Note: The USGA Museum is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
LIBERTY CORNER, NEW JERSEY | One of the best parts of the USGA Museum is its fine art collection, and it was from that trove of prints, paintings, drawings and sculptures that Rand Jerris, the association’s senior managing director of public services, curated an engaging new exhibition called “The Art of the Golf Course.” The idea, he says, was to show the different ways artists have depicted and interpreted the layouts on which the game has been played through the years. “And if we can provide different perspectives on golf in the process, so much the better,” says Jerris, a former director of the museum who was awarded a Ph.D. in art and archaeology from Princeton.
What makes the golf course such an interesting study in art in his mind is its unique standing as a field of play. “The Rules of Golf … are notably silent on the forms, dimensions and appearance of a golf course,” Jerris writes in an introduction to the exhibit. “It is left to the creativity and ingenuity of the golf course architect to provide the variety of features that will create playing interest and challenge as well as visual interest and beauty.”
The point is well taken. Golf courses are art. Tennis courts, curling rinks, polo fields and swimming pools not so much.
Opened last fall and scheduled to be displayed through August 2020, the exhibition features some 50 pieces. They represent a mere fraction of the museum’s fine art collection, which contains roughly 1,000 individual works. But they nonetheless give those with a passion for the sport and an interest in courses unique and compelling ways to appreciate them.
I enjoy a multitude of artistic media, and the ones that Jerris has used for this exhibit include several of my favorites. I especially liked a section he described as “the watercolorists.” A number of Golden Age course architects were quite adept at producing detailed watercolors of golf holes they intended to build “to inform and guide a construction crew,” the curator explains, and to “convey design intent” to clients. And I gravitated immediately to one A.W. Tillinghast had created for the Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. I then lingered over equally enticing pieces that Chris Meadows and Harry Rountree had fashioned of courses in Scotland (at Routenburn) and England (Sheringham), respectively, thinking the whole time of how wonderful they would look hanging on the walls of my home office.
Equally enthralling were a series of bronzes of green complexes by an Idahoan named Henry Whiting. Per Jerris’ suggestion, I dropped to my knees when I viewed those works, so the wildly undulating putting surfaces were at eye level. It made me feel like I was actually reading the green before hitting a putt. I was also reminded of the plaster and plasticine models that the great, old designers crafted when designing and building courses a century or more ago.
Making art to make even more art, I said to myself. The creativity never ends.
I tarried for a spell in front of images shot by Japanese photographer Kanemichi Yamada of golf courses in his homeland. Then, I savored the drawing that illustrator Franklin Booth had made of the Punch Bowl hole on Charles Blair Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America on the East End of Long Island – and the etching created by George Aikman from an original watercolor by John Smart of the Hell Bunker on the 14th hole of the Old Course.
The panoramic black-and-white images that John Yang made in the late 1980s of golf courses as he traveled from North Carolina to Vermont kept me rapt as well, largely due to the 360-degree views he provided in the ones on display. Jerris said Yang was not a golfer and suggested that his ability to see a course so differently from those of us who know the game is what endows his work with an unusual aura.
Next, I considered a series of paintings by Lee Wybranski. Best known for his watercolors and the stylishly retro posters he has produced for a number of USGA championships, the Arizona native made his living for many years hand-painting yardage books. That work compelled him to view golf courses “from above” and led him to create a series of acrylic paintings from that perspective for a gallery exhibition in Philadelphia at the time of the 2013 U.S. Open at nearby Merion Golf Club. The four hanging in the USGA Museum depict the 10th hole at Riviera, the 17th at Pebble Beach, the 11th at Merion and the 15th at Shinnecock Hills.
I wrapped up my visit, which occurred about a week before the USGA Museum closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a stroll through a small room devoted to the art of Desmond Muirhead. Born in Norwich, England in 1923, he served as a navigator for the Royal Air Force before earning degrees at Cambridge and the universities of British Columbia and Oregon. His specialty was urban design and architecture, and used that knowledge to build golf courses, first on his own and also in collaboration with Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield Village. In time, Muirhead set out on his own again, and it was as an independent from the 1980s up to his death in 2002 that he produced what Jerris describes as “his most daring and controversial designs for clients in Japan, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Bold sculptural forms without any precedent populated these golf courses – symbols, animals, human forms, mythological figures, demons and devils – all inspired by local culture, religious and historical influences.” The most renowned of those were bunkers shaped like fish – and entire holes shaped like mermaids.
In 2014, the USGA acquired a number of Muirhead golf course-related sketches, and Jerris has included some of those in his exhibit. Fantastical. Whimsical. Bold. Extreme. They are those things, and then some.
They are also art, and as is the case with the other pieces in his exhibit, they show that golf courses are so much more than places to tee it up.
A guest admires panoramic photographs at the USGA Museum’s “The Art of the Golf Course” exhibition. Photo: Steve Boyle, Copyright USGA
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