Grappling With the Hall of Fame Ballot

Davis Love III should be in the Hall of Fame. Photo copyright Icon SMI.

I just cast my vote on the 2012 ballot for the World Golf Hall of Fame, and it wasn’t easy. It also felt kind of odd.

Odd because one of the names on the ballot is Phil Mickelson, who is still in the midst of his career. But he was 40 years old at the end of the 2010 season, and that made him eligible for the ballot (he turned 41 this June).

The 40-year-old standard was a questionable solution to a real problem for the Hall—golfers don’t have a clear-cut point at which they retire. They might gradually cut down their schedule, but golfers good enough to receive Hall consideration seldom stop playing entirely. Very often they play the PGA Tour up to age 50—whether a full or reduced schedule—and then join the seniors and keep playing competitive golf.

So, unlike other sports, the World Golf Hall of Fame, can’t use “retirement date” to determine eligibility. They decided to use age instead, but went too early by making it 40. That’s too young because at that age some players are still polishing their Hall of Fame resumes.

Take Jim Furyk, for example. He joins Mickelson as a first-timer on this year’s ballot. Furyk has 16 wins, one major, and one Player of the Year award. That’s enough to earn consideration—but, in my estimation, still a little short of Hall credentials. It would be better to wait a few years until we evaluate him, to see if he can add at least a couple victories or another major.

Most players of Hall-ballot caliber are still active at 40, playing a pretty full schedule, and very often at a high level. Why not wait until 45 for Hall eligibility? True, some players hang on in their late 40s, but wins by players over 45 are rare. Even Vijay Singh didn’t win after his age 45 year.

Some would suggest extending the age for eligibility to 50, but this has its own problems because it doesn’t account for the occasional player who does retire or cut way back on his schedule in his late 30s or early 40s. Why should he have to wait until he turns 50 to become eligible for the Hall? A move to 50 would require some sort of inactivity clause—a player would be eligible earlier if he played in less than a certain number of tournaments for a certain number of years.

There’s one problem even with changing eligibility from 40 to 45—we would go five years without any new candidates. But that could be countered by another change that should be made in light of the growing international nature of golf—eliminating the separate International ballot and considering all world-wide players together. While international players are eligible for the PGA Tour ballot, the separate International ballot is designed to accommodate players who don’t meet the standard of 10 PGA Tour victories for the PGA Tour ballot. Having one ballot would increase the pool.

Mickelson’s record of 39 victories and four majors is strong enough that he won’t have any trouble getting elected into the Hall in his first year of eligibility. In his case, the only problem is a celebration and Hall induction that may seem premature.

But the early eligibility tends to work against players. At age 40, players below the Mickelson level just don’t quite feel like Hall of Famers. That leads to low vote totals when players are in their early 40s, and after that it’s hard to push those totals up to the 65 percent needed for election.

Davis Love III, for example, was named on only 27 percent of ballots in 2010 at the age of 46. Maybe he would be getting more support if balloting started at age 45 when his career was much closer to feeling complete.

That’s not Love’s only issue. Basically, he is getting the same treatment as Lanny Wadkins, who took a long time before he was voted into the Hall. The common thread is that both won only one major. But a wider view shows that Love deserves to be in the Hall. He won 20 tournaments, and that alone should be enough to get him in (Wadkins won 21 times and Tom Kite, another one-major guy, 19). He won the Players Championship twice. Yes, it’s not a major, but it should count for some extra credit.

And Love’s career didn’t have the ups and downs of Wadkins’. Love was a force to be reckoned with nearly every year from 1990 through 2006, a 17-year span, finishing in the top 10 on the money list 10 times and 21st or better in all but one of those years. He played on every Ryder or Presidents Cup team from 1993 through 2005. Love was a truly elite player in the game for a long period—and that should make him a Hall of Famer.

There were 14 players on this year’s PGA Tour ballot, which, by rule, meant you could vote for a maximum of four. Mickelson and Love were definite choices. Now it comes to those I wasn’t sure about.

One of those is Macdonald Smith. Yes, the Macdonald Smith whose career ended in 1938. We’re still voting on him.

The World Golf Hall of Fame started in 1974 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Before its move to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1998 it also incorporated the old PGA Hall of Fame, and some of those PGA Hall members didn’t get voted into the World Hall right away. While some didn’t deserve World Hall consideration, others did, so they stayed on the ballot and slowly, one by one, they’ve been getting into the Hall though it has taken a few decades.

Because of restrictions on the number of players who could be inducted, these players from the 1950s or earlier (in some cases much earlier) had to wait until the 1980s or 1990s to get in: Jim Barnes, Harry Cooper, Jimmy Demaret, Ralph Guldahl, Lawson Little, Lloyd Mangrum, Cary Middlecoff, Paul Runyan, Horton Smith, and Peter Thomson.

There were still more old-time candidates left, and they’ve been trickling into the Hall since 2000: Jack Burke Jr. (2000), Tommy Bolt (2002), Leo Diegel (2003), Henry Picard (2006), Denny Shute (2008), Craig Wood (2008), Doug Ford (2011), and Jock Hutchison (2011).

Most of them got in through the veterans’ category, selected by committee, but, unlike in baseball, these players remain on the ballot indefinitely. Even without getting the 65 percent necessary (or being the top vote-getter with 50 percent or more if no one gets 65 percent) for induction off the ballot, the voting is a factor considered in naming veteran players to the Hall.

Smith and Harold “Jug” McSpaden are the only original old-timers left on the ballot, with others either having been inducted or dropped from the ballot for receiving less than 5 percent of the vote. Smith is credited with 24 victories, but there is a hole in his record—he didn’t win a major.

There are a number of ameliorating factors. Smith won three Western Opens and four Los Angeles Opens, which were big tournaments in his day. He came close but had bad luck in the U.S. and British Opens. Most significantly, the Masters didn’t start until he was 44 years old and he never played in the PGA Championship.

His lack of entry in the PGA Championship is one of the enigmas of Smith’s career. Another is that after losing a playoff to his brother Alex in the 1910 U.S. Open at the age of 20 and winning the 1912 Western Open, Smith dropped out of golf from 1917 to 1922 in what are usually the prime years for a golfer (age 27 to 32). Not much is known, except that he worked in a California shipyard for at least some of the time and there were reports that he had an alcohol problem.

How much do today’s Hall voters know about Smith’s career? Probably not a lot, in most cases. But taking everything into consideration his record is certainly as strong as his contemporaries or near-contemporaries in the Hall like Hutchison, Diegel, Picard, and Shute. So, I feel like I should vote for Smith.

But that leads to a dilemma. I can only vote for four players, and so far that’s three. Unfortunately, I find it almost impossible to separate the next two candidates—Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara.

Couples had more of an aura and seemed like the better player, but a bad back and perhaps some shaky intangibles left him with fewer victories than his talent indicated and only one major. Couples and O’Meara joined the PGA Tour in the same year (1981) and compiled remarkably similar records.

Couples has entered 598 PGA Tour events, made 481 cuts, won 15 times (including one major), was second 17 times, third 23 times, had 162 top-10s and 295 top-25s. He was in the top 10 on the money list seven times, was Player of the Year twice, and played on five Ryder Cup and four Presidents Cup teams.

O’Meara has entered 662 PGA Tour events, made 440 cuts, won 16 times (including two majors), was second 22 times, third 18 times, had 119 top-10s and 236 top-25s. He was in the top 10 on the money list six times, was Player of the Year once, and played on five Ryder Cup and two Presidents Cup teams.

O’Meara won one more tournament and one more major—the most important categories for Hall consideration. Couples was Player of the Year one more time and played on two more Cup teams. He had a lot more top-10s and top-25s, an indication that he was more consistent from week to week than O’Meara, though top-10s are not really what you look at when it comes to the Hall of Fame. He compiled similar victory and top-three totals to O’Meara while playing in fewer tournaments, though I’m not sure how significant the number of tournaments is since they played the same number of seasons. Like Love, Couples can point to two Players Championship victories in addition to his one major. Couples has career PGA Tour earnings of $22.09 million to $14.17 million for O’Meara, an advantage gained partly from some good years in his mid-40s when purses were high while O’Meara’s performance went downhill after age 42.

It’s very difficult to pick among the two. But wait a minute. Is either deserving? Earlier, I said that I didn’t think Furyk had done enough—but his record is nearly identical, and he’s not even finished. (Furyk has 16 wins, one major, and seven top-10 money list finishes, and has qualified for seven Ryder and seven Presidents Cup teams.) So I need to throw Furyk’s hat into the ring along with O’Meara and Couples.

I had an inclination to go with Couples. Then I remembered that his doppelganger is Tom Weiskopf, who had 16 wins, one major, a year when he was the best player in the game, and a record that fell short of his exceptional talent. And few people think Weiskopf should be in the Hall. Since O’Meara and Furyk are not clearly ahead of Couples, I guess that leaves them out, too.

I ended up voting for only Mickelson, Love, and Smith. But the others are so close that I will re-think it next year, and maybe even come to a different conclusion.

By the way, last year Couples got 32 percent, O’Meara 29 percent, Love 27 percent, and Smith 23 percent. That ballot included Ernie Els, who made it into the Hall, but this one includes Mickelson, who will draw more than Els’ 66 percent, and also Furyk. It’s clear nobody but Mickelson will be voted into the Hall this time, though Smith has a good chance of getting in through the veterans’ category.

The good news for Love and the others is that there will be opportunities in coming years. In the next four years, it appears that David Duval and Justin Leonard are the only players who will meet the PGA Tour ballot criteria, and barring a revival for either they won’t have the number of victories or majors needed to get much support. If Smith gets into the Hall, the ballot will be clear of deserving old-timers. It should add up to a better chance to reach 50 percent in a given year and make it to the Hall under the current system or have a fighting chance in a battle with those currently on the International ballot if a one-ballot system is adopted.

Fortunately for the length of this post, I’m not eligible to vote on the International ballot. But that’s so interesting it’s worth a mention. Golf World’s John Huggan makes a case for Sandy Lyle and Peter Alliss getting in, while also arguing for the elimination of a separate International ballot (as does ESPN’s Bob Harig.)

The best candidates on the International ballot are, alphabetically, Alliss, Retief Goosen, Lyle, Colin Montgomerie, and Ian Woosnam, with a limit of being able to vote for no more than three. I’m not sure why Woosnam isn’t in the Hall already—he has a better case than Jose Maria Olazabal, who is already in. Lyle’s biggest problem is that he accomplished very little after the age of 31, though he did compile an impressive record in both Europe and the U.S. before that while winning two majors. Montgomerie’s run of seven straight European Order of Merit titles (eight in all) and 31 European wins make him Hall worthy even without a major, and Goosen deserves consideration. With that crowded field, Alliss will have to hope to get in by the veterans’ route (which would be deserved).

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