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USGA opens expanded golf museum

A museum aspiring to be “the Cooperstown of golf” reopens Tuesday after a nearly $20 million expansion.

The USGA Museum has spent the past three years designing ways to chronicle the rise of golf in the United States and the people who made it famous, from Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. And of course, it features more recent golfers recognized by their first names—people such as Arnie, Jack, Annika and Tiger.

The museum’s equipment collection includes Ben Hogan’s 1-iron, Bobby Jones’ Calamity Jane II putter and artifacts from famous golfers. But the museum is now much more than a place to see balls, clubs and trophies.

The 16,000-square-foot addition, called the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, features 5,000 square feet of galleries, a research room and state of the art storage areas for the museum’s 42,000 artifacts, 20,000 library volumes, more than a half-million photographs and several thousand hours of film.

The addition roughly doubles the size of the original building completed in 1919. Palmer is expected to attend Tuesday’s grand opening, along with about 500 other invited guests.

“Our biggest hurdle is people understanding that we exist and letting them know where we are,” said museum director Rand Jerris. “People say ‘Cooperstown’ and everybody knows it’s the baseball Hall of Fame. We are in many ways the Cooperstown of golf. We want people to know where Far Hills is and what the USGA is about.”

In a walk through the museum, visitors follow a path that winds through the history of golf in the United States, from the early years when it was a sport of the rich through the Depression—when it became more popular among the masses.

“People relate better to people, and there are so many great personal interest stories in the history of this game,” Jerris said.

Take Hogan and his 1-iron, for example. Golf enthusiasts know that was the club he used with his picture-perfect swing from 200 yards on the 18th hole at Merion to get him into a playoff at his 1950 U.S. Open win, capping his comeback from a near-fatal automobile accident.

By the time Hogan got to the 18th green, though, the club was missing and presumably stolen from his bag. It wasn’t retrieved for another 35 years, when a club collector in Virginia purchased it at a sale and noticed it had the wear pattern of a dime on the sweet spot.

“The club was taken to Hogan and he identified it as his,” Jerris said.

Far Hills is about 45 minutes southwest of Giants Stadium in a well-to-do area known for its estates, horses, hunts and being the home of the United States Equestrian Association and the USGA.

The USGA considered moving its museum to Rhode Island, Colorado, California, Atlanta and even to the old Russian Tea Room in Manhattan before deciding to expand its current site in New Jersey.

During the renovation, museum exhibits were shown on the road, particularly at USGA events.

The tour of the museum starts with the Palmer Room. It features an interactive portrait with a touch screen database and memorabilia from Arnie’s life, focusing on golf and his love of aviation.

The Hall of Champions is next and celebrates every USGA champion and championship. Six galleries follow, opening with the early years of golf in the U.S., highlighted by Ouimet’s victory as an amateur in the 1913 U.S. Open over British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

“It marked the first time golf made the front pages of the newspapers,” Jerris said.

The major thrusts of the other galleries are Jones’ golfing Grand Slam in 1930, the Great Depression and the expansion of golf to the masses, Hogan’s heroic comeback from his car accident and Didrikson’s return from colon cancer, the rivalry between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s and finally the current era.

The tour costs $7 for adults, $5 for USGA members, $3.50 for teenagers and is free for children 12 and under. In September, for an additional fee, visitors will be allowed to use replicas of famous putters and hit replica old-fashioned golf balls on a putting green.

The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday.

“I have spent 20 years of my life around this institution, working at the treasure, thinking of the great stories and wondering if there would ever be the chance to transform this place and I think we have done it,” Jerris said.


June 3, 2008

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