Led by women, the USGA Golf Museum promotes diversity in golf

Hilary Cronheim can’t tell you how many times she’s received letters and emails with the greeting “Dear Mr. Director.”

But it’s not always that specific greeting. Sometimes her team is addressed as “gentlemen.”

That assumption isn’t only incorrect because Hilary Cronheim, director of the USGA Golf Museum and Library, isn’t a man. It’s also flawed because no one on the museum staff is male.

The USGA Golf Museum and Library located in Liberty Corner, New Jersey, is staffed entirely by women with Cronheim serving as director since 2019. The staff provides a glimpse of progress and inclusivity in a sport where women’s events and achievements largely don’t illicit the same treatment as those of men — a perception the seven-member staff is striving to change.

“Women have been involved in the game of golf from the very beginning … but often the story is of the men,” Cronheim said. “The men as golf course architects, the men as writers, the men as journalists, where is nothing is further from the truth that women have been trailblazers in all these ways for as long as the game has existed.”

The museum seeks to accomplish that goal by displaying powerful stories from golf’s history from multiple cultures and all genders. There’s Mickey Wright room for every Jack Nicklaus room, literally and metaphorically.

Among the prized items like the putter from Adam Sander’s movie “Happy Gilmore,” the golf ball used for Tiger Woods’ final putt at the 2002 U.S. Men’s Open and a permanent gallery dedicated to Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930, the museum boasts an equal emphasis on the achievements of women in the sport. A few of the museum team’s favorite items are photographs from the 1895 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Annika Sorenstam’s visor from the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open and Michelle Wie’s yardage guide with notes from Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley from the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open.

Althea Gibson in New York City on Dec. 12, 1963, after she signed a contract as a golf pro with Dunlop. (Photo: Harry Harris/Associated Press)

“They say Mary Queen of Scots was the first woman to play the game so women have been playing for a really long time and I think as women in a sport that — let’s face it — has the perception of being fairly dominated by men, we feel a responsibility to also elevate the stories of women,” Cronheim said.

The disparity in women’s and men’s golf can be seen most prominently in pay and television coverage allotted.

Last year, the USGA broke down the pay gap between the purses at the U.S. Men’s Open and U.S. Women’s Open for Golfweek, revealing that the $70 million in profits generated from the men’s major goes directly back into the game. From those profits, $22 million went toward women’s championships and participation. The bottom line of the conversation was the USGA loses about $10.4 million on the U.S. Women’s Open. The purse for the event is the largest among the women’s five majors but still lags behind the men by $7 million.

When Annika Sorenstam returned to the LPGA for the first time since she retired in 2008 last month at Gainbridge LPGA, the entire week’s worth of coverage was tape-delayed on Golf Channel with Sunday’s final-round coverage ending at 11 p.m. ET following live coverage of the PGA Tour’s WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession.

Well aware of the inequality in coverage, pay and resulting perception between men’s and women’s professional golf, the USGA Museum staff’s approach to curation and storytelling is working to dissolve the faulty perception of inferiority attached to the women’s game as the members discover new stories and historic artifacts.

While it would be common sense for this particular staff to solely emphasize the prominence of women in the sport, the staff realizes presenting an accurate and well-rounded depiction of the game extends to sharing stories of golfers of all races, from the LGBTQ+ community and well-known recreational players aviation pioneer such as Amelia Earhart, whose clubs, golf bag and headcovers are housed by the library.

Some of these items include Ann Gregory’s contestant badge from the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur when she became the first Black woman to compete in the event, Se Ri Pak’s putter from the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open when she became the event’s first foreign-born champion from a country in Asia as well as the clubs and bag of four-time Grand Slam winner and tennis star Althea Gibson when she became one of the first Black women to play on the LPGA tour in the 1960s.

Althea Gibson and Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson during the North-South Tournament at the Miami Springs course on Feb. 23, 1962. (AP Photo)

“We’re all contributing to bringing that female voice forward and kind of leveling the playing field a little bit and that’s what we’re doing at the museum as well by trying to elevate these stories of women and not just of women, (but) people of color, underrepresented communities, the LGBTQ+ community,” curator of collections Rosemary Maravetz said.

While gender plays a role in each staff member determining stories of importance in the sport, their diverse backgrounds and life experiences also play a noticeable role. The ages of the seven staff members range from 26 to one member in her 50s. Some are single and some are married. And they’ve lived in different parts of the United States and the world.

Cronheim completed studies and research at the University of Venice in Italy and the Université Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3 in Lille, France, where she studied an economic approach to art history while acquiring data analytics and visualization tools. Maravetz, who has more than 20 years of experience working with diverse art collections, artifacts and ethnographic objects, immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela when she was 6. In her time at Rutgers and in her post-graduate career, Maravetz developed a passion for preserving cultural history and evaluating stories of diverse groups through her work with Native American art and utilitarian objects. Her background, upbringing and education provide a vibrant perspective that adds to those of her colleagues in golf.

Cronheim’s time studying in Europe and Maravetz’s heritage and upbringing are just two elements that add a unique perspective to the museum’s depiction of golf. The trained professionals would bring a wide lens to look at the depth of any topic, but it’s especially poignant in a traditionally exclusionary sport like golf.

“We are absolutely more in tune with the stories of people who have been traditionally underrepresented,” Maravetz said of the benefits of her diverse team. “We are drawn to a lot of different kinds of stories. Maybe that has to do with our experiences. … but I think there are others on the team that don’t have that kind of background and are still very interested in covering and sharing the stories that are kind of not in the mainstream.”

Another element that makes the museum team a better staff might seem counter-intuitive: only two of the seven identify as golfers. Cronheim discovered the game more than a decade ago and serves on the golf committee at her home course, Somerset Hills Country Club, while senior historian Victoria Nenno played for four years at Williams College where she served as co-captain. She also interned with the USGA in 2011.

Nenno’s perspective of playing collegiate golf and keeping up with the sport since before she began working at the USGA full-time in 2014 benefits her as she works with leadership on projects like Distance Insights, Rules Modernization and championship-related inquiries. However, her education in history and training and at the Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery Library in Washington, D.C., allow her to approach the job in a way just being a golfer wouldn’t.

“As a historian, as a researcher, as a writer, I have a passion for history and study and a commitment to uncovering truth are so much more important than any golf experience,” Nenno said. “I find (personal experience with) golf helps with certain things and in other ways it’s not the most important part (of my role).”

Hilary Cronheim shows Rory McIlroy the second U.S. Open medal artifact during the past U.S. Open Champion’s dinner at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (USGA/Chris Keane)

During her seven years on the USGA Museum team, Nenno has used her knowledge of golf and passion for history and “challenging assumptions and convenient narratives” to curate exhibits documenting women in golf course architecture (2017-19) and Scotland’s gift of golf to America which was seen at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in April 2018.

Maravetz, who’s been with the USGA Museum since 2005, thinks not being a golfer frees her from unconscious bias. Using her education and training in preserving artifacts and pieces of art she’s culminated throughout her career, she cares for each piece of the collection impartially. What she prioritizes will be based on the story each piece tells and if it’s part of a bigger picture, not on nostalgia or personal sentiment.

“I have a little bit of an arms length from (golf) where it’s not so personal for me and I can really see the material for what it is or what it needs. I find really helpful,” Maravetz said. “The other part of it is I was hired because I have a deep background in collections caring management. … You can always learn golf and you can always learn an appreciation for it and certainly for me I’ve gotten very much sucked into the stories. But it’s much harder to how to learn the skill sets that I bring that make me an attractive addition to the team.”

Cronheim said while golf is the topic they research and present, the skills and knowledge each member possesses are the requirements for their jobs. Not how well each can putt.

“We are museum professionals first and golf is the vehicle through which we pursue our passion. … golf just the subject matter,” Cronheim said.

Take Mickey Wright and her entire estate left to and recently acquired by the USGA as an example.

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When the USGA Museum staff selected objects from the Wright collection, it didn’t just focus on things that defined her golf career and made her a champion. Rather, the team chose to emphasize objects that provided the fullest picture of Wright as a person, on and off the course. Some of the most interesting pieces are her lipstick — she wore only one shade — and items that speak to Wright’s passion for sculpture and fishing.

The different items in the collection document Wright’s whole life. Not just the time she spent on the course. The same is true for Babe Didrikson Zacharias whose golf career is enshrined in the museum, but so is her baseball glove, another staff favorite.

The team finds that preserving and displaying items that tell a story of each person, event or place helps insert golf into the landscape of American history in ways that golf novices, casual fans or even non-golfers who visit the museum can, and do, appreciate.

Cronheim, Maravetz and Nenno each attribute that success to the unified yet diverse makeup of the staff — something they see inspiring not just in golf to emulate throughout the sport, but society as a whole.

“All of us working in what is perceived as a male-dominated field just continuously proves the importance of women in the game and the diverse roles they’ve always played,” Nenno said. “We’re just continuing that tradition and we’re just sort of the modern spin on something that’s always been a value to the game of golf and recognized by the game of golf.”

Hilary Cronheim

Hilary Cronheim as seen at USGA Headquarters in the Liberty Corner, N.J. on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo: Jason E. Miczek/USGA)

The staff members of the USGA Golf Museum and Library are the following, in alphabetical order:

  • Hilary Cronheim, director
  • Kylie Garabed, junior curator of collections
  • Karen Geppert, senior museum welcome ambassador
  • Maggie Lagle, historian
  • Rosemary Maravetz, curator of collections
  • Victoria Nenno, senior historian
  • Tara Valente, librarian

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