News & Opinion

It's time for Golf Hall of Fame to evolve

A Hall of Fame is really a Hall of Nostalgia. It’s a Hall of I Wish I Were Young Again for visitors who want to reclaim childhood moments as much as they want to honor their sporting heroes.

What makes a good Hall of Fame? Players we care about. Some of us measured the passage of time by the careers of athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Jerry Rice and others.

Golf isn’t baseball or football. It’s a niche sport, a fact that Tiger Woods conveniently made us forget for the past two decades. Interest in golf and its history can’t match the traditional mainstream sports of baseball and football.

On visits to Cooperstown, N.Y., and Canton, Ohio, I found the respective baseball and football halls of fame to be underwhelming. They were very nice, but honestly, I found the little Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame to be more compelling and better-executed.

On a relative scale, the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., has been disappointing to me. I’m a golf guy. I soak up history and have spent countless hours writing about, thinking about and playing the game.

I could spend a lot of words describing where I think the World Golf Hall of Fame has gone wrong – marketing, presentation and a lack of support by many male hall members are part of it – but let’s just look ahead at what might be.

Despite the official party line that all is well, I don’t think that’s the case at the WGHOF. Attendance and interest are down, and that bothers me. Four of this year’s scheduled inductees – Jan Stephenson, Retief Goosen, Billy Payne and Dennis Walters – will be at the hall for a media event today, the first time they’ve gotten together since being elected. (The fifth inductee, the late Peggy Kirk Bell, will be honored posthumously.) I hope they get more attention this time than when they were voted in last October.

As president of the Golf Writers Association of America, I was among the 16 voters who cast ballots for a slate of pre-nominated candidates. The results were announced in the middle of football season and baseball’s playoffs, but I still was surprised by the wave of indifference that followed. This is the World Golf Hall of Fame we’re talking about.

The Hall of Fame, like any aging house, needs improvements. It needs to rekindle excitement among older fans, who have always been the core audience, and create interest among a younger and tougher-to-reach audience whose connection to golf begins and ends with Tiger Woods. I don’t know if we can build a bridge over these troubled waters, but here are a few suggestions:

Triple duty: Any HOF is about the players whom fans revere. No one has been bigger than modern golf’s original Big Three: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. They reigned supreme from the mid-1950s until today. How did the HOF fail to blow them up big under one roof?

Palmer, who died in 2016, left an estate that includes a barn full of memorabilia. Player has a pile that he once tried to sell en masse. Nicklaus has his own golf museum in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, on the campus of his alma mater, Ohio State, and the shrine, I’m told, has struggled financially. The HOF in St. Augustine shouldn’t have been built until there was an agreement to showcase the Big Three in a major way through shared artifacts and filmed highlights. They are the foundation upon which the hall should have been built.

Now, though, the generations that followed the Big Three are slowly fading away. There are new stars to spotlight, such as Phil Mickelson and Annika Sorenstam and, in seven years, Woods. Give the people what they want: superstars.

Live from the hall: Even Hall of Famers have expiration dates. It was sad to lose a positive force such as Palmer. But there are plenty of live Hall of Famers, and they need to be seen and heard in St. Augustine on a regular basis. Yes, it would cost money. They need appearance fees. But a PGA Tour that finds enough sponsors for the PGA Tour, Champions Tour, Web.com Tour and assorted developmental tours ought to be able to find a corporate partner for the game’s greatest names.

Make the hall come alive: Bring Lee Trevino in for a day or two to pose for photos and pass out autographs and one-liners. Get Hale Irwin. Lanny Wadkins. Johnny Miller. Player. Nicklaus. Nancy Lopez. The list goes on. Make it a rotating gig. Who’s next? Make celebrity-sighting a reason to visit the hall. Promote the visits. Create a sense of don’t-miss exclusivity. Invite visitors to the hall to witness live interviews with the greats, sessions hosted by genial personalities such as David Feherty or Brandel Chamblee.

Get the legends who still play out on the golf course: Would anyone pay to play a pro-am round with a Hall of Famer? I think so. There used to be a hall-related tournament held at the World Golf Village’s two courses: The King & The Bear, The Slammer & The Squire. I covered a few of those for Golf World magazine, and it was a privilege to get to chat with the likes of Jack Fleck, Trevino, Tommy Bolt (he always said “golf players,” not “golfers”) and the rest. TV needs more content, and these pro-ams would be fun. The event would bring fans to the course and, with luck, to the hall to learn more about the legends.

The road show: The induction ceremonies, formerly held only in St. Augustine, have been moving around to venues such as St. Andrews and, this year, Pebble Beach before the U.S. Open.

I don’t like taking the ceremony on the road. Does baseball hold induction ceremonies in Houston or Seattle? No, it stays in Cooperstown, because that’s where its shrine resides.

If the World Golf Hall of Fame needs to go where the fans are, maybe a mobile hall is the way to go. Load up a caravan of trucks and barnstorm around the country in cities excited about golf, especially cities hosting some kind of tour event that week.

When the U.S. Senior Open first went to Des Moines, Iowa, and Palmer played, everybody within 50 miles showed up because it was a huge event for the community. Taking a traveling hall exhibit to similar golf-savvy but non-major-league cities – St. Paul, Minn.; Toledo, Ohio; Greenville, S.C.; and Madison, Wis., for instance – could be big-deal events with the right promotion. It’s called building the brand.

Fabulous parting gifts: Souvenirs are a staple of American tourism and capitalism. Such as, My parents went to France and all I got was this crummy T-shirt. What’s missing from the WGHOF’s online store is the stuff of goose bumps: the players, dammit. Most items feature the drab WGHOF logo and not much else.

The hall should be all about, I repeat, the players whom we love. So, where’s my Gary Player all-black ensemble? Where’s my Nicklaus bucket cap? Where’s my Nick Faldo argyle Pringle sweater? Where’s my Judy Rankin logo sweatshirt?

Technology exists to print made-to-order T-shirts and do almost-instant embroidery. I should be able to buy apparel with the likeness of any WGHOF member, along with the date and maybe a “Made in St. Augustine” tagline. That would make my visit more memorable.

Yes, Jack and Tiger and Seve Ballesteros would move more merchandise than Jock Hutchison, Deane Beman or Dorothy Campbell Hurd Howe, but all hall inductees should be on the menu. That’s why the items would be made-to-order. A Johnny Miller T-shirt? A Fred Couples-signature carry bag? A Dan Jenkins Hogan cap? All right, so Jenkins is a writer, not a player, but he’s in the hall. We all have our heroes.

The bag men: How do corporate sponsors spread brand image? They sponsor golfers. Maybe the WGHOF should sign a few promising Web.com Tour players to carry bags with “WGHOF” emblazoned on them and, as an added touch, select a living Hall of Fame idol as his or her unofficial mentor. The bag’s logo could read: “World Golf Hall of Fame, presented by Ernie Els.”

Bring generations together. Pass on the stories.

Virtual reality: On-line gaming is getting more realistic all the time. Let’s develop a game in which you, the fan, could play a simulated match against one of several dozen Hall of Famers. Because the game has changed dramatically over the decades, each Hall of Famer would retain his or her style of play, but relative driving distance would be updated for today’s standards.

So, if you want to play Peter Alliss in a virtual match at Royal St. George’s, the answer is, yes. Tom Watson at Pebble Beach? You got it. Karrie Webb at Oakmont? You’re on the tee.

The hall needs gaming cubicles or simulator booths for this. And, of course, a play-at-home version should be for sale. At a nice markup, obviously.

My ideas aren’t necessarily practical, starting with the big problem of how to pay for them. Well, I didn’t say saving the Hall of Fame would be cheap or easy.

The new class of honorees gave us something special. Goosen beat long odds with all those clutch putts on the back nine at Shinnecock Hills to win a U.S. Open. He beat longer ones by surviving a lightning strike. Stephenson won major championships and used charisma to get rare front-page attention for the LPGA. Payne was the most innovative, forward-thinking chairman who ever graced the Masters. Walters is an inspirational profile in courage. Kirk Bell was a pioneering role model.

All those memories are priceless. Keeping them alive at a rejuvenated Hall of Fame and doing it right would come with a price.

Ponce de Leon tried a similar rebirth centuries ago in St. Augustine. I hope this attempt would be more successful.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle