Requiem for golf’s global hall of fame

A tribute to Arnold Palmer became one of the World Golf Hall of Fame’s final exhibits after his passing in 2016. Visitors were invited to briefly write their thoughts on the memorial portrait.

Mary Sullivan was on hand from the frenetic outset.

“Right up until the day of the inductions, it was still being finished,” recalled Sullivan, a World Golf Hall of Fame volunteer since 1998. “We’d go into training meetings and there would be just dirt somewhere. Then all of a sudden, you’d (come out and) see 100 yards of bricks laid or plants put up.”

World Golf Village opened with a three-day festival that offered music, fireworks and the addition of Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller to the Hall of Fame roster. The effusive Gary Player, an original inductee, lauded the hall’s new home in a TV ad that played for nearly two decades.

“For the love of golf, go!” Player cajoled.

Sullivan also made sure she was there for the final curtain.

“It’s going to be hard,” she said contemplatively, flanked by a replica of the famed Swilcan Bridge that graces the 18th hole at St. Andrews’ Old Course in Scotland. “We’ll miss this.”

The museum quietly closed its doors for good September 1, having seen 76 new members added during its 25-year tenancy a short drive south of Jacksonville. Close to 1,000 artifacts — most notably the Hall of Fame lockers that showcase memorabilia from all 164 members — are being prepared for transport to North Carolina.

The Hall of Fame reopens next spring as part of the U.S. Golf Association’s new Golf House Pinehurst, being completed at the famed Pinehurst Resort.

“I guess it was just lack of attendance. It’s too bad,” said Ray Buckhalter, who drove over from Gainesville with a friend to take a tour before the opportunity was lost. “We’ve had this major attraction in Florida and now it’s leaving.”

Attendance had no shot at meeting overheated expectations, even amid a golf boom as Tiger Woods was just hitting his dominant years. PGA Tour and World Golf Foundation officials thought the complex could attract 1 million visitors annually.

By comparison, the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s peak years a generation ago brought some 400,000 to Cooperstown annually. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto topped out just shy of 500,000.

In St. Augustine, the count peaked at about 280,000 — to be fair, not far off numbers for basketball’s hall of fame in those days and better than college football’s — before the recession made a dent starting around 2007. The pandemic didn’t help, either, and even a slight rebound left the count at about 60,000 last year.

“Golf fans today consume the sport and its history differently, and we made the decision to evolve as well,” Greg McLaughlin, CEO of the World Golf Foundation that oversees the hall, said via email.

At its height, the Hall of Fame was the centerpiece of a vibrant World Golf Village “ring” that wrapped around a small lake. A convention center was a short walk away. The complex also featured an IMAX theater, two golf-themed restaurants, two hotels, timeshares, a gift shop and a PGA Tour Superstore.

The Slammer & Squire golf course, named after Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, took golfers in the shadow of the Hall of Fame tower. The King & Bear course, co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, opened two miles away.

Sullivan had an up-close view when Palmer and Nicklaus played a made-for-TV match on their co-design in 2001. She was one of two cart drivers assigned to transport the legends across some swampland between Nos. 8 and 9, then over to the back nine.

“Mr. Palmer comes out of the chute on 8 and I’m first, so I tell him to come on over,” Sullivan said. “We’re driving through that little swamp area, and I leaned over and said, ‘I just want you to know this is the first course where I honestly broke 100.’”

Maybe it was the way she phrased “honestly,” but Palmer burst out laughing.

“I’m going around this bend real slow, and he almost fell into the swamp,” Sullivan exclaimed. “Oh sir, please don’t fall in on my watch.”

In all, the Hall of Fame staged 16 enshrinement galas at World Golf Village, though the last came in 2013. Among those inducted were Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak.

Getting the timing right proved a challenge. The ceremony once was envisioned as a grand finale to the golf season, but a lack of Hall of Famers returning to welcome new inductees dampened that. So did frigid November evenings outdoors.

Then the date was moved to piggyback with The Players Championship up the highway at TPC Sawgrass. March wasn’t too bad, but the event’s move to May created some muggy editions. The event went indoors, but the convention center lacked the same ambience.

Hall officials eventually decided to take the show on the road, holding ceremonies at St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and the PGA Tour’s new digs in Ponte Vedra Beach. Next year’s enshrinement is set for Pinehurst.

“We’d wonder why all these players didn’t come and fully enjoy this thing,” said Richard Greenman, a local volunteer since 2000. “This is their Hall of Fame. But the players that did come — to a person, we’ve met some delightful people.”

On this day, World Golf Village seems a ghost town. The convention center, hotels and IMAX are still there, but almost devoid of activity. No distractions for golfers on The Slammer & Squire. A once-popular 18-hole putting course around the ring is abandoned and shaggy.

The PGA Tour Superstore vacated its space some years ago. It’s now occupied largely by a megachurch. The most enduring business is Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurant, where a resolute sign near the entrance says: “We are NOT closing when the Hall of Fame closes.”

Oddly, the exit off Interstate 95 is as busy as it’s ever been. Turn right at the World Golf Village Boulevard light and meander into the complex. Turn left and pull in at Buc-ee’s or, just beyond, Costco.

“We’re turning the page,” St. Johns County commissioner Henry Dean told Golfweek last month. “We look at this as an opportunity to bring good things to the area.”

All that was left was to take a final spin around the place — glance in those 164 lockers, admire Nancy Lopez’s collection of trophies, watch some old Bob Hope clips, smile at the Round 1 scorecard and “Go Annika” button from Sorenstam’s historic entry at the 2003 Colonial Invitational.

“We just wanted to take one last look,” said Joe Schell, a St. Augustine resident who spent the hall’s final hours touring with wife Lenore. “Even though we’ve been here so many times, we’re never going to be able to see it like this again.”

Next stop, Pinehurst.

“This has been a really special place for us,” Greenman said. “I’ve told so many people that I’ve got the world’s greatest part-time job. … It’s been a great ride.”

Specialty editor Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or