CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, CALIFORNIA | Soft sunlight pierced the trees. A hubbub of chatter, a vortex of voices, rose skywards. If a bomb had been dropped on an area no bigger than the 18th green at the Old Course last Monday afternoon, many of the great and good in golf would be gone. It was the gathering preceding the World Golf Hall of Fame 2019 induction ceremony at Carmel, and though some of those present had seen better days physically, the chocolate-box California town had rarely looked spiffier.
I like the World Golf Hall of Fame. I am a fan, a follower, a supporter of what it is trying to achieve. I applaud the way it honours those in our old game, a game with longer antecedents than many others and thus more reason to swank about its past. I don’t mind discussions or arguments about the legitimacy of one person over another, the presence of one in this august body and the absence of another. Of course there are some who are not in it who should be just as there are some who are in it who perhaps should not be. Above all though, it is an adornment to golf.
For now, on this summer’s afternoon, arguments as to the merits of one golfer and the demerits of another were forgotten. In a few minutes, gathered inside the Sunset Center, we would watch a parade of Hall of Fame members. Terry Gannon, the master of ceremonies, would have been entitled to overegg the pudding given who was there – Jack and Barbara, Gary, Annika, Nancy (and if you don’t know their surnames then you have no business reading this) – but when he called it arguably the greatest gathering of golf talent he was as on target as a Nicklaus drive.
Dennis Walters may be a name with which you are not familiar. At least, you might not have been but you should be now. A promising golfer with his eye on a career as a professional, he was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident with a golf cart when he was 24. Since then he has dedicated his life to sharing golf and life lessons with all and sundry through his traveling trick-shot exhibitions.
His message is clear and inspiring: Have a dream and never give up on it. Seeing him lever himself out of his wheelchair and straighten first his right leg and then his left, clicking each artificial aid into place so that he could stand up, was as moving as his own words: “Wow,” he said. “I’m in the golf Hall of Fame before Tiger Woods.”
A reason I like the World Golf Hall of Fame is that it lives up to its name and honours men and women from around the world. My hero Bernard Darwin, a glorious writer in Britain, is in there. So is Nancy Lopez, a Mexican-American (and Lorena Ochoa, a native of Mexico). And now, so is Jan Stephenson who came from Australia in 1974 and in her first season on tour was named Rookie of the Year.
For 90 minutes the stories of these three men and two women were told and broadcast around the world. They were clapped heartily and given standing ovations for their achievements in golf and the distinction they had brought the game.
So too is Peggy Kirk Bell, honoured posthumously though no less sincerely for her part in the LPGA’s early years, becoming the PGA of America’s First Lady of Golf in 2007 and a wonderful teacher of golf and of what you might call kitchen-table wisdom. A good person in a good game.
The selection process has not varied much over the past few years. An initial sweep is made of those eligible and those nominated and that list is winnowed down at a meeting that is as enjoyable as it is educational. Those chosen few come to a ceremony much like the one at Carmel, whether it be at St Andrews (2015) or Manhattan (2017), and are lionised and televised. For them it is life changing. “You have no idea what this means to me,” Walters said just as the Nicklauses had moments earlier said of Walters: “You have no idea what you mean to us.”
On Monday afternoon, in the cool of a vaulted building, with television cameras whirring, Retief Goosen told of being struck by lightning in his native South Africa and of having the clothes burned from his body. He told of growing up in a small town in central South Africa and of a journey that would bring him 34 worldwide victories, including two US Opens, and a reputation as a putter par excellence. He told, in his soft, slightly broken English – it is his second language – of the importance to him of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
And then came straight-backed Billy Payne, supported by foursomes of members of Augusta National, where he had served as chairman for 11 years. In his time as the great panjandrum at that famous golf club, he had overseen the introduction of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship with the USGA and the PGA of America, the establishing of the Latin America and Asia-Pacific amateur championships and the introduction of female members. Not bad for 11 years’ work. It should not be forgotten that Payne, a buccaneering football player in his college days, had also received the Olympic Order of Gold after serving as president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games from 1992 to 1996.
For 90 minutes the stories of these three men and two women were told and broadcast around the world. They were clapped heartily and given standing ovations for their achievements in golf and the distinction they had brought the game. And then they filed out into the sunshine where once again glasses clinked and vortexes of conversation rose once more.
As I walked away from the Sunset Center that night, I thought to myself: I hope that the sun was not setting on the World Golf Hall of Fame. The 2019 induction ceremony had been as good a ceremony as there has been. It would be a crying shame if it were the last.
With new inductees Retief Goosen, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne and Dennis Walters in the front row, The attending members of the World Golf Hall of Fame pose for a group photo during the 2019 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Sunset Center on Monday. Photo: Daniel Shirey, Getty Images
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