A day of golf: the USGA museum reopens

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Along the winding driveway, there are banners picturing golf greats. First Tiger Woods, then Annika Sorenstam (who has been, roughly, the Tiger Woods of the ladies’ tour). Then Jack Nicklaus, then Mickey Wright (nee Mary Kathryn). Then Gene Sarazen and Patty Berg.

So, they’ve gone boy-girl, boy-girl.

Who are “they”? The United States Golf Association, or the “USGA,” as everyone knows it. We are at their headquarters in remote, country New Jersey–it is “BYOOcolic,” as a friend of mine remarks. Today is the grand opening, or reopening, of the USGA Museum. It was closed for three years. And they’ve added an attractive wing, called the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History.

Once upon a time, there was just “Golf House”–a stately Georgian home designed in the 1910s by John Russell Pope (of Jefferson Memorial and National Gallery fame). Now the USGA has a veritable compound. But it is the house that draws your eye. Among its pillars hang two banners, one of Bobby Jones, the other of Arnold Palmer.

The USGA Museum is sort of like the Smithsonian, which has been called “America’s attic.” The Smithsonian has Lindbergh’s plane and Archie Bunker’s chair; the golf museum has Jones’s putter and Ben Hogan’s 1-iron.

This is a perfect day for the reopening, with the sparkling warm weather. “What is so rare as a day in June?” And, perhaps appropriately for June, the place looks to set up for a wedding, with white tents and a chamber ensemble. (It is an all-brass group.) Everyone has a lovely time; everyone’s tickled to be here.

The USGA has a variety of responsibilities, among them the running of our national golf tournaments: the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, etc. They also write and interpret the rules of golf no, excuse me, the Rules of Golf. They do this in conjunction with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews. And they test golf equipment, to make sure that these items mainly clubs and balls are in conformity with the rules.

A lot of us think that the equipment has gone crazy that it has gone too far. (In the case of balls, literally.) But that is an argument for another day.

We visitors get tours of the Research and Test Center, where Iron Byron once reigned. “Iron Byron” was the name of the machine that tested balls that swatted them. It was named after Byron Nelson, who had a remarkably consistent swing. A picture of an older Nelson, at the finish of his swing, graces a wall here. The new “Iron Byron” is computerized, and swings a lot faster. A technician taps a keyboard, and off it goes.

Out on the grounds, a crowd surrounds someone, and cameras flash. Must be Palmer and, lo, it is. At 78, he is still a rock star, mobbed wherever he goes. The fans want autographs, and Palmer duly complies he looks grim as he goes about this business. The fans are none too decorous, either: They are pushy, grabby, heedless. Was the autograph culture always this bad?

And here is another question: In the span of his career, has Arnold signed more autographs than he has hit golf balls? The numbers must be dizzying.

I think of Lynn Swann, whose race for governor of Pennsylvania I covered two years ago. He is a former football great (Pittsburgh Steelers). And, during the campaign, he had a rule: no autographs. And he was asked for them, constantly. I thought this was rather awkward, but he insisted that, if he started signing, he would not be able to move. He would be absolutely stuck.

I think back to this as Palmer is stuck.

Later, unstuck, he gives a press conference, at which he is asked about Tiger: Will the young champ be able to overcome his bum knee? Palmer says yes he himself had a bum knee and worked through it. Tiger should be able to march on.

Before long, it’s time for the ceremony the official reopening ceremony. It’s held out on the lawn, in front of the house. Near the dais, a brass ensemble is playing a Purcell trumpet voluntary (as at a wedding). They also play some jazz and some patriotic music. Then comes a bagpipe band, as we must have because golf comes from Scotland. They play as they must “Scotland the Brave.” It never fails to stir. And finally, we have our national anthem hands go on hearts.

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