Golf’s Best Kept Secret Is a Treasure Trove of Women’s Golf Memorabilia
By Keith Hirshland
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 was. 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, Michelle Wie and Martin Kaymer, clutching their trophies. While it looks enticing it is impossible to tell specifically what and just how much is inside.
Once inside, expect a friendly greeting from a USGA staff representative ready, willing and able to answer any question. A portrait of Arnold Palmer hangs on the wall to your right while the entrance to The Bob Jones Room is directly to your left. The Jones Room and the equally impressive Ben Hogan Room are fitting tributes to two men who helped shape the game. Each space is filled with photos, golf, clubs, medals, trophies and other memorabilia giving the visitor a rather compete trip down memory lane. While this trip is definitely worth taking it shouldn’t leave you with the impression that the walls, halls, nooks and crannies of the USGA Museum is only a place, “Where the Boys Are”.
From the Hogan Room you can take a left into the brand new Jack Nicklaus Room (opening in the Spring of this year) or head straight down the hall and see trinkets, trophies and testimonials that pay tribute to the great women of the game of golf. Renee Powell and her father Bill (the first African American to build and own a golf course in America) are honored with a brief, informative film. Life size photographs celebrate the greatness that is, and was, Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam while a Plexiglas case allows a look at the yardage book and pair of shoes used by Michelle Wie during her U.S. Open Championship win at Pinehurst last year. And that’s just the beginning.
The most impressive room in the building is The Hall of Champions, the entrance to The Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History. It is here that you see the commitment the USGA has made to women’s golf. On the walls is a chronological account of every USGA Champion since the organization began handing out trophies in 1885. That first year two championships were held, a United States Amateur (won by C.B. MacDonald) and a United States Women’s Amateur (won by Lucy Barnes Brown). That’s right, the USGA had the foresight to know women were just as important as men for, and in, this great game. Every Women’s Am champ since Brown is featured on the wall including Glenna Collett-Vare (6 times), JoAnne Gunderson Carner (5 times), Juli Simpson Inkster (the first player, man or woman to win the national amateur three straight years) and back-to-back champion Kay Cockerill. If that’s not impressive enough on display in the middle of the room is every trophy handed out by the USGA including its oldest, and most ornate, prize, The Robert Cox Trophy, given to the U.S. Women’s Amateur Champion and The Curtis Cup.
As you continue to travel through the Palmer Center for Golf History you are treated to memorabilia from and photos of the greats of the women’s game. Nancy Lopez’s visor, golf clubs and shoes are there along with stories about the comeback of Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open. Artifacts belonging to Vare, Carner, Inkster, Sorenstam, Wie, Patty Berg, Kathy Whitworth, Karrie Webb, Betsy King and so many, many more will keep you entertained and informed for hours. But the best is yet to come.
Before you exit you are treated to the only room in the museum dedicated to a female golfer, 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 a mind-boggling 81 of her 82 tournament wins.
It’s a trip well worth any golf fan’s time and one you’ll long remember. Before you leave the property make sure to grab a replica “Calamity Jane” putter and gutta percha ball then try your luck on the Pines Putting Course behind the museum. While you’re holing putts, and on the ride home, reflect on how important women are, and have always been, to golf and give a golf clap to the USGA for recognizing that in its museum.
Keith Hirshland’s experience has taken him all across the country, covering sport’s most famous athletes and television’s most interesting and charismatic personalities. Having worked at both the local affiliate and national network levels, Hirshland was on hand for the beginning stages of ESPN2 and one of the first forty people hired at the Golf Channel when the world’s first niche sports channel began its preparations in 1994. For years, he was part of the production team for golf’s nationally televised Skins Game. Hirshland has worked alongside sports television’s most iconic figures and his book ‘Cover Me Boys‘ features great behind-the-scenes stories from more than 30 years in the sports broadcasting business.
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Image of Kay Cockerill courtesy of USGA. Other photos Keith Hirshland.