Schupak: World Golf HOF struggles with its identity

Fred Couples' induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame was met with some questions, spurring a new look at the selection process.

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Editor's note: This feature first ran in Golfweek magazine that hit doorsteps on March 7, 2014. If you'd like to subscribe, click here.

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – As teammates on the 1978 University of Houston golf team, Jim Nantz used to do a mock interview with Fred Couples of the Butler Cabin green-jacket ceremony at the Masters.

“I thought it was good for both of us,” Nantz said to laughter last May as he introduced Couples during his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Everyone in the room could recall that day in April 1992 when Nantz, the voice of golf for CBS Sports, and Couples, the Masters champion, had their moment.

“But the one thing we screwed up,” Nantz said, “is we never rehearsed the World Golf Hall of Fame induction speech.”

That’s not entirely true. Maybe it never happened in their dorm room, but one hour before the 6 p.m. ceremony, Nantz asked Couples to read him his speech.

“I had it down pat,” Couples said, “and when I finished, Jimmy said, ‘You’re not giving that speech today.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Look, this is going to be the biggest night of your life. Let’s make sure they remember every word you say.’ And so I totally started over.”

Couples began by appropriating Nantz’s signature phrase – “Hello, friends” – and delivered one of the hall’s more memorable speeches, capping it off by reading the words the two friends had scripted.

“Thanks for taking a kid from Seattle and putting him in the Hall of Fame,” Couples said. “This is the coolest night of my life.” His voice cracked, and he rubbed his fingers down his cheeks. His mouth contorted to hold back a flood of tears. Then he balled his hands into fists and lifted his arms above his head as if he had just won the world heavyweight championship. It was a beautiful moment, and a reminder of how unforgettable a night the ceremony can be.

There won’t be any rousing speeches this year. There won’t be a ceremony at all. Not a single male Hall of Fame member was present to hear Couples, and fewer of his Tour colleagues were in attendance than caddies. Critics took aim. What do you do if you throw a party and nobody shows up?

In October, the hall announced that “golf’s highest honor” won’t be awarded in 2014 while a strategic review is conducted of the five current avenues of induction, plus the presentation of the ceremony. (Check out the changes to the selection process, announced March 23.)

“It’s all on the table,” said Steve Mona, who since 2008 has been chief executive of the World Golf Foundation, which runs the hall.

A reassessment of the criteria is long overdue in light of growing talk of lost credibility and an increasingly watered down membership. The drumbeat of dissension that began with Raymond Floyd’s public remarks last year (“The bar has been lowered,” Floyd told Golf Magazine. “Guys get voted into the Hall of Fame who don’t belong, who lack the numbers.”) has grown louder.

Nick Price made no effort to hide his disgust, saying the hall should be reserved for the men and women who surpassed the loftiest of our expectations.

“With my record, I should’ve just snuck in. I should be like the rear of it,” said Price, a three-time major winner who has won 50 pro events worldwide. “The guys who are in there who did so much, you can’t compare them to the guys they’re letting in now. You can’t.”

Lanny Wadkins, who was inducted in 2009, put it more bluntly.

“I didn’t think I should be in,” he said. “I thought the Hall of Fame was a place for Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus and Palmer. But then all of a sudden when Curtis Strange and (Tom) Kite, and (Ben) Crenshaw are in, damn right I should be in.”

The heart of the hall lies within its membership. Nick Faldo, a 1998 inductee, recalled how he burst with pride that he was one of the first 50 male professional golfers enshrined.

“I thought it was great to be called a Hall of Famer,” Faldo said. “You really felt part of the history of the game.”

Over the past 15 years, golf’s most exclusive fraternity has doubled to 146 members, and Faldo didn’t mask how his feelings have changed.

“Now when they call me a Hall of Famer, I’ve got ‘Sir.’ I prefer that,” said Faldo, an Englishman who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. “I don’t vote. It was my silent protest, until I just said that. Now it feels like they want to fill a great room so people will come and visit. I’m disappointed that they have devalued it.”

Faldo isn’t the only protester.

“I filled out that ballot every year,” Price said, “and the guys I voted for – with the exception of the obvious like Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els) – they never took any of them in. So I stopped sending my ballot in. And after last year? You’ve got to be kidding me. A lot of people are upset about that.

“Major championships are the benchmark that our careers are measured on. If you haven’t won a major, I don’t think you should be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t care what you’ve done.”

The moniker Hall of Famer is supposed to eliminate any doubt about greatness. Though Price never identified the majorless Colin Montgomerie by name, his election and that of Couples, who captured one, with a mere 51 percent of the vote on the respective International and PGA Tour ballots, were scrutinized. In contrast, there never has been any debate over whether a new LPGA member deserves the honor. The women, who created the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1967, addressed this issue years ago. (The LPGA’s hall merged with the WGHOF in 1998.)

“They wouldn’t tolerate anything less than true excellence,” said Carol Mann, the ninth LPGA pro to qualify on merit.

Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls was one of the LPGA leaders who championed a points system, fearing that a vote would turn into a popularity contest. Players had to win 30 tournaments, including two majors, or 35 tournaments with one major or 40 tournaments in all to automatically qualify. Only 14 players met those criteria. The LPGA lowered the barrier to entry in 1999, but it still has kept out worthy candidates such as Laura Davies and Dottie Pepper.

Strange, a 2007 inductee, used his own circumstances to highlight what he called the fallacy of Hall of Fame voting.

“I got in with 70 percent for 17 wins and two majors. Hubert Green won two majors and 19 tournaments and (got only 52 percent of the vote), and he had to come in on the Veterans ballot,” Strange said. “It’s just not right.”

Mona and a small team led by Jack Peter, the hall’s chief operating officer, are, in Peter’s words, “hitting the reset button.” At its most basic level, this exercise is about defining excellence in the modern era.

Neither Mona nor Peter would share details of the changes afoot because the board hasn’t been briefed. But Golfweek has learned that future candidates will require 75 percent of the vote for election from a 16-person committee for what will become a biennial ceremony. Officials say an announcement is expected before The Players Championship in May. A Hall of Fame member says it will happen during the Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 20-23) and that Palmer will be involved.

“Whatever term you want to use – watering down, dumbing down, whatever – I believe we will address that concern,” Mona said. “I’ll be surprised if people still feel the same way about the new process.”

An improved criteria addresses only part of what ails the hall. It suffers from an identity complex: Is it a museum or an entertainment complex? The WGF’s board should consider the hall’s place in the game and how much the other participating organizations are willing to support it.

Forty years ago, a shrine to golf opened in Pinehurst, N.C. Ben Hogan, one of the 13 original inductees, gave what amounted to a benediction.

“Golf has needed a Hall of Fame for some 50 to 75 years,” he said, “and the World Golf Hall of Fame is a tribute to golf and all those who play it.”

But under first the Diamondhead Corp., which owned Pinehurst Resort, and then the PGA of America, which assumed management in 1984, the hall never achieved financial stability. Attendance spiked only on rainy days, when visiting golfers had little else to do. The PGA was all too happy to close the doors in 1995 and transfer the name World Golf Hall of Fame to the Tour’s new project.

“I wanted to build an asset for golf, not another liability for us to feed,” said former commissioner Deane Beman.

Since opening the 75,000-squarefoot monument of white brick and stucco in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1998, the World Golf Hall of Fame has become the place to celebrate the global game under one roof. Based on the number of cars zipping past on Interstate 95, experts predicted 1 million visitors per year. Despite Hall of Famer Gary Player imploring in a widely run advertisement “For the love of golf, you’ve got to go,” few have stopped and spent the $19.50 admission. According to Mona, attendance at the hall, IMAX theater and special events totaled 220,000 last year.

A different accounting is found via the St. Johns County Industrial Development Authority. The hall pays the county a 50-cent surcharge on every ticket toward the bonds used to build the St. Johns County Convention Center. According to the public filing of receipts for its latest payment in October, hall attendance in the most recent calendar year was 36,386, an increase of more than 4,000 from the previous year but down sharply from its high of 58,032 in 2004-05. The November closing of the PGA Tour Stop, a retail store and the anchor tenant on the Walk of Champions, means less traffic at World Golf Village.

In theory, the hall is supported by 26 participating golf organizations, but it remains afloat thanks mostly to the Tour’s generosity. According to its 2011 public filing, the Tour contributed $8.3 million in cash grants to the World Golf Foundation. The foundation doesn’t break out how Tour contributions are divided among its various divisions, but given that The First Tee is coming off of a $100 million fundraising campaign in 2013, it’s safe to say that the hall has consumed a healthy portion of the Tour’s largesse.

In addition, the Tour has leveraged its existing relationships to steer money to the hall. According to Mona, another revenue stream comes from Tour-sanctioned events, each of which is required to pay $50,000 annually. With more than 40 tournaments per year, that’s $2 million in the hall’s coffers. The cancellation of golf’s 2014 ceremony will help – not hurt – the bottom line. The price of the induction ceremony, which was $360,137 in 2011, isn’t recouped through sponsorship and ticket sales. The hall also must begin envisioning a possible future without Shell Oil Co., whose 20-year, $40 million deal as official partner ends in 2017.

The question of whether the hall is a viable business is the wrong question. Many museums lose money. They rely on benefactors. For the Hall of Fame to be successful, the USGA, PGA, R&A and LPGA, among others, will need to become true “supporting organizations” and shoulder more of the hall’s financial burden.

“When people start talking about ‘Is it financially sustainable,’ it’s time to challenge the premise of, ‘What is it designed to be?’ ” said Bruce Lucker, who ran the hall from 1999 to 2002 and tried to reshape the shrine as an entertainment attraction and home for concerts, weddings and other special events.

“People looked at me like I was from Mars,” he said. “Why would you want to do what’s so successful two hours away in Orlando?”

The only action ride at the hall, one of its staff members joked, is the elevator to the tower. Far more worrisome is the hall’s lack of interactivity. The hand-held, self-guided tour is the equivalent of a flip-phone in the smartphone era. And the existing exhibits do little to engage youth.

“The question you ask yourself when you go there is, ‘Where do I buy the fun ticket?’ ” one Tour executive said.

Later this spring, a long-overdue exhibit honoring blacks in golf will open, and Mona said to “bank on” a new member exhibit in 2014. But neither likely will generate significant buzz. As with its predecessor, rainy days provide the biggest jolt to attendance.

“The powers that be are presiding – specifically the Tour – over a wake that no one has owned up to,” said a former Tour executive.

After 40 years of financial challenges, should – and will – the hall continue to exist? Given the lack of support by its members and the low visitor turnout, one may presume that Beman regrets breaking ground, but he says that’s not the case.

“The facility itself and what it stands for and how it honors great players in golf is serving an important purpose,” Beman said.

Which is why the World Golf Hall of Fame needs its Jim Nantz moment. As Couples’ speech affirmed, there’s still time during the strategic review to plot a better future for the hall, where golf is celebrated and we all can dream of playing like the game’s greatest champions.

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