up to the general public.
Williams recommends at least a half day to experience most of what the USGA Museum has to offer. “It depends on your level of obsession. I would say most people make a half day of it. They go through the Hall of Champions and in the old part of the museum. We have named rooms for Mickey Wright, Bob Jones, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan. They celebrate different aspects of their connection to the core values of the USGA. For Bob Jones it’s about sportsmanship and integrity; for Arnold Palmer it’s about philanthropy; for Ben Hogan it’s about the pursuit of excellence; and for Mickey Wright it’s much the same thing, because many pros considered Mickey Wright to have the best golf swing of all time.”
Meanwhile the USGA, through an expanded, improved website and its recently renovated Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History museum, continues to address the public perception that golf is a sport for rich people. “The USGA is working hard to combat that kind of thinking. We know the biggest barriers to the game are time and cost, as well as the perception that it’s an elitist sport. We know there are numerous stories that debunk that theory. Golf remains accessible and can be enjoyed by anybody,” says Williams.
United States Golf Association Museum, 77 Liberty Corner Road, Far Hills. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $3.50 to $7. 908-234-2300 or www.usgamuseum.com.
To get there: From Princeton, follow Route 1 north to I-287 north, then continue to Liberty Corner Road. Driving time is roughly an hour.