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Couples and the Hall of Fame

Here’s another opportunity to talk about what being elected to a Hall of Fame really means. Fred Couples was just elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Inside the golf community, this seems to have set off some disgruntlement, largely because there are many in that community who believe that Couples is actually one of the great underachievers in golf history. This may be true, by the way. But the question remains: Is that the point?

Before getting to what I think is interesting about any of this, let’s go into the numbers. Fred Couples won one major championship — the 1992 Masters. That tournament has special meaning for me because it was the first Masters I ever covered (as columnist for The Augusta Chronicle). It was also the first golf tournament I had ever covered. It was also the first time I had been on a golf course for four straight days. So everything about that tournament was, for me, big and exciting and full of color and life. That was the tournament, you might remember, where Couples hit his tee-shot at No. 12 short, and it started to roll back into the water but, for some reason, stopped. Couples chipped up, made his par and beat Raymond Floyd by two shots — two shots he very well might have lost had the ball rolled into the water.

At the time, Couples was the best player in the world. He was 32 years old, and he was in the middle of this crazy stretch of excellence. He beat Davis Love III in a playoff in Los Angeles. Then he finished second at Doral, second at the Honda Classic, and he won Arnold Palmer’s tournament, then called the Nestle Invitational. Then, two tournaments later, he won the Masters. It was crazy. Every iron shot seemed to hit a flagstick. Every drive soared close to 300 yards — when that meant something. And, of course, he made it all look so effortless, so easy, that beautiful swing, that casual walk, the way he waved around the golf club, like it was some branch he had picked up walking by the river. It looked like he would dominate the game for a long time.

And … he didn’t. He won once the next year, once the year after that. He won The Players Championship in 1996 and re-emerged again to win twice in 1998. He never won another major championship, though he poked his head up on major championship Sundays every now and again. He won a lot of skins games and shootouts and World Cup of Golf championships. The fans loved him.

Now, when you total it all up … it’s 14 PGA Tour victories, one major championship, a couple more wins around the world and all those exhibitions. Like I say, there are a lot of people around golf who feel like — even though Couples dealt with a lot of back issues and his putting tuned in and out like a distant radio station — that he should have won a lot more. Again: Are those Hall of Fame numbers?

Well, Mark O’Meara has 14 PGA Tour victories, two major championships and five more wins around the world. He won the Masters and British Open the same year. He is not yet in the Hall of Fame.

Tom Weiskopf won 15 PGA Tour events, one major championship, he finished second in five other majors, and he played the bulk of his career in the era of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. He is not yet in the Hall of Fame.

Davis Love won 19 PGA Tour events, one major championship, is sixth on the all-time career money list (Couples is 28th), played on six Ryder Cup teams (Couples played on five) and is the captain of this year’s team. He is not yet in the Hall of Fame.

That probably covers the outliers … the golf Hall of Fame is pretty generous with its honors; best I can tell, just about everybody who wins a major championship gets in sooner or later, and I would imagine all of them will get in sooner or later (maybe not Weiskopf — that seems a bit more involved for whatever reasons). It’s just that Couples might have cut in line.

But here’s the real issue, I think: What is the purpose of the World Golf Hall of Fame? This is a Hall of Fame with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush in it. This is a Hall of Fame that has inducted golf instructors (Harvey Penick), golf writers (Bernard Darwin and Dan Jenkins), golf announcers (Peter Alliss and others), golf architects (Pete Dye and others), golf agents (Mark McCormack), golf club manufacturers (Karsten Solheim) and Allan Robertson, who many believe was either the first or one of the first “golf professionals” which in the early part of the 19th century, of course, meant he was a golf hustler. A good one, apparently. He also manufactured golf balls.

I’m not saying this kind of diversity is a bad thing … quite the opposite, actually. The golf Hall of Fame kind of knows what it is. It is there to celebrate golf, all of it, and golf would absolutely not be the same without Dan Jenkins’ brilliantly funny writing or the “Little Red Book” or the wonderful sarcasm and self-effacing joy of a Peter Alliss broadcast or Pete Dye’s island green on the 17th hole at Sawgrass. While nerds like me break down statistics and history to make hard determinations about who belongs or doesn’t quite belong in the baseball of football Hall of Fame, the golf Hall of Fame seems to on ask one question: Did this person make golf more awesome? Yes? Put ‘em into the Hall.

Chi Chi Rodriguez is in the golf Hall of Fame. Was Chi Chi Rodriguez a great player? Probably not. He won eight times on Tour, never finished in the top five of a major, won a bunch on the senior tour. But did he make golf more awesome? Absolutely. The sword fighting thing. The jokes. The charisma. I once walked a round of golf with Rodriguez, and it remains one of my favorite days.

The baseball Hall of Fame — because of baseball’s grand and much considered history — has a different purpose for fans, I think. It helps define greatness. Same (to a lesser degree) with the football and basketball Halls of Fame. Mark Fidrych made baseball more awesome. Bo Jackson made baseball more awesome. Dwight Gooden … Roger Angell … Bill James … Jim Abbott … Dan Quisenberry … Sy Berger (who essentially created the baseball card) … Hal Richman (who invented Strat-O-Matic) … Robert Redford … Kevin Costner … all those great announcers and writers who won Hall of Fame awards but are technically not Hall of Famers … the Famous Chicken … the bobblehead doll … F.W. Rueckheim (who invented Cracker Jack)* … all of these and many more have made baseball more awesome.

*Which only became connected to baseball because of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and because “Cracker Jack” happens to rhyme with “I don’t care if I never get back.”

But I don’t think most baseball fans want them in the Hall of Fame. It’s fine to have exhibits about them, but I think most baseball fans want to keep the baseball Hall of Fame momentous and serious. I just got a long email from brilliant reader Josh making the case for Jimmy Rollins as a Hall of Famer, complete with comps and stats and observations. That’s what the baseball Hall of Fame is for so many people. The golf Hall of Fame? No. It’s not that.

And so, I’m happy that Fred Couples got into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Did he deserve it on his golfing accomplishments? Well, he has had a better golfing career than many players in the Hall of Fame now. The few people who might have had slightly better careers, well, I suspect they’ll get in too someday soon.

But if the golf Hall of Fame is simply about who has made the game more awesome, let’s face it, Couples simply crushes Mark O’Meara and Tom Weiskopf and even Davis Love, who I know a bit and think has been great for the game. Couples’ breathtaking swing, his casual persona, his amazing shot-making — these and other things have made him a superstar. When people think back to the last 20 years of golf, they will think of Fred Couples. Does that make him a Hall of Famer? The way the golf Hall of Fame voters look at it, well, yes, it definitely does. I don’t think that’s a bad way for golf people look at it.

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7 Responses to Couples and the Hall of Fame

  1. s1rweeze says:

    “Couples’ breathtaking swing, his casual persona, his amazing shotmaking…”

    And his awesome deck shoes. Lets not forget those.

  2. Mark Coale says:

    When i think of couples, i immediately think of two other people:

    His ex wife debra, who … Burst … On the scene on 18 when couples won a tournament

    And “Hello friends” jim nantz, couples’ college roommate.

  3. Curious then what your thoughts are on David Duval.

  4. Eric Fung says:

    Interesting way of looking at it, comparing it to the baseball HOF. In baseball, there are fewer concrete, quantifiable ways to determine greatness: bums can win World Series rings, Cy Youngs and MVPs are hard to come by, Gold Gloves are subjective, etc. The HOF is how you assign greatness.

    In golf, major championships are the accepted barometer, and everyone who cares can tell you the guys who have won a bunch. They don’t need the HOF to assign greatness.

  5. Mark Coale says:

    in a way, I like the LPGA system, where there are tangible numbers to achieve that earn you entry (tourney wins, majors wins)…

    Of course, it mean you can get someone like Karrie Webb earning HOF status in her 20s.

    from wiki:

    Webb qualified for entry to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000, but was not eligible for induction until she had played ten LPGA Tour events in each of ten seasons. She met this criterion on 9 June 2005 when she completed the first round of the LPGA Championship.[20] At age 30, she became the youngest living person ever to enter the Hall of Fame,[14] and kept that distinction until 2007, when fellow LPGA star Se Ri Pak was inducted.

  6. Michael says:

    Joe, bringing up Roger Angell leads me to a question that seems worth considering: is he eligible for the J.G. Taylor Spink Award given to baseball writers? I suspect it is limited to members of the Baseball Writers Association and/or those who work for a newspaper. But it seems to me that those who write well about baseball should be eligible. It also leads to the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters. There have been a couple of boomlets over the years to induct Harry Coyle, the greatest director of television baseball ever for NBC, and Bob Sheppard, the legendary Yankees PA announcer. The response was, this is for baseball broadcasters. Well … I don’t know how loose those rules are.

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