Nestled among the pine, oak and maple filled hills of western New Jersey you can find one of golf’s treasures. While this bounty is not buried you will definitely need a map to discover the spot. The jewel is the USGA Museum and I believe it is golf’s best kept secret.
The building, which houses the museum, is not exactly impressive but it is exactly interesting and inviting. It looks like a stately manor house which, not surprisingly, is precisely what it is. This particular structure was designed and built by renowned American architect John Russell Pope, as a residence for Thomas H. Frothingham, in 1919. An expansive and beautiful “front yard”, covered with snow the day we visited, gives one the opportunity to stand back and get a good look at the entirety of the building. Four, 20 foot, white pillars frame both the entrance to the museum and 12 1/2 foot banners featuring the reigning professional national open champions clutching their trophies. While it looks enticing it is impossible to tell specifically what and just how much is inside.
Whether you’re an avid golfer, have a passing interest in the game, or are just curious, once you enter the door you’ll be delighted you did. The first thing I noticed was how unpretentious it is. Directly in front of you is a simple, circular desk with brochures filled with information about the museum and its contents. Behind the desk was a smiling receptionist happy to answer any questions you might have. The price of admission is a modest $7 for adults, children between 13 and 17 years of age are half that and if you are 12 or under you get in free. In addition to that if you are a USGA member the cost of admission is a sawbuck (that’s $5 for anyone younger than 50 reading this). If you look right you see an oil painting of the sport’s most popular and famous player, Arnold Palmer. If you look left you see the entrance to a room featuring memorabilia from its most admired, Bob Jones.
The beautiful thing about this museum is its placidity. Where you go, what you see, how long you stay is all entirely up to you. The entire building is a tribute to the game of golf and a compliment to the men and women who devoted their life to it, enjoyed it as a hobby, and played it at the highest level. There are thousands of objects on display. Some reflect the greatness of specific, others allow us to harken back to events, eras and athletes who made an impression on us through the years. I wouldn’t presume to suggest a method to your tour, but our group (2 golfers and 1 non-golfer) chose the “clockwise approach” and headed left into The Bob Jones Room.
The space featuring facts about and memorabilia from golf’s greatest amateur is one of four rooms in the museum devoted to specific players. It was the first of the four, unveiled when the museum opened at this location on March 17, 1973, and later updated to its current form a little more than 35 years later on June 3, 2008. A fifth room, this one pledged to Jack Nicklaus, is currently under construction and scheduled to open sometime in the Spring. Check www.USGA.org early next year for details.
The other players honored with rooms are Ben Hogan, Mickey Wright and Arnold Palmer and all are impressive. I have been playing golf for 55 years and have long heard stories and known of Jones. He was a lifelong amateur, ambassador of the game, founder of Augusta National, and co-founder of The Masters Tournament. Thanks to Bobby Jones we also have the concept of golf’s grand slam. Before The Masters came along the holy grail of golf victories was considered to be The United States Open Championship, The British Open (or Open Championship if you prefer), The United States Amateur Championship and The British Amateur. Bobby Jones is the only golfer to win them all, and golf’s grand slam, in the same calendar year. That year was 1930. Since the “slam” went professional (Masters, U.S.Open, British Open, PGA) five players have won all four (Nicklaus, Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Tiger Woods) but none of them has matched Jones and won them in the same calendar year. I knew that. What I didn’t know is that Jones actually won the United States Amateur Championship five times (the 1930 win was his last), The United States Open Championship four times (the 1930 win was his last), The British Open three times (the 1930 win was his last) and the British Amateur for the first and only time during that historic year of 1930. All of his medals from those events and more are on display in that Far Hills, New Jersey room. I also didn’t know he retired from competitive golf at the “ripe old age of” 28. I didn’t know he was a lawyer by trade and I didn’t know he wasn’t fond of being called “Bobby”, always preferring and signing documents, “Bob”. Thanks to a visit to the USGA Museum I know that now.
We left the Jones Room and entered the part of the museum that honors Ben Hogan. This room is approximately twice as big, absolutely twice as bright and predominantly filled with memorabilia belonging to the player known at different times throughout his career as “The Hawk”, “The Wee Ice Man” and “Bantam Ben”. Hogan won four United States Open Championships during his impressive career. I think it’s safe to say Bob Jones shines brightest in the eyes of the USGA because of his amateur accomplishments, Hogan’s room, on the other hand, pays tribute to mostly, and rightfully, a PGA TOUR career. Displays show off trophies, a re-creation of his locker at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, his Colonial Country Club plaid sport coat, and club heads from the various sets of irons he helped design for the golf club manufacturing company that bared his name.
There is also a section that tells the story of the horrific automobile accident that almost took his life and the subsequent comeback story the resulted in another U. S. Open victory. This exhibit features a film clip from the biopic, “Follow the Sun” starring Glen Ford. You can also gaze at the ceremonial Hickok Belt given to America’s top professional athlete every year from 1950 to 1976. The belt is made of alligator skin and features a solid gold buckle, a four carat diamond and 26 gem chips. Hogan won his in 1953. Three years before that Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion and famed photographer Hy Peskin was there to capture what has become golf’s most iconic image, Hogan’s follow through after hitting a one iron from the fairway of the 72nd hole. The rights to that photograph were acquired by the USGA in 2013 and that photo is now prominently displayed in the Ben Hogan Room at the organization’s museum. The USGA also has the 1 iron but it was not on display the day we visited.
Our threesome exited the Hogan Room and walked along a hallway featuring displays that pay tribute to Bill and Renee Powell, pioneering African-American golf course owners of the Clearview Golf Club in Canton Ohio, the first integrated golf course in the country. We also walked by huge framed photos of Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster, and the victorious 2007 United States Walker Cup Team in mid jubilation. We also spent a few moments peering into a case that enclosed a photo of and the shoes worn by Michelle Wie during her U.S. Women’s Open win at Pinehurst Resort in 2014. That all brought us to the double doors that lead visitors into my favorite and, in my opinion, the most impressive room in the building, the entre into The Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, The Hall of Champions.
The middle of the oval room contains giant glass cases that display every one of the USGA’s thirteen trophies handed out to USGA champions including the U.S. Open trophy, the U.S. Women’s Open trophy, The Walker Cup, and the exceedingly grand Robert Cox trophy handed out each year to the U.S. Women’s Amateur Champion. It’s the only place on the planet where you can get an up close look at each and every piece of USGA hardware in one location. The other thing you see, engraved on nameplates all along the room’s walls, is the names of every single USGA champion since 1985 (the year the organization first started conducting championships). The first three names are C.B. MacDonald (U.S. Amateur), Horace Rollins (U.S. Open), and Lucy Barnes Brown (U.S. Women’s Amateur). It was of interest to me that the USGA has staged a national championship for both men and women since its inception. Chalk one up for gender equality.
It’s a fun and eye opening trip down memory lane to pick a year and then read the names of that year’s champions. It’s fascinating to realize that Johnny Miller (’64), Gary Koch (’70), Charlie Rymer (’85), David Duval (’89), Hunter Mahan (’99), and Jordan Spieth (2009, ’11) ALL won U.S. Junior Amateur Championships. It’s enlightening to remember Tiger Woods won six straight USGA championships, claiming every U.S. Jr Amateur and U.S. Amateur from 1991-1996. He then proceeded to capture three more USGA titles by winning the U.S. Open Championship in 2000, 2002 and 2008 bringing his total to nine and tying him with Bob Jones as the most decorated USGA champion is history. JoAnne Gunderson Carner leads the way for women with her name on the walls eight times. Personally I could spend hours in that room alone but we spent about 30 minutes there the day we visited and then moved on into the heart of the Palmer Center.
This part of the museum takes you on a chronological tour of the history of the game and treats you to dozens of displays and hundreds of artifacts including the red visor Arnold Palmer wore and then threw into the air at the 1960 U.S. Open, Jones’ Calamity Jane putter, the red, white and blue Foot Joy golf shoes that were on the feet of Johnny Miller when he hit every green in regulation and needed just 29 putts on the way to a record setting final round 63 and a 1973 U.S. Open win. There are pieces of history donated by Sorenstam, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Nancy Lopez, Payne Stewart, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and dozens more. There is even the makeshift golf club used by astronaut Alan Shepard to hit a golf ball on the moon February 6, 1971. Awesome.
Near the end of the line you reach another display worth more than a passing glance. The screens on a multiple television sculpture light up with highlights of golfs most watched rivalry – Palmer vs Nicklaus. After reminiscing with “The King” and “The Golden Bear” you make your way into the only room in the museum dedicated to a woman, The Mickey Wright Room. The tribute to this most accomplished professional includes, among other things, a video breakdown and analysis of her swing, regarded by many experts and players to be the finest in golf. Wright, who is notoriously private, has never seen the museum or her room in it, but happily offered to share memorabilia from her private collection. You can see clothing, trophies, clubs, a watch and the mandolin she played after rounds of golf on tour. The Mickey Wright Room at the USGA Museum is also now the home to her famous ‘Bulls-eye” putter, the one she used in 81 of her 82 tournament wins.
The final stop on the magical, clockwise, unguided tour is The Arnold Palmer Room. Much to see, both of the golf and non-golf variety, reminds you of the impact Palmer had on the sport. Jet fighter flight suits, replica tractors, oil cans, pictures, paintings and sculptures help tell the story of, and is a fitting tribute to, the man who made golf popular and remains it’s most beloved and impactful ambassador.
As you leave the building but before you leave the grounds you can try your luck with a replica putter and ball (circa 1925) on the all grass, very challenging Pyne’s putting course named for the family on whose land the USGA campus exists. You can also purchase memorabilia from a tiny, tasteful display of items.
Once you find this treasure of a museum (it’s approximately 30 minutes from the Newark airport, an hour outside New York City and an hour and 45 north of Philadelphia) you can spend an hour or an afternoon. If you know in advance that you’re planning a trip you can also call the USGA and arrange a guided tour of the Research and Test Center where scientists evaluate, measure and experiment with equipment that various manufacturers hope to bring to market, and competitors hope to use to win championships.
I have visited shrines in Cooperstown, Canton and St. Augustine and can say, without reservation, The USGA Museum belongs in that company. It is a “must visit” if you’re a golf fan, a sports fan or a museum fan. Get behind the wheel, plug 77 Liberty Corner Road into your GPS and head to Far Hills, New Jersey. You won’t regret it.