Grand Opening

A renovated USGA Museum and the new Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History debuted with a flourish this summer.


2008 Championship Annual: The Year In Review

By James A. Frank

The rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, which really began in 1962, made for great television. (USGA Museum)

Well, who else could it have been named after? When the United States Golf Association decided to renovate and expand its museum in Far Hills, N.J., there was only one name that could be attached to it: Arnold Palmer.

An "American icon," in the words of Rand Jerris, director of the USGA's Museum, Palmer did more to popularize the game in the United States than just about any other person.

And still, when it came time to dedicate the new USGA Museum, incorporating the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, this June, Palmer was characteristically humble. "I have been fortunate enough to have received quite a few honors in my lifetime," golf's greatest ambassador said during the opening ceremony, "but this may just top them all."

Early in a riveting championship season, the opening of the new USGA Museum may have been the biggest event of all. Its creation took more than five years of planning, meetings, site visits and construction — at a cost of nearly $20 million — and the result is a 33,000-square-foot space that recounts the game's 100-plus-year history in the U.S. It has been designed to house exhibits, archives, offices and storage for the USGA's vast collections of books, photographs and films, and still have sufficient room to accommodate at least 40 more years of growth.

The revitalized USGA Museum is actually two buildings. Visitors enter through the 90-year-old "Pope House" — named for its designer John Russell Pope, who also designed such U.S. landmarks as the National Archives Building and the Jefferson Memorial, both in Washington, D.C. Its main attractions are rooms honoring Bob Jones, Ben Hogan and Palmer.

The Palmer Center, meanwhile, is a modern, two-story wing in which nearly a third is devoted to exhibit space, with the remainder a research center and archives. Between the two structures, more than 2,000 artifacts are on view, twice the number displayed before.

When the museum was closed, USGA staff reviewed every piece in the collection, which is to say more than 70,000 items, including clubs, books, balls, photographs, scorecards, trophies and articles of clothing. The result, says Jerris, is "an entirely new story of what golf has meant to the U.S. since it took up permanent residence here in the late 19th century."

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    First up is Palmer. Besides mementos from his career, there is a "video jukebox," an interactive touch-screen device that allows visitors to view clips from Palmer's career on a large plasma screen (a similar setup is in the Jones Room).

    Perhaps the most amazing piece is a giant portrait made up of quotes by and about Palmer. Jim Chase, an artist from California, spent 14 years turning 22,719 words into microscopic letters that "draw" the man from the shoulders up. "Things that Arnold said are around his lips; things he heard make up his ears; things he saw are around his eyes; thoughts are across his forehead," marvels Jerris (the background of these pages give an idea of this pointillist effect).

    From Palmer, the exhibition moves to the Hall of Champions, where the 13 national championship trophies are on display, along with bronze plaques that list every victor, beginning with Charles Blair Macdonald, who won the 1895 U.S. Amateur (and who was instrumental in the formation of the USGA). A computerized database allows visitors to search championships by player, year, site, results, records and summaries.

    Combining the players and events with political and social history, the final part of the exhibit is laid out as a timeline tracing golf's American sojourn from its earliest days. Each of six eras gets its own gallery: The Dawn of American Golf (1890s to World War I); The Golden Age (the Roaring '20s); The Depression and World War II; The Comeback Age (the '50s); The Age of the Superpowers ('60s, '70s and '80s), and The Global Game (the present). Each period is highlighted by an iconic moment, from Francis Ouimet's upset victory at the 1913 U.S. Open to Tiger Woods' resounding 15-stroke victory at the 2000 U.S. Open.

    This is far from the end of the experience. The story of the game's history leads to the new research center. Visitors who want to learn more about  something that caught their eye in the museum actually will be able to touch and examine select artifacts from the archives.

    And there is another way to get a feel for the game's past — the Pynes Putting Course, named after a family that lived on the New Jersey property before the USGA acquired the land in the early '70s. Just out the museum's back door, the green — inspired by the Himalayas putting course in St. Andrews, Scotland — offers visitors the chance to putt with long-nose clubs and gutta-percha balls (as well as other replica antique equipment).

    This year also saw the launch of a museum Web site (www.usgamuseum.com) and outreach programs that include more traveling exhibits, educational programs and book publishing.

    At the opening, Palmer explained why golfers will appreciate what the new museum offers. "When I was a young man," he said, "I wanted to learn about the history of the game. I felt it helped make me a better player. This marvelous facility will honor and enhance the game for all who visit and enjoy it for years to come." 

    James A. Frank is the former editor of GOLF Magazine.

    This article first appeared in the 2008 Championship Annual, a special publication mailed to USGA Members in November.

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