What to do with the Golf Hall of Fame

Before one starts an article about the status of the World Golf Hall of Fame, how it’s perceived inside and outside the game, the merits or defects of its inclusion criteria, and the worthiness of its inductees, it’s important to recognize the contribution to the game every one of its members has made. From leading lights like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez, and Annika Sorenstam to more obscure figures such as Hisako Higuchi, Marlene Bauer Hagge, and Dennis Walters every one of the 160 men and women enshrined at the World Golf Village (WGV) in St. Augustine, Fla., has either built an impressive playing record or somehow influenced the game in a positive way.

Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images

And yet, the World Golf Hall of Fame’s reputation, though hardly in tatters, probably falls well short of what the World Golf Foundation, which created the current version of the Hall in 1998 (the original opened in Pinehurst NC in 1974, and was owned by the Diamondhead Corp but acquired by the PGA of America in 1986), would desire. Its prestige doesn’t come close to matching that of Cooperstown (MLB) or Canton (NFL), and entering the Hall doesn’t seem to appear terribly high on many players’ wish list.

Why not? Where is it going wrong?

In March 2014, then Hall COO Jack Peter reduced from hundreds to 16 the number of people that voted on each new class, raised the number of votes required for admission to 12 of the new 16-person selection commission (75 percent), made the annual event biennial instead, and began taking the induction ceremony on the road (St. Andrews in 2015, New York in 2017, and Pebble Beach this year). The plan was to raise awareness and, Peter said, “serve the long-term interests of the Hall and allow it to continue recognizing worthy individuals.”

Up to that point, induction ceremonies at WGV had not been well-attended, the embarrassingly inappropriate International Ballot had existed for several years, and one or two questionable selections were made—you’ll remember that in 2013 Fred Couples and Colin Montgomerie were voted in despite winning a single major between them and each appealing to just over 50 percent of the voters.

Problems still persist, however. The flashy, made-for-TV induction ceremony still fails to attract a significant audience; highly visible commentators like Geoff Shackelford are dismissive of it calling it nothing more than a popularity contest; and it hasn’t helped that of the last 14 inductees (2015, 2017, 2019), the most famous may well have been not a player but an administrator— Billy Payne, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

Billy Payne (Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images)

That raises the question of what a hall of fame is for, of course. Should the World Golf Hall of Fame recognize those with a high-fame factor even if their playing records aren’t all that, or should it only be for players whose competitive record is significantly superior? Couples’s resume, though full of highlights, was thought by many to be inadequate for the Hall. Yet there’s no question he is/was an incredibly popular player whose celebrity raised the game’s profile.

The likelihood of Martin Kaymer’s entry was debated on Golf Channel recently. He definitely passes the eligibility test— two majors, a Players Championship, former world No. one, Ryder Cup hero, 23 professional wins—but does that necessarily mean he’ll receive sufficient votes? It seems unlikely that this charming and eloquent player has ever offended anyone badly enough to prevent him receiving enough votes, but let’s face it, Kaymer isn’t the most recognizable face in the game and not well-known outside of it. Does that work against him? Steve Mona, former CEO of the World Golf Foundation (WGF), said last October “It’s not just strictly based on playing record. The fame element is part of it. Some people were just more popular than others when they were on tour.”

Shackelford clearly wasn’t impressed. “Now there may need to be questions about the legitimacy of the entire World Golf Foundation after its CEO admitted on the record that the Hall is a popularity contest for the selection committee,” he said, calling Mona’s statement a “face-in-the-palms admission from someone paid lavishly to not say stupid things.”

Peter, who retired at the end of last year and was replaced by new World Golf Foundation CEO Greg McLaughlin, was on the right track in 2014 but was probably wrong to cut the number of voters to just 16 as favoritism is facilitated in a smaller group and the popularity contest Shackelford (well, everyone) so abhors would be avoided if there were more voters from different parts of the game and, indeed, the world.

By all means have a selection committee comprising the game’s most important figures whose vote counts double, but revert to getting the opinion of many more genuine experts within the game.

Another change we’d be interested in seeing is two levels of membership. The lower floor would be for “regular” members (there’s nothing regular about a hall of famer, of course, but you know what we mean) while the upper floor would be for the handful of true greats—legends of competition, design, writing, manufacturing, and administration. This “holiest of holies” level might require 90-95 percent of the vote, and might see a new member vested once every few years. Requirements for entry might be five majors and 40 pro wins; a minimum of five courses ranked in the world’s top 100; 15 Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA) first-place writing awards; 10 club/ball design patents, and 25 years of service at one of the game’s governing bodies.

Anything to eliminate politically based decisions, prejudice, and partiality, and anything to recognize the efforts of everyone who makes golf great.