K.J. Choi put an exclamation point on the PGA Tour's grand experiment of folding Hall of Fame inductions into Players week, but here are a few suggestions that might make these eight days in May truly special
This is an article from the May 23, 2011 issue
Last week was Hall of Fame week at the Players. Some of the golfers wore navy on Sunday in memory of Hall of Famer Seve Ballesteros, the Spanish golfing artiste who did for dark blue what Al Czervik did for plaid. (Each, in his own way, retired the category.) It was a tough week for a new member, Ernie Els, who was inducted on Monday night and missed the cut four days later. It was an even tougher week for a future Hall of Famer, Tiger Woods, who took 42 whacks on Thursday morning, packed up and drove home. It was a spectacular week for K.J. Choi, who won the Players in a one-hole playoff when David Toms missed his yardlong putt on golf's loneliest island, the 17th green at the Stadium course. Choi drives it on a string and is as strong as an ox, but he putts like a weightlifter. Who knows what the next month (U.S. Open at Congressional) and the next decade (he turns 50 in 2020) will bring? Someday he may join Se Ri Pak as the second Korean in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The Hall is a cement oasis in a drained swamp off I-95 in unincorporated St. Augustine, Fla., 25 driving minutes from Ponte Vedra Beach and Sawgrass. It's no Canton and it's no Cooperstown, and it never will be. If you're looking for country club charm from a country club sport, go to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Still, despite appearances, the golf shrine works, and now you can go there and see the notebooks that Ernie's wife used to chart his shots in various majors. (Three major titles, no Players for the big man.) All successful halls of fame are intimate in some way, and golf's hall, despite all the poured concrete, is inexplicably cozy.
This year the PGA Tour, which pulls the strings on all things related to the Hall of Fame, conducted a mad experiment. For the first time the induction ceremony was held on the Monday before the Players. One of the things that Tim Finchem & Co. were looking for this year was more press coverage of the induction. They got it. They were also looking for more players to attend the ceremony. Didn't get that. Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, who were sponsored as junior golfers in South Africa by the Ernie Els Foundation, were MIA. So was everybody else in the Players field, except Chris Riley. Yes, Chris Riley. Well played, Chris. As for other Hall of Famers, Nancy Lopez was there, and Deane Beman, and not that many others. At Cooperstown every summer, all the old inductees hold court in the Ballroom at the Otesaga Hotel. Golf needs something like that.
The fastest way to the Hall of Fame (if you're not in Kenny Perry's '69 Camaro) is to win majors, plural. That's why Mark O'Meara, with his 1998 Masters and British Open wins—and his '79 U.S. Amateur title—has a chance to get enshrined, even though he won only 16 times on Tour, fewer than most Hall of Famers. If you don't have multiple major titles, winning the Players can only help. Some Hall of Fame voters say Davis Love III, who finished five shots out of Sunday's playoff, will get in because his 20 Tour wins include one PGA Championship—and two Players titles.
Finchem went to a Hall of Fame dinner on Sunday night and the induction itself on Monday evening, when Bob Goalby, the '68 Masters champion, introduced a new inductee, 88-year-old Doug Ford, the '57 Masters champion. Bob killed. (Kill, from the Dictionary of Comedy: "To give an excellent comedy performance.") Goalby explained why Sam Snead called Ford Otis: "Because he's like the Otis elevator, up and down on every green." Finchem, and everybody else in Ballroom A of the Renaissance Hotel next to the Hall, chortled. It was almost magical, to be so easily teleported back to golf's simpler time for a few minutes. Choi, in his own way, follows suit. He's a study in simplicity. His English is less than fluent (but his effort is colossal), and in his postwin interviews he talked not about launch monitor readings or how his psychologist has fixed his REM-sleep dreams, but about how he likes to shape shots left to right, useful for those pesky right pin positions, like the one at 17 on Sunday.
But in the main, these days nothing's simple, not in golf and not out of it, either. On Sunday afternoon Finchem conducted a series of interviews in the baronial second-floor boardroom in the TPC clubhouse, which itself looks like something Donald Trump designed. You've seen this board room in Trading Places—fireplace, built-in bookshelves, heavy leather chairs, mahogany table, the kind of room where barons such as J.P Morgan and C.B. Macdonald would have felt right at home. For good or for bad this is a less autocratic time, and Finchem cannot simply snap his fingers and make the Players a major and give St. Augustine a Cooperstown vibe. In an interview he discussed the pluses and minuses of connecting the Hall of Fame induction to the Players.
"The real plus we see is the number of media who attended," Finchem said. But he worried about the cost: Would the media have been talking about the Players instead of the Hall of Fame if they hadn't held both events the same week? The committee will review. He floated the idea of holding the induction ceremony during the Tour's Florida swing in March, maybe before or after Arnold Palmer's event in Orlando, or maybe right before the Honda Classic, the first of the Florida events.
On the Monday after Honda and before Doral, the Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., holds one of the unique events of the golf year, a one-day pro-member that draws some of the biggest names in golf, including Els, Lee Westwood, Fred Couples and dozens of others. On Monday there was a golf outing connected to the Hall of Fame induction, but there was nothing particularly sparkly about it, and when Finchem talked about the Seminole event as a sort of model for what the Hall of Fame could do, his eyes widened. "I've asked guys about the Seminole day, and they can't point to any one thing; they simply say it's a great day with great people," Finchem said.
Love has won the Seminole pro-member and calls it, only half in jest, "the best field of the year." He can tell you why it's great. Seminole is a gem of a course, and it's on the Atlantic. The food and service is unpretentious and excellent. The ghost of Ben Hogan, who spent a lot of time at Seminole, permeates the place. The whole day is about golf and camaraderie and not about commerce. A Hall of Fame pro-am could have all of that. If you invited reporters and Golf Channel to cover such an event, they'd be all over it. If you made it great enough, you could get scores of Hall of Famers—your Lee Trevinos and your Juli Inksters and your Pete Dyes—to come, just as every former Masters champ shows up for the Tuesday-night champions dinner. Augusta National makes it worth their while to be there. You could sell tickets, but only a small number of them. Take your cue there from the Masters.
Four years ago Larry Dorman, then a public relations executive at Callaway and now the golf writer for The New York Times, pitched an idea to a Tour executive for a Hall of Fame pro-am, an event that would join Hall of Famers and their children. The idea came to him as a fan of the late father-son golf event won a handful of times by Raymond Floyd and his sons.
The Hall of Fame outing could follow in a similar way. You could invite every member and have each bring a playing partner. You could have deceased Hall of Famers represented by descendants. You could invite all of the former winners of the Players. How cool would it be to have K.J. Choi and Phil Mickelson and Al Geiberger in the field? Last-place money could be $5,000. Second-place money could be $5,000. First-place money could be $6,000. Money will draw in some of the legends. A true golfing get-together is an even more powerful incentive. That's because the thing getting lost in all the noise around modern golf is ... golf.
Finchem is reminded of that from time to time. On Tuesday of tournament week, Woods, who becomes eligible for Hall of Fame induction in 2016, when he's 40, was hitting balls on the back of the range at the Stadium course. Finchem was watching. Corey Pavin came around. Woods was hitting fading and drawing five-irons around a tree. "It was impressive," Finchem said. "It's always impressive when you see these guys hit shots." (He saw no signs of injury.) Pavin, naturally, as a fellow pro, was less impressed. The former U.S. Open winner pointed to a V in the center of the tree and challenged Woods to hit it through the uprights. "It's about two feet wide," Finchem said. The commissioner is not prone to hyperbole. He made a through-the-air karate chop. Tiger's first five-iron was all air. Yep, these guys are good. Human, too. Tiger proved that on Thursday morning.
And that's really the point of making the Hall of Fame induction a big part of Players week and having a great event to kick it off. The golfers are human. Talk too much about sand saves and you can forget that. When you hear about the $100,000 gift that Choi made to the Japanese earthquake relief effort, you're reminded that he's not a golfing machine but a man with heart. If you hear him talk about how he learned golf from Nicklaus's Golf My Way, or his time in the South Korean military, the same. Golf generates stories and conversation like no other sport. That's why the World Golf Hall of Fame is so loaded with potential. Connecting the Players to its annual induction ceremony (when there are worthy people to induct) could only be a good thing. How cool would it be to have Mickey Wright and Jack Nicklaus in a room together comparing notes on the pressure of winning a U.S. Open? Very damn cool.
Setting, of course, is critical. The two courses connected to the Hall of Fame and a massive housing development called the World Golf Village—King & Bear and Slammer & Squire—are perfectly nice courses but not anything that will get your juices flowing. No, the Hall of Fame golf day will need something more like the ancient grass courts in Newport. Timuquana, a Donald Ross time capsule in Jacksonville, a course that David Fay, late of the USGA, calls a "sipping whiskey" course, might be ideal for the event. Here's your day: Golf in the morning. A luncheon on the beach. (Literally on the beach. The beach in Ponte Vedra Beach tends to get lost.) The induction ceremony that night in St. Augustine. Let Goalby emcee the thing. He'll kill. Nice day, don't you think?
Before long, players will be clamoring for invitations and the public for tickets. Don't worry about the press coverage and whether it makes money. The press will come and sponsors will too. Take a page from W.P. Kinsella, the baseball novelist: If you build it, they will come. Yes, there's a grand thing called the Ballroom at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, where Ted Williams and Bob Feller used to compare notes. But does it have, as the World Golf Village does, a Murray Brothers Caddyshack?
As for the new winner, he didn't know there was a World Golf Hall of Fame until he joined the Tour. Choi wondered how many majors a player has to win to get in and what the voting procedure is. A lot of Hall of Fame voters would like to know the same thing. Getting in, he said, would be a dream: "It says you are a role model and have contributed to the legacy of the game." Actually, Choi is already a role model and part of the legacy of the game. Now he's even more so. Maybe someday one of his fat-gripped putters will wind up at the World Golf Village. The drive there from Ponte Vedra Beach can take years, as it should. Choi's fine with that. He's built for the long haul.
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