Unique 'Art of Golf' exhibit appeals to golfers as much as to art buffs

"The Golfers" by Charles Lees
Courtesy of the High Museum of Art
"The Golfers" by Charles Lees is considered the world's most important golf painting.
John Kim
PGA.com Coordinating Producer

Series: Industry News

Published: Sunday, February 05, 2012 | 5:47 p.m.

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Imagine your Saturday foursome, fresh off a spirited 18 and sitting down for a nice clubhouse lunch, maybe paying off a few wagers and recalling the better shots of the day. And then this happens.

"What do you have going on the rest of the day?"
"Not much. You?"
"Thought I'd go check out some Rembrandt, some Warhol, some Norman Rockwell. Want to come?"
"Really? I didn't know you were into art."
"I'm not ...  I just love golf."

Sound a bit far-fetched? It shouldn't. Not anymore. 


"The Art of Golf" will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from Feb. 5 through June 24.

For the first time ever, a major American art museum has assembled an exhibition devoted solely to golf. "The Art of Golf," which opened Feb. 5 and runs through June 24 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, is a collection of approximately 90 paintings, images, photographs and even some memorabilia depicting the passion, influence and inspiration that golf has had on our culture.

Michael Clarke of the Scottish National Gallery, which is partnering with the High Museum, explained that this unique exhibit holds great promise and potential for many audiences.

"To the art museum public, I want them to start thinking, 'Gosh, there's really a rich visual history of this game of golf that's worth exploring,' and that's fascinating for us," explained Clarke. "And for the tens of millions of golfers, who may not be art musuem aficionados, they should come here and say 'Those images are really rather interesting, I didn't realize my favorite game had been portrayed so well and it makes me think about it in different ways.'"

The exhibition came about, as in many things golf, through a side conversation and bit of boasting between the High's Director Michael Shapiro and museum officials from the National Galleries of Scotland, who had partnered on an earlier exhibit.

Clarke made a note in passing to Shapiro that they were the home to "the most famous painting in golf," to which Mr. Shapiro responded, "I didn't know there was a "most famous painting in golf."

Upon a group visit to "The Golfers," an 1847 creation by Charles Lees depicting a big match at St. Andrews, the small talk had ballooned into a big idea. Very big.

"This led to three trips to Scotland and a trip to the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., to work on the exhibition," explained Curator Julia Forbes of the High Museum. "Our team put 700 miles on a rental car in Scotland filming many of the great courses. But of course, the entire experience was really was a thrill."

From the earliest portraits of Sir William Inglis, an early captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1787, to Andy Warhol's iconic capture of Jack Nicklaus to original works by Charles Schultz's Peanuts gang, "The Art of Golf" is more about the impact of golf through the last five centuries, not necessarily the iconic moments or even courses that many golf fans think of.  It is a pictorial walk through time, not necessarily celebrating the best of golf but focusing more about the love of golf.

"The Golfers" is the centerpiece of the collection. It also embodies its spirit. What appears, at first look, as a keenly interested crowd watching the action around a green during an intense four-ball match is actually an aggregation of some of the best-known golf figures of the 19th-century era, the members of the esteemed Royal and Ancient decked out in their resplendent red blazers.

Golfers will appreciate the angst, the anticipation and the enthusiasm shown by the crowd as they wonder if the putt will find the hole. They will also note the sanctity of the setting, the Old Course at St. Andrews -- also known as "the home of golf."  Non-golfers will appreciate the detail, the flow, the colors (you know, whatever art people appreciate.)

But therein lies the key to the painting and the entire exhibit. It is something that diverse audiences can not only understand, but enjoy.  Coming from an entirely ignorant and neophyte perspective, this writer has only a few molecules of art appreciation, but left my visit to the museum with a better and more complete appreciation of golf and its history.

One of the first paintings a visitor will view is a standard, old English portrait.  A casual look might not reveal why it is even part of the exhibition. The subject is Sir William Inglis, interesting one would guess, but to many, maybe not entirely compelling. But then notice the golf course viewed out of the window.  It's small but definite.  Now the golf club lying on the table beside him.  And the "trophy," a scepter decorated with a slew of silver ornaments, each resembling a golf ball.  Those ornaments have names etched on them. Yes, it's the silver club, similar to a club championship trophy of today.  And the scepter would be proudly marched in and paraded around the competitors prior to the event. And as you move to the next case, you'll find an actual scepter that was awarded during such a tournament.

Can you picture winning the trophy and beaming with pride as your name was added to the collection of champions?  Can you share the joy of seeing a magnificent golf course from the air, seeing how it fits onto the land and design intracies of the world's greatest architects? Can you laugh at a comic strip that has a vexed husband daring his wife, "please don't leave, otherwise I'll have nothing but golf and fun and more money (paraphrased)?" 

Of course you can -- because you're a golfer. As a general rule, golfers love beauty and art, we often just define it a little differently.  Arnold Palmer once described the flight of the golf ball as art.  But landscapes are art, too, and what has better landscapes than golf courses? The golfer, the golf swing, the golf course -- all are beautiful works of art.  The LOVE of golf is as passionate as anything found in society. If art captures beauty and emotion, the most natural canvas in the world may be a golf course.

And that's the uniqueness of "The Art of Golf."  From a museum perspective, this is a great collection of works.  If you love golf, and even if you have no discernable feelings toward anything artsy, you'll find this exhibition to be tremendously rewarding. If golf is important to you, you are part of a vast army of people who express it in various ways.  This exhibition has taken some of the best forms of adoration and placed them all together to share and enjoy with you.  See you there.