World Golf Hall of Fame

This week the World Golf Hall of Fame will welcome five new members of the Class of 2019. In now what has become a bi-annual event, Peggy Kirk Bell, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne, Retief Goosen and Dennis Walters will be inducted at Pebble Beach, site of this year’s U.S. Open. While they’ll be inducted in California, they’ll be enshrined at the World Golf Village just outside of St. Augustine.

The enshrinement ceremony used to take place at the Hall of Fame, similar to what other sports do in Canton, Springfield, Toronto and Cooperstown. But that’s never worked in St. Augustine. Despite convenient transportation from Ponte Vedra during The Players Championship, current competitors didn’t show up. So they took the induction ceremony on the road, coinciding with major golf events in St. Andrews and New York. But still, the current players didn’t attend.

Why the apathy toward the Hall? It’s concerning when looking at the bigger picture for the future of the Hall of Fame. The PGA Tour supports it here in North Florida. But the other organizations have their own things going on. The PGA of America is moving to Frisco, Texas. The USGA’s Golf House in New Jersey has its own exhibits. And the R&A in St. Andrews has their iconic clubhouse behind the first tee at the Old Course that has its own historical significance.

When the WGHOF was first proposed and built it was heralded as a destination on par with Cooperstown and Canton. There was already a Golf Hall of Fame at Pinehurst but this was going to supersede all other efforts. The project had a rocky beginning switching locations from Durbin Creek to St. Johns County when then-Commissioner Deane Beman had a dispute with Duval County.

Two significant golf courses, the Slammer and Squire and the King and the Bear, were supposed to help fill the Renaissance Hotel and the St. Johns County Convention Center. The IMAX theater is one of the best anywhere and was an adjunct to the retail space built around it. Bill Murray and his brothers opened their first restaurant on site to bring a certain cache and celebrity touch to the whole property.

The place is full of great ideas, beautiful buildings and wonderful infrastructure. What it’s not full of is people.

Nobody can quite put their finger on why it hasn’t taken off. Promotion, local support, player apathy have all been targeted, but despite all that’s been put into it, it just hasn’t happened.

Not for a lack of trying. Concerts, fireworks and special exhibits are all part of the World Golf Village’s history. Where else would you get a chance to see the six-iron Alan Shephard hit on the moon?

No matter what the future holds for the Hall in St. Augustine, those enshrined and this year’s class will have golfing immortality.

A charter member of the LPGA, Peggy Kirk Bell was a great advocate for women’s golf and a celebrated teacher. She’s the only member of the class to be inducted posthumously.

The four living members visited the Hall together this year and shared stories about their history in the game.

Dennis Walters had a promising golf career in front of him before he was paralyzed in a cart accident. Undeterred and motivated by his father, Walters became one of the premier attractions at golf clinics, performing from a specially made chair attached to a cart, with his father teeing up what he estimates was over a million golf balls.

“I always say it’s great golf and bad jokes,” Walters said of his shows. “I’ve traveled over three million miles telling people ‘Do something in this life.’”

I was asked to host several of Walter’s exhibitions at the TPC at Sawgrass when it first opened in the ‘80’s. When we talked after the announcement of his selection to the 2019 class, I mentioned that I often thought of him while playing golf since we met.

“How so?” he asked.

“I always refer to the thing you told me once about how you hit that squiggly club so well. You said, ‘You have to wait’ and I think about that when I’m trying to slow down.”

“I’ve done over 3,000 exhibitions,” Walters said with a smile. “And a friend once told me, ‘You never know who you leave in your wake.’ And he was right.”

Jan Stephenson said she was truly shocked when she got the call.

“I thought my time had passed,” she said.

Often remembered because of her looks (she once posed in a bathtub full of golf balls) Stephenson was a stylish and successful player. She won three majors and 16 times on the LPGA Tour. Her winning totals, like anybody in her era, were overshadowed by Nancy Lopez.

“I was tied with Nancy going into the final round of a tournament,” she said as she recalled facing Lopez on the course.

“She was hitting it all over the place on the range. My dad happened to be caddying for me and he said, ‘She can’t hit it at all, you’ll win easily.’ I knew better.”

On the first tee, Stephenson ripped a drive down the middle while Lopez smothered it into the left rough.

“She gouges three wood out to the front of the green while I hit five iron to ten feet. She rolls it up as a tap in and I miss for birdie. On the second hole, I stripe it down the middle, she knocks it in the rough again, muscles it onto the green and makes a 30-footer for birdie. I miss again from ten feet and I’m down by one. I’m hitting it great and I’m losing! That was the greatness of Nancy, she always thought her next shot would be her best. If I started like that, I’d have shot 85!”

Lopez went on to win the tournament by a shot over Stephenson. Perhaps it’s fitting that Nancy is the one who called Jan to tell her of her Hall of Fame selection.

Famously struck by lightning as a kid, Retief Goosen was known as expressionless and placid on the golf course. “He’s very quiet. I mean mentally,” Johnny Miller once said of Goosen.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The two-time U.S. Open winner said he had a “terrible temper” early on in his career. “It was holding me back, I’d hang on to bad shots and bad rounds.”

Goosen credits seeking help from sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout for changing his demeanor.

“Without that, I don’t win,” he said.

After bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, Billy Payne’s stint as the Chairman of Augusta National moved the Masters to the forefront on many levels. He ushered in the first women members at Augusta, pushed television and digital platforms to the cutting edge, help start the Latin American and Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships, partnered in starting the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship and opened the new Press Building and practice area at Augusta.

“From my first day, the members let it be known that our number one responsibility was to grown the game,” Payne said of the focus of his chairmanship.

At the Masters the price of food and drink on the golf course has held firm forever. “Affordable value” is the term most associated with buying a pimento cheese sandwich for $1.25.

“Hootie Johnson (his predecessor at Chairman) told me ‘You’ll be judged on how much you lose on concessions.’ And he was right.”

“We want to lead, but not lead alone,” he said of Augusta’s partnerships with golf’s other organizing bodies. “We needed to be the best. If there was a choice between good and great, we chose great.”

The adaptability he showed as Chairman was forged by his football career at Georgia.

“I went to one of those all-star games in the state and they had four quarterbacks,” Payne recalled. “The coach said ‘Only one of you can play quarterback, who wants to play somewhere else?’ I raised my hand and said I’d play anywhere.”

So at Georgia he played split end with some success until Vince Dooley talked with him after his junior year.

“Coach Dooley said to me ‘Billy, you know we have so and so coming up to the varsity next year and he’s better than you’,” Payne said with a big laugh. “So if you want to play, you’ll have to change positions.’”

“I said I’d play anywhere, so they put me on defense and everybody thinks I went to Georgia to play defensive end!”

Payne was All-SEC at that position in 1968.

While joking that he’s the “worst player” among the Class of 2019, Payne also spoke for the class when he talked about the game’s impact on his life.

“If I have 10,000 friends, 9,999 of them play golf,” he told the crowd at the World Golf Hall of Fame during a question and answer period. “That’s the kind of impact the game can have.”