A Swing Through Golf History in New Jersey

By Linton Weeks
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

While scoping out the U.S. Golf Association's museum in Far Hills, N.J., on a recent morning, with all of its videos and photographs and memorabilia, I get a powerful urge to play some golf.

But outside it's raining sheets and blankets. So I take a deep breath and surrender to history.

This is, after all, the stomping grounds of the country's official amateur golf association. Whereas the pro tours are overseen by the Professional Golf Association, amateur championships and competitions are governed by the USGA. The USGA also oversees the rules and integrity of the game for all golfers in America.

If I want to learn about a game I love to play, this is the starting point. Founded in 1936 and the repository of more than 42,000 objects, 500,000 photos and thousands of hours of historical movies, it's the country's oldest sports museum, according to director Rand Jerris. Closed since 2005 for renovation, it had its grand reopening Tuesday.

Granted, it's a long drive from Washington, about four hours. But what golfer doesn't like a long drive?

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Golf House, the USGA headquarters, sits on about 100 acres in the rolling New Jersey countryside less than an hour west of Manhattan, surrounded by horse farms and hilly estates. Large brick buildings house the group's corporate offices, an equipment test center and the museum. The grounds are immaculately kept, natch, and there are sweet little pitch-and-putt holes here and there. Outside Jerris's office window I can see a 16,000-square-foot putting green taking shape. Soon visitors will be able to putt there with replica clubs.

The heart of the exhibit space, which encompasses more than 33,000 square feet, is a renovated 1919 home designed by John Russell Pope, architect of several Washington buildings, including the National Archives, the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art's West Wing. Workers gutted the structure and refurbished the inside to code. They repaired the exterior, patched the brickwork and walls and added climate-control devices to protect the collections. The total project cost nearly $20 million.

"The old museum told the story of golf through equipment," says Jerris, 38, who grew up nearby and began working at the museum 20 years ago while in college. He has been director since 2002. "Now it's a completely new museum. We decided to tell the story through people."

Sure enough, this is a celebration of champions and championship moments. On the walls hang photos of golfers pumping fists and raising their arms triumphantly. Video presentations of exultant victors hug walls. Trophies and medals are everywhere.

As much as possible, the various eras of golf in America are put into political context. "We wanted to bring intellectual rigor to the story," says Jerris, looking quite golfy in khakis and a blazer. "This is the story of 20th-century America told through golf."

The museum is divided into six galleries, built around classic moments: Francis Ouimet's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open; Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam in 1930; the Great Depression and the democratization of the game in the 1930s; epic comebacks by Ben Hogan in the 1950 U.S. Open and Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1954 U.S. Women's Open; the rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the early 1960s; and the globalization of golf and the emergence of Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golfer ever. Before turning professional, Woods competed in (and won, of course) USGA tournaments including the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur.

One of the first things you see is one of the most remarkable. Titled "Gratitude," it's a pen-and-ink rendering of Palmer, drawn completely with tiny written words. The portrait, in the center of the Arnold Palmer Room, is by James David Chase, a California artist and communications professor. The amazing swirl of more than 22,000 words took Chase years to complete.

"It's a tremendously personal piece," says Jerris, "that celebrates Palmer as an icon of American culture."

For Palmer's lips, Chase used things Palmer has said over the years. For his ears, the things Palmer heard. And in his eyes, writings about Winnie, his first wife. An innovative computer screen set in front of the portrait enables visitors to magnify details and read the words. The room also contains more than 100 pieces of Palmeriana, including a dog made of Arnold Palmer signature balls.

Other sections are filled with fascinating memorabilia, such as John Reid's red wool jacket from the 1890s, a champion's medal won by Horace Rawlins at the 1895 U.S. Open and a ticket for a Harry Vardon exhibition match circa 1900.

The famous Calamity Jane II putter, used by Bobby Jones to win 10 national championships, is on display. As are the Wilson sand wedge Gene Sarazen selected to win the 1932 British Open and small spheres fashioned from old shoes by American prisoners during World War II.

John Shippen, who in the late 1890s became the first African American to play in a USGA tournament, is honored by the museum. So are such women as Althea Gibson and Annika Sorenstam. In one area called "Golf and the American Presidency," there are photos of that manatee of a man William Howard Taft swinging a club.

A tour of the place takes 90 minutes, but you can linger for hours.

A lively, seven-minute video titled "Spirit of Championship Golf" gets my juices flowing and reminds me that I would really rather be playing golf than hanging out in this lovely museum. But the rain outside continues.

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The large putting green is soaked like a kitchen sponge, as is the walkway from the museum to the USGA equipment testing center, where each year 800 brands of balls and 2,500 clubs are put through the paces. We are met by technical director Dick Rugge, who explains how a team of robots conducts tests as we watch balls being fired through a control tunnel. According to the USGA bylaws, the center can't comment on the quality of the balls or the various pieces of equipment; it can only pronounce the balls and clubs acceptable for competitive play. Or not.

Afterward, I slowly slosh my way back to the car. On the way out of the long winding drive, I cannot help myself. I stop alongside the road at one of the pitch-and-putt holes. Raising the trunk, I take a 9-iron from my golf bag, reach for a ball and tee it up. There is a swoosh as club hits wet grass and ball.

The good news: The ball clears the water hazard and bounces onto the green. The bad news: It keeps rolling into the woods.

Elated that I avoided the water but slightly disgruntled because the ball slithered off the green and because the rainy day is dreary, I begin the short walk back to my car. Then I stop. I have one more practice ball in my pocket. And the rain is slacking a little.

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