Whether your club has hosted a record 17 USGA championships, like Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia, or just a handful of local city championships, it’s likely there is some history worth preserving.
Photographs, meeting minutes, trophies, architectural blueprints and other memorabilia are all vital components to a club’s historical narrative.
Preserving such precious materials, however, can sometimes get lost in the priority chain.
“If you don’t start collecting yesterday today, there will be no tomorrow,” said John Capers, Merion’s club historian and purveyor of its archives.
So why have an archive?
For starters, it preserves history for future generations of members, guests and staff.
“It’s so multi-faceted in its value,” said Andy Mutch, the president/CEO of Golf Curator, a company that specializes in preserving archival materials for golf clubs.
Mutch was hired by Merion Golf Club in 2001 to create its archives room, which opened in 2003 and is arguably the best private-club collection in the country. He has since done similar work for other clubs steeped in history, including Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Oakland Hills and Pine Valley.
But Mutch says a club’s pedigree shouldn’t dictate the need for an archive.
“It’s a selling feature,” said Mutch. “When they bring in new members or guests, they can show off their history. They can use historic materials or photographs for a website. They can host fundraising events around historical initiatives. It’s so valuable. The clubs that bite off this type of project realize the benefits right away.”
Capers has developed a PowerPoint presentation detailing how clubs can start an archive. He has already made half a dozen presentations and had many more phone conversations with interested clubs.
“If Merion’s archives can accomplish anything,” said Capers, “it should be to create other clubs’ desire to build their own archives.”
A few weeks ago, a group from Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, including Glenn Diegel, the club’s Heritage Committee chairman, spent several hours visiting with Capers at Merion.
“I think the president and vice president [of Oakland Hills] asked, what are we doing?” said Diegel of creating an archive. “Our clubhouse looks a lot different. It doesn’t look like [Merion’s], but it’s getting a lot better.”
A host site for 10 USGA championships, including six U.S. Opens, Oakland Hills enjoys a long history of championship golf. Diegel said Al Watrous, the club’s head professional from 1929-67, had begun working on an informal archival collection with two other members in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“There [was] a lot there,” said Diegel. “It just needed to be organized and archived.”
Mutch has since been hired to provide professional assistance.
Eleven-time major winner Walter Hagen, who claimed a pair of U.S. Open titles (1914 and 1919), served as Oakland Hills’ first pro in 1918-19. The club dedicated a room to Hagen, including his major-championship trophies, a portrait and items from Red Cross exhibition matches he conducted during World War I. Diegel and his committee also purchased a replica Detroit Tigers jersey worn by Hagen from the days he spent with the team during spring training; Hagen had a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies the same year he claimed his first U.S. Open.
Of course, the key to any project of this magnitude is money.
“Find me $50,000 to start with and build in a budget every year,” said Capers. “I spend several thousand a year just on supplies.”
Diegel said the Oakland Hills membership has begun to embrace the archive project. A section in the monthly newsletter is dedicated to the work being done by the Heritage Committee, and Diegel said it’s one of the most-read articles.
Capers said the second primary component of any successful archive is conducting a proper inventory of memorabilia. Are there photos? Are there minutes from past board meetings? Do architectural blueprints exist?
Sometimes, those items can be found simply by doing a search on eBay, said Capers.
He told the story of a member of Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club going on eBay and searching the club’s name. Several items popped up and she purchased them.
“That’s how they started their archives,” he said. “Give me the name of your club and we’ll type it in … and there’s [likely] something there.”
Capers also thinks people would be surprised by where donations of memorabilia come from. Two years ago at Merion, 99 items were donated. The majority came from members and guests, but 19 were from staff.
Joe Valentine, Merion’s superintendent from 1918 to 1968, kept a diary documenting daily maintenance. Capers proudly points to the volumes of books that contain those daily notes, which Valentine’s son, Richie, who was the superintendent from 1968 to 1989, also contributed to. Capers recently discovered that Richie had been enthusiastic about photography, with carousels of slides of Merion to prove it.
“What are you going to do with them?” Capers asked. “They’re in a garage.”
No item is too large or small.
“Most clubs have pictures on the walls, so they have a history,” said Capers. “But if they don’t have an archive, where they are storing them? There are some clubs that have an archive and no pictures. … To me, there’s a story behind everything.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.