Who deserves a place in the golf Hall of Fame in the modern game?

As the game of golf continues to evolve, different factors must be taken into account when considering potential inductees to the Hall of Fame. Are new stipulations too watered-down and lenient? Or has the game evolved to the point where the old measures for induction are simply unrealistic?

The World Golf Hall of Fame has been inducting greats of the game since the inaugural class of 1974, in which 13 players were inducted.

Jack Nicklaus takes the stand as part of the inaugural class of inductees into the WGHOF in 1974 (Source: Nichklaus.com)
Jack Nicklaus takes the stand as part of the inaugural class of inductees into the WGHOF in 1974 (Source: Nichklaus.com)

13 of golf’s greatest ever players were among the first batch of inductees and that was part of the problem. Titanic stalwarts of the game don’t grow on trees; there are only so many bonafide legends that deserve a spot in the WGHOF and 13 went in at the same time. The next year, 11 players of slightly lesser fame and accomplishment went in. In just its second year, the Hall of Fame began to dilute.

It’s the equivalent of having $100 as a budget for the week, and then spending 70 of it on Monday. Ain’t much left after that!

Eventually, all of golf’s greatest ever players will be in the WGHOF and there comes a time, until the great players of the modern game turn 50 – another one of the new rules implemented in 2014 – when a real problem finding worthy inductions rears its awkward head.

The World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum is located in St. Augustine, Florida (Source: PGA Tour)
The World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum is located in St. Augustine, Florida (Source: PGA Tour)

There comes a time when the WGHOF need to alter the benchmarks for success, and while to golf purists it may be a case of the Hall of Fame regressing to simply the Hall of Acknowledgement, it needs to be done.

There have been many errors with inductions for the WGHOL over the years, already mentioned is the inability to portion out inductees, and save them for later years. Another misstep has been early inductions of players clearly destined for induction anyway.

Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els – all worthy members of the Hall of Fame – were inducted far too early basically to ensure a sense of marquee value for the televised ceremony. There should have been more forward thinking with this.

Enie Els, along with Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, was inducted into the WGHOF at 42 years of age. (Source: European Tour).
Enie Els, along with Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, was inducted into the WGHOF at 42 years of age. (Source: European Tour).

Besides, inducting players while still active may be a hot topic at the moment that divides opinion, but inducting players still in their 40s meant that there was a distinct lack of gravitas when compared to past inductees.

This mistake, however, has thankfully been amended by the aforementioned lifting of age requirements to 50, ensuring that Tiger Woods will not be honoured until at least 2025.

Now to be fair, and relatively speaking, the newest class of inductees, who are set for inclusion in September 2017, has a lot of quality. When looking at Davis Love III’s record, who probably stands as the headline inductee, so to speak, it is clear to see that he is most worthy of inclusion by some distance: 21 official PGA Tour wins including two Players Championships and a major.

 

Welshman Ian Woosnam, a former World No. 1 who won the Masters – the only Welshman to do so – and 29 official tournaments in Europe, was the next best.

Ian Woosnam became the first and only Welsh winner of the Masters in 1991. (Source: www.augusta.com)
Ian Woosnam became the first and only Welsh winner of the Masters in 1991. (Source: www.augusta.com).

The problem with golf’s Hall of Fame requirements is that they exist within the context of a sport where the only statistical measure for success is winning, as opposed to consistently high finishes. And the problem that is born from this issue is that because golf is a single player sport, there are fewer past winners to choose from, given the relatively small pool of consistent winners over the years.

However, the other problem, in a Catch-22 sort of way, is that with the increased depth in professional golf’s recent times, it becomes harder to have a set of true stand-out talents that win frequently.

The WGHOF has realised this and taken measures to combat the increasingly shallow pool of potential inductees. They have slowed down the rate of inductions by having the ceremony once every two years and only having a maximum five new members.

Different aspects are considered now also, and the WGHOF honours athletes from four different categories: male and female competitors, lifetime achievement, and veterans committee.

This year, with Love and Woosnam, along with Meg Mallon, Lorena Ochoa (who, though only 34, has been retired the requisite five years) and the late commentator Henry Longhurst, the limit of 5 has been hit, with the selection committee choosing from a pool of 16 finalists.

 

There were 145 inductees in the first 40 years of the Hall of Fame. Over the next 40 years, the number of newcomers can’t top 100, and will probably be significantly less. This is simply because there aren’t as many options that fit the old model. Different measures are now needed.

The WGHOF also set lower victory standards for its inductees than those unofficially set in times gone by. But they simply had no choice. Different decades come with different sets of circumstances when measuring a player’s ability.

Take soccer as an example. Pele – who hit his peak in the late 60s, probably wasn’t as fast and as skilful as many of the top soccer players of today, but to do what he did at a time when many of the pitches he played on were nothing more than a quagmire of mud and with a ball made of rock-hard leather, means that he is worthy of inclusion in the conversation of the greatest ever players. You simply can’t compare.

Standards are different, technology is different, and lifestyle is different. Many more factors exist that suggest one simply can’t measure one generation by the standards that a previous generation’s historical context allowed for. And golf is no different.

While 15 lifetime victories seemed like small change when the game’s giants – several of whom with more than 60 victories and in some cases double-digit majors to their names –were being inducted, it’s also become clear that winning 15 times in the post-1975 era is a greater achievement than it would have been before.

You could argue that appreciating and recognising many of the game’s cornerstone figures, who didn’t necessarily win as much as their historical peers, helps to establish a context that understands the difficulty and complexity of the game. Lowering standards in this way increases appreciation on a wider scale.

By the old standard, once legends like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Gary Player have been inducted, where else is there to go? By the new more flexible standard, it allows the WGHOF to cast the net much wider, whilst keeping the Hall of Fame credible, whilst also allowing inductees at the level of those previously mentioned to feel that much more special; it’s a win-win situation in my eyes.

To truly answer the question that the title of this article asks, one has to think outside the box when understanding what makes great players great. Yes, one important aspect is the amount of majors that they won, but it shouldn’t begin and end with that lone statistic.

Take, for example, The Peacock of the Fairways, Doug Sanders. He may not have had any majors among his 20 victories (though he finished second four times) but what he did have was one of the greatest shot-making games of all time.

Sanders before he misses a 30-inch put that would have won him the 1970 Open. (Source: Youtube).
Sanders before he misses a 30-inch put that would have won him the 1970 Open. (Source: Youtube).

Not only this, but he was a truly colourful and charismatic character (excuse the hideous alliteration) that brought many new fans to the game. As an old pro wrestling saying goes, he could talk the fans into the building, such was his dynamic presence on the course.

There are other examples of players finding different ways to stand out in the game. Corey Pavin, for example, used his artistic ball-control to win a U.S Open among his 20 victories, even as golf was beginning to evolve into the power game we tend to see today.

Corey Pavin achieved a different style of greatness with the way in which he artistically played the game. (Source: Mad About Sports)
Corey Pavin achieved a different style of greatness with the way in which he artistically played the game. (Source: Mad About Sports)

In the modern game, the WGHOF should take a liberal stance on recognising the great players worthy of induction, simply because as the game evolves, the minimum numbers required for inclusion into the Hall of Fame under the old rules will get harder to match and less realistic to achieve. The shift is a constant thing.

Take Bubba Watson for example, the Florida native is more than worthy of inclusion because of his two major wins and his incredible shotmaking ability.

On paper, his two majors are nothing compared to the 14 of Tiger Woods, the 18 of Jack Nicklaus and the 11 of Walter Hagen, but Bubba Watson is nonetheless regarded as one of the best active players in the world. Times change and margins shift.

Three current European veterans: Lee Westwood (with 42 official worldwide victories but no major), Sergio Garcia (25 including a Players) and Henrik Stenson (an Open championship and a Players among his 15) should get in even if they never hit another shot because they represent a different shade of greatness. They, and others like them, represent the multifaceted, multi-tiered aspect of what it means to be a great player in the modern game. They shouldn’t have their numbers compared to those no longer achievable, unless you get a freak of nature, once-in-a-lifetime player like Tiger Woods.

All in all, the WGHOF seems to have the flow of inductions down to more conservative levels – which is the right way to do it – and if they give more weight to the international tournaments, as well as the Players, it will allow them to open up the conversation of inductees and allow golf to become a true world game.

The WGHOF has made very important steps to maintain its position as a credible and respected Hall of Fame, instead of ending up scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to keep up with requirements no longer realistic in the modern game.

They seem to have managed to turn the ship around. They seem to have acknowledged that greatness encompasses the entire mountain and not just the very peak. They seem, for now at least, to have answered the question of who deserves to be in the golf hall of fame, while it still means something.