The long history of golf is played out behind glass in special museums

July 12, 1992|By Carol Godwin | Carol Godwin,Contributing Writer

Hard by the fields called the Links, the citizens of Edinburgh divert themselves at a game called Golf, in which they use a curious kind of bats, tipped with horn, and small elastic balls of leather, stuffed with feathers, rather less than tennis balls, but of a much harder consistency; this they strike with such force and dexterity from one hole to another that they will fly to an incredible distance.

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker," Tobias Smollett, 1771 Ah, the relics of the game. Chronicled from the early days when legions of the Roman Empire relaxed with a game known as paganica and took it abroad as their armies advanced. The medieval Dutch played kolf, the Belgians choulle. Even earlier, the ancient Chinese played a similar game, called suigan, during the Sang and Ming eras, and Japanese nobility of the Nara period played dakua. But none of these forerunners involved a hole in the ground with the players attempting to climax their round with a putt, golf's one distinguishing feature.

It was the Scots and their rolling turf and dunes that fashioned the game we've recognized for some 600 years. Much more than dates in a history book, golf's time-honored legacy and continuing evolution are a testimony to the international enjoyment of the sport. Understanding its beginnings and growth makes it even more challenging.

Where to learn about golf? Try a museum. Scattered through the United States and Canada, golf museums tee up with the facts, figures, history and lure that will keep you on par. Here are some to swing by:

James River Country Club Golf Museum and Library: Founded in 1932 by a non-golfer, Archer M. Huntington, principal owner of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., this is the oldest golf museum in the world. Appropriately ensconced on the banks of the James River near historic Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in North America, the museum's superior collections were begun long before collecting ancient golf artifacts was in vogue.

Boasting some 400 old clubs, including cleeks, baffies, jiggers, brassies, spoons and niblicks, it is possibly the finest collection in the country or the world. Highlights include a fine old wooden putter of the 1780 period made by Simon Cossair of Leith, Scotland; a concave-faced sand iron dated 1820; and a scale model of the Old Course at St. Andrew's. More than 1,000 volumes document the game from medieval to modern times and include two rare volumes, the 1566 "Black Acts" and the 1597 "Scots Lawes and Acts," both important because they contain the first known printed reference to golf and the laws that prohibited its playing because it interfered with archery practice, church attendance or other aspects of life.

Located at 1500 Country Club Road, Newport News, Va. 23606, (804) 595-3327, the museum is open to the public at no charge. However, since the club is private, curator Weymoth Crumpler recommends calling ahead.

USGA Golf House Museum and Library: Opened in 1972 near the borough of Far Hills, N.J., the museum and library are housed in the former family residence of Thomas H. Frothingham, a Georgian Colonial structure built in 1919 by John Russell Pope, who also designed the National Archives Building, the Jefferson Memorial and the American Battle Monument in France.

As the custodian of golf's history in the United States, the USGA makes this facility, which is adjacent to its headquarters, available for research as well as browsing. Along with some 8,000 volumes dedicated to golf, exhibits include a vast collection of clubs and balls signifying the three distinct eras in the evolution of the game: the feather ball, the gutta percha ball and the rubber ball periods. America's enthusiasm for the game inspired rapid changes in equipment, and golf course construction boomed after World War II. Artifacts and memorabilia include paintings, photographs, sculpture, ceramics, glassware, silver pieces, golf garments and astronaut Alan Shepard's moon club. Exhibits feature golf course architecture and turf maintenance, hands-on and video presentations, and changing displays.

Located on Liberty Corner Road (New Jersey Route 512) in Far Hills, N.J., (201) 234-2300, Golf House is open free of charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It is closed New Year's day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

PGA/World Golf Hall of Fame: From its appropriate stance overlooking the fourth hole of Donald Ross' masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2, the Golf Hall of Fame nestles among dogwoods, azaleas and longleaf pine in Pinehurst, N.C.

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