ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – And to think, they call Walt Disney World the place of dreams. It has very little on the World Golf Hall of Fame, where, on a perfect spring evening in north Florida, five inductees were welcomed on Monday into our game’s ultimate ring of honor.
One man, Willie Park Jr., was winning Open championships before the turn of the century – the 20th century, that is. He would later make a mark as an equipment maker, course designer and golf writer. One man, Ken Schofield, the former chief of the European Tour, was a former banker who fell in love with golf after giving up childhood aspirations of being a Scottish footballer or cricketer. He had the vision, and energy, to lead the European Tour well outside the boundaries of Europe and nurtured it into the strong circuit that it is today.
Honoree Ken Venturi is known in most American living rooms more for his low, melodic television voice than a rhythmic swing that just as easily could have been set to music. He won 14 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1964 U.S. Open in the broiling heat at Congressional, and spent 35 years as lead golf analyst at CBS. The night’s final two inductees, Colin Montgomerie and Fred Couples, are longtime contemporaries who helped to deliver the Ryder Cup – and in Couples’ case, sheer coolness – to new heights.
The thread of such an evening, as it usually is, is how these special people took small sparks of opportunity and chance and somehow wove such a great game into the fabric of their lives. How golf, somehow, jumped into their life’s path and they made the most of it. Certainly, some are more easily found by this game than others. Park, for instance, was part of a significant golf family from Musselburgh, Scotland, one that took on Old and Young Tom Morris and boasted three family members who would capture the Open Championship. (Willie Jr. would win the Open in 1887 and ’89).
Montgomerie’s father, James, was the former secretary at Troon, and was part of a family (mother included) that all played off single-digit handicaps. So certainly he had a golden opportunity in the game. Nonetheless, the eight-time winner of Europe’s esteemed Order of Merit found his way to a pro career only when a nine-hole “interview” to become an agent in IMG’s London office took a quick turn toward prosperity. Montgomerie wasn’t paying much attention to his golf that day at Turnberry, but shot 29 on the home nine.
“You are not going to work for us,” the two IMG agents would tell Monty, “but we are going to work for you.”
Couples’ pathway to golf? A lot of luck, really. He grew up in Seattle, in a family that knew baseball as its game. But as chance sometimes intervenes, he ended up as a caddie – OK, he clarifies he merely pushed the trolley – of one of his older brother’s friends one day, a baseball catcher and good golfer named Steve Dallas. Young Fred’s bounty would be a starter’s set of clubs: Plastic driver, three irons and a putter stuffed into a canvas bag. That was his introduction.
He set out on his way in the summertime, when his mother would slap $5 into his palm each morning and he’d ride his bicycle a short ways to Jefferson Park, where that crispy Abe Lincoln in his pocket would be perfectly parceled: $3.50 to play all day, the remaining $1.50 covering a burger, fries and a coke. The only thing that ever stopped him from pounding balls was darkness.
Golf gloves were expensive, and to this day Couples is one of just a handful of full-time pros who does not use one, and he once won the Washington Open (as an amateur) wearing tennis shoes. One significant day in his development arrived when he was 14, and there was a PGA Tour pro in town to give a clinic. Couples attended and was mesmerized, leaving that day knowing he wanted to make golf some bigger part of his life. He briefly broke down Monday night when he unveiled the name of the player. It was Lee Trevino, who later would become one of his greatest mentors in golf.
Park died in 1925, and Venturi’s health held him back in California, where he is recovering from a post-surgical procedure infection. Venturi has been extended a kind offer by the Hall’s chief operating officer, Jack Peter: He has been invited to speak at next spring’s induction. By then, we’ll have a new class, with other golf greats talking about the inspiration and drive – and in some cases, pot-luck chance – that brought them to the highest honor in their profession.
Said Couples, “I’ve had the greatest playground for 33 years.”
And to think how he got here, how he and golf met by chance on the corner of some muni in Seattle. When he got to the University of Houston, Couples would actually be assigned a roommate whose dream wasn’t to win the Masters, but to call it on television. The two would even go so far as to rehearse the winner’s Butler Cabin interview, two kids sitting in a dorm in Houston, dreaming much bigger. Jim Nantz was the roommate, and he’d conduct that interview for real in front of a worldwide audience when Couples won his lone major at Augusta National in 1992. Nantz was there in St. Augustine on Monday night, too, sharing the stage to introduce his old pal.
The World Golf Hall of Fame if filled with dreamers. Its members include Seve Ballesteros, who, as a young boy in Spain, swung a club along the beach in Pedrena, Spain; Nancy Lopez, whose road to LPGA greatness began when she chased her father around the golf course in New Mexico, and would learn to hone a bunker game out of a giant hole her father dug and filled with sand, strictly out of love; Jack Nicklaus, who was thinking of following his father into pharmacy; and improbable inductees such as Larry Nelson, who took up the game when he left the Army in the late 1960s and went on to win three major championships.
Different paths led them into the Hall, but for all, at some point, something special sparked them, and fueled them, and inspired them into achieving great things and becoming the best of the best.
Couples would end the evening on an emotional note, needing to read his last two lines. And even then, he could not get through them.
“Thanks for taking a kid from Seattle and putting him into the Hall of Fame,” he said, his voice cracking. “This is the coolest night of my life.”
With that, golf’s own Mr. Cool walked off, his hands raised in the air.
Don’t ever underestimate the potent power of a dream.