News & Opinion

Golf HOF: It’s not for everybody … or is it?

America probably needs a Hall of Fame just to oversee all of the halls of fame that have been founded over the years. Every state must have its own HOF by now. Some of them, such as the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, specialize in certain areas of excellence, but there’s also the Burlesque Hall of Fame and the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame, as well as the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame and the Polka Hall of Fame, so this whole hall-of-fame thing bears a striking resemblance to a hall of mirrors.

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was an inaugural inductee to the Insurance Hall of Fame, in 1957? Anyone who flies a kite in thunder and lightning deserves such enshrinement on his deductible alone. It’s interesting how “fame” continues to show up in the titles of these establishments, given that the word has assumed a somewhat negative connotation in recent times and has little to do with outstanding performance.

There’s not a single member of the Australasian Martial Arts Hall of Fame whom I would consider to be a celebrity, although I wouldn’t dare admit that if I were stuck in a room full of jujitsu giants.

There’s a similar anonymity in the 2019 World Golf Hall of Fame induction class, which features two players, an administrator, an instructor and a trick-shot artist. Let me be clear: In no way, shape or form is it my intention to demean the accomplishments of these five people, all of whom were very skilled in their particular endeavor.

This scenario was acknowledged in 2014, when the WGHOF underwent wholesale changes. Voting was taken away from the media in favor of a selection commission and sub-committee, both of which are composed mostly of previously enshrined players and high-level officers with golf’s governing bodies. The potential for cronyism creates an obvious conflict of interest here. Guys who wear suits probably shouldn’t be considered for enshrinement, but it’s reasonable to think they’d be partial to electing others who sit behind a desk.

Perhaps more significantly, the induction ceremony was reduced from an annual occurrence to every-other-year thing. Smart move, if not really a solution. Golf doesn’t lend itself to hall-of-fame credentialization as easily as do other sports. If Major League Baseball produces 15 to 20 realistic candidates over a 25-year period, our game cannot come close to matching that volume.

No sports league is more hall-friendly than the NFL, which has 53 active players per roster and a distinct separation between offensive and defensive performers. This helps explain why football’s induction classes are often the largest, although some will tell you it’s because the road to Canton isn’t as difficult to navigate as the road to Cooperstown.

Retief Goosen
Retief Goosen, a 2-time U.S. Open champion, will be among 5 inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame tonight.

This year’s WGHOF ceremony takes place today near Pebble Beach as part of U.S. Open week. The headliner is Retief Goosen, a two-time Open winner and, without question, one of the game’s top players throughout the 2000s. Judging by the precedent set over the years as to who gets elected and who doesn’t, Goosen isn’t all that controversial of a selection. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America probably wouldn’t have voted him in, but most of those guys probably can’t break 90 on a good day.

Jan Stephenson, whose superb LPGA career (16 victories, including three major titles) was, uh, thinly disguised by her ventures as a 1970s sex symbol, is certainly deserved of WGHOF inclusion, which takes us to Billy Payne, Dennis Walters and the late Peggy Kirk Bell. All three were inducted via the lifetime-achievement category, which is basically a division created for those who didn’t excel as players at the game’s highest level.

Payne was in the game for a relatively short period of time (2006-17) as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. Conversely, Bell was a highly acclaimed teacher and golf lifer, something of a patron saint who crusaded tirelessly for the betterment of women’s golf. And Walters, who was paralyzed below the waist in a golf-cart accident 45 years ago, has delighted audiences for decades with his prowess at striking a golf ball, despite the physical handicap.

Courageous. Inspirational. Intelligent. Tough-minded. Passionate. Payne, Bell and Walters have served the game wonderfully, but when the lifetime achievers start outnumbering those who became hall-of-famers by actually playing golf, there are issues, and with those issues come consequences. The election process becomes more susceptible to suspicion. Politics come into play. Dwindling interest among golf’s loyal public is sure to occur when the docket of enshrinees is heavy with behind-the-scenes types they’ve never heard of, and if there’s one thing the WGHOF can ill afford, it’s a reason for fans not to care.

You could make a case that the ongoing embargo of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other suspected PED users is the best thing that ever happened to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Whether you fully support the snub or find it utterly ridiculous, the staunch, no-nonsense position taken by the BWAA is one of undeniable credibility. In any sport, competitive integrity is not something to be messed with, and to MLB’s immense credit, the usage of banned substances isn’t close to the scourge it was 20 years ago.

Golf really doesn’t have to worry about cheaters. Our game stands on higher moral ground than others due to the character of the men and women who play it, and those who play it best should occupy an overwhelming majority of the spots in the World Golf Hall of Fame. If that means lengthening the process to three or even five years, so be it. It won’t be an easy problem to solve, if there’s a solution at all, but to lose sight of the purpose is to jeopardize the strength of the product.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com