USGA Art Collection on Display at High Museum of Art in Atlanta

Feb 16, 2012

By Robert Williams, USGA

In 2005, it was decided to renovate and expand the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. Rand Jerris, then the director of the USGA Museum, reconceived the exhibits’ use of more than 50,000 artifacts to explain the evolution of the game through the lens of political, cultural and social history.

This scholarship by Jerris, who is now the USGA’s senior managing director of public services, has resonated with America’s larger arts community. In 2010, curators Catherine Lewis and Julia Forbes, representing the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the National Galleries of Scotland, approached the USGA regarding an exhibit that would explore representations of the game in fine art, from an early 17th-century Dutch stick-and-ball game called “kolf” to pop artist Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portrait of Jack Nicklaus.

The result of this two-year collaboration is The Art of Golf, an exhibition that opened Feb. 5, 2012, and runs through June 24, 2012, at the High.

“Many artists over the last 400 years have used the sport [of golf] as their subject and were inspired by the heroes of the game both in Scotland and the United States,” said Michael Shapiro, the High’s director.

Managing Curator Julia Forbes notes that the exhibit begins “by tackling how the Dutch game called kolf, which is played on ice, relates to the game of golf and the role Scotland played in the development of the modern game.”

“The earliest accounts [of golf] are literary rather than visual,” said Jordan Mearns of the Scottish National Gallery. “The first reference to golf in Scotland is found in an Act of Parliament of March 6, 1457, during the reign of King James II and it is a negative one.”

According to Mearns, golf and other games were viewed with suspicion as a waste of time and a potentially dangerous distraction. The act, in part, reads: “…And that football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped.” It goes on to authorize local officials to punish the offending parties on grounds of national security. The King was concerned that men would play golf rather than practice archery, which was critical to expelling the invading English armies.

The church echoed concerns related to golf, as shown by Charles Dollman’s During the Time of Sermonses (ca. 1896), where young men are discovered by their local pastor to be playing on a Sunday. From these references and other accounts, it is generally accepted that the interest in golf remained democratic as it developed in Scotland, but artists who began to depict the game in the 18th century focused on the game’s elite.

Arguably golf’s most famous painting, Charles Lees’ The Golfers, is the exhibit’s centerpiece, depicting a 19th-century match on the Old Course at St. Andrews between prominent men of the day. This large painting – which measures more than 4 feet tall by 7 feet wide – was on display at The Royal & Ancient Golf Club for a long period of its history and now finds its permanent home in the National Portrait Gallery at the National Galleries of Scotland. This exhibit marks the first time the painting has left its home country.

The bridge to America is made through golf’s great ambassador and hometown Atlantan, Bob Jones. A selection of portraits painted over a period of more than 70 years, including a piece from the USGA Museum by Everett Raymond Kinstler, demonstrates, in the words of Lewis, that “Jones’s legacy has the kind of currency that is still meaningful and valuable for contemporary audiences.”

Also on display is a silver casket bearing a scroll that imparts the Freedom of the City of St. Andrews, which was given to Jones when he returned to St Andrews in 1958. The only other American to receive this high honor was Benjamin Franklin nearly two centuries before.

The exhibition also explores golf photography. Dr. Harold Edgerton worked with Jones in 1935 on a series of stroboscopic images of his swing. According to Lewis, these images, loaned by the USGA Museum, “illustrate how the smallest nuance can have an exponential effect on a golf ball – a reality that instructors and equipment companies have long embraced.”

Another series of USGA images celebrates the triumphs of African-American players, including John Shippen, a competitor in the 1896 U.S. Open; Althea Gibson, the first African American on the LPGA Tour; and Tiger Woods, nine-time USGA champion.

The exhibit not only encompasses more than 400 years of history, but also features an eclectic group of artists, from Rembrandt to Warhol, who were attracted to the golf as a subject matter. The imagery captures the game from its infancy to the present day, reminding us what Bob Jones meant when he said, “[Golf] is, nevertheless, a game of considerable passion… that which burns inwardly and sears the soul.”

Click here to learn more about The Art of Golf exhibit at the High Art Museum.

Robert Williams is the director of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to

"The Golfers" is believed to be based on an actual 1833 match between a team of Sir David Baird and Sir Ralph Anstruther against Major Hugh Lyon Playfair and John Campbell of Glensaddell. This exhibit marks the first time the painting has ever left its home country, Scotland. (Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

One of the earliest depictions of golf is Rembrandt's "The Ringball Player" from 1654. (National Galleries of Scotland)

Photography is also part of "The Art of Golf" exhibit at the High Museum. Tiger Woods reacts to a made birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff the following day to claim his ninth USGA title. (USGA/John Mummert)