ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA (AP) – A time capsule holding one significant object donated by each golf group sponsoring the World Golf Hall of Fame, as well as each organization’s vision for golf in 50 years, is buried in the shadow of the World Golf Hall of Fame. On March 26, 1997, celebrities including Johnny Miller, wearing an NBC Sports blazer, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, and Sam Snead attended a ceremony honoring the game.
On the day of Tiger Woods receiving golf’s highest honor, a concern has arisen: Will the World Golf Hall of Fame still be a memorial to the game and its greatest players and contributions in 2047, when the time capsule is opened? For God’s sake, there’s an Augusta National green jacket down there!
During his press conference at the Players Championship on Tuesday, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan addressed the elephant in the room.
“We’re committed to the World Golf Hall of Fame through 2023,” he added, referring to the end of the 25-year lease with St. Johns County and the state of Florida’s bond agreement. “As we move forward, we’re considering all of our choices.” We’ve had the good fortune of living in St. Augustine for the past 25 years, and we’re proud of the presence we’ve established there.”
“However, the Hall of Fame industry has changed, and we just want to make sure that any decision we make regarding the next 25 years maximizes our ability to showcase the great accomplishments and influence that every single member of the Hall of Fame has had on our game,” Monahan continued.
To put it another way, the World Golf Hall of Fame is officially running out of time.
It would have been unthinkable to suppose that the Hall could fail when it first opened in May 1998. Yours myself was there for the grand opening, albeit as a lowly publications and website coordinator, but as a fly on the wall to see Hale Irwin apply lipstick to Nancy Lopez in the ‘green room,’ and to hear Gene Sarazen proclaim the Hall to be “above my wildest hopes.”
One million visitors were expected to visit the Hall and IMAX Theater, the 400,000 square feet of shops anchored by a 32,000-square-foot golf shop, golf-themed restaurants, and two championship courses that would host a PGA Tour Champions event and episodes of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, thanks to a brand-new interchange off Interstate 95 and a location 20 miles south of Jacksonville.
“It was like building Las Vegas in the middle of the desert, but without the gambling, the people, and the sand,” my first employer said not long ago.
Pat Bradley, an LPGA Hall of Fame member who attended the first induction when Nick Faldo and Miller joined the exclusive membership, summed up what it meant to have a place where the game’s greats were honored: “It’s thrilling to know that people can gather and see the history of golf in this facility long after I’ve left this world.”
Will they, however, succeed? While the surrounding real estate sold out and flourished into a successful community, the World Golf Hall of Fame’s other commercial features stagnated. Is it time for the PGA Tour to make a pit stop? It was shuttered and used as office space for the First Tee until last year, when those staff relocated to the new PGA Tour headquarters. Reverb Church, a non-denominational megachurch, has taken over the lease. There is no truth to the rumors that the property owner cried hallelujah when a new tenant was discovered.
The Murray Bros. Caddyshack is the sole extant restaurant along the Walk of Champions. The Hall of Champions has closed its putting course and snack bar, and the PGA Tour is now building a new facility for PGA Tour Entertainment in Ponte Vedra Beach next to its Global Home, which is expected to open in 2023, meaning the Walk of Champions will see more empty commercial space. Given that World Golf Foundation CEO Greg McLaughlin, who earned more than $700,000 in 2018, according to the non-Form profit’s 990, works out of the Global Home rather than the Hall of Fame, the writing is on the wall that the Hall, which has minimal attendance, will be the next to go.
To his credit, Monahan stated that determining the Hall’s future is a top priority. Golf deserves its own Cooperstown, a shrine dedicated to celebrating the global game in one location. The PGA Tour ended up footing the bill for an ambitious endeavor that was meant to be sponsored by all of golf’s involved organizations. (The induction ceremony costs roughly $1 million to put together, according to the World Golf Foundation’s Form 990, but some of that cost will be offset by collecting a “contribution” of $5,000 per ticket to attend Tiger’s ceremony on March 9.)
It should be regarded a marketing expense if it is to remain as a going concern. Monahan stated during the same press conference that the Tour’s reserves total $221 million. It’s time to put part of that money toward revitalizing the exhibits, which were cutting-edge when I worked there but aren’t anymore. (And, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, Those exhibits should be interactive and feature a lot of Jack, Arnie, Gary, and Nancy, but Tiger, Phil, and Annika should get a lot of attention. It’s also past time for the USGA and PGA of America, both of which have their own museums, as well as those who earn off PGA Tour stars, to chip in. Either that, or the Hall requires a white knight with a passion for the game, such as Herb Kohler or Mike Keiser.
Perhaps the Hall’s uncertain future in the World Golf Village isn’t that surprising. After all, the earlier version of the Hall closed in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where rainy days were the only reason for increased attendance. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself. While a virtual Hall of Fame may make good commercial sense — it would be a lot less expensive than the existing lease – the men and women who have earned plaques deserve more. The Hall is in desperate need of a makeover, but where should it go? The time is running out.