As Couples enters World Golf Hall of Fame, its flaws are laid bare

September 21, 2012

For starters, it's not Fred's fault that he got voted into the Hall of Fame. Fred Couples didn't put his name on the ballot. He didn't petition anybody to get in. He's never made a claim to being a great player. A good player, yes. That's what he accurately calls himself.

He's more than that, really. He is a unique talent, whose ability to smash a golf ball with disguised effortlessness has caused grown men to idolize him. But a Hall of Famer? No, not in my opinion. Not yet, anyway.

We take halls of fame seriously in this country, probably too seriously, but if you're going to have one, you might as well do it right, right? Fred's election highlights all the serious problems with the World Golf Hall of Fame.

For starters, the age requirement. At 40, a player is eligible to appear on the PGA Tour/Champions Tour ballot. (There are different ballots for different categories.) Forty is much too young. Sixty would be better. One of the most remarkable things about professional golf is how long a player can stay relevant. The three true senior majors -- the U.S. and British Senior Opens and the Senior PGA Championship -- should be given much more credit for the legitimate sporting events they are.

If the minimum age were 60, senior tour play could be elevated significantly because it could be the deciding factor in assessing a career like Fred's. (On this basis, Dave Stockton gets in for sure. Two PGAs. Two Senior U.S. Opens. Ten regular Tour wins. Fourteen senior wins. Plus the Ryder Cup captaincy and the coaching. Please. That's a Hall of Fame career. That's a body of work. That's why you should wait to 60.) I'm a Hall of Fame voter, and my feeling was that Fred's playing career -- the '92 Masters win, the two Players titles, the 12 other Tour wins plus five international victories -- did not earn him a locker off I-95 in St. Augustine beside the other players of his era, like Greg Norman and Nick Price and Curtis Strange. There's a huge difference between one major and two. Two wins on the Stadium Course do not, in my mind, add up to a major.

But a distinguished senior career, like he's already having, could have put Couples, who turns 53 on Oct. 3, over the top. He won the Senior British this year. That's a serious notch in my book. Had he won, say, two more senior majors before he was 60, he'd have had my vote. Why? Because sustained excellence is one measure of greatness, and a Hall of Fame should be reserved for the true greats, not for the goods and the very goods and the great enoughs. Fred's buddy Jay Haas could still play his way into the Hall of Fame, in my book. Hale Irwin would be a Hall of Famer just on the basis of what he did after the age of 50. If it sounds like I'm trying to elevate the importance of senior play here, I am.

The second glaring problem highlighted by Fred's election is the so-called 50-percent rule. This year, U.S. Hall of Fame voters received a ballot with 15 names on it. We were allowed to vote for up to four candidates. Any candidate who received at least 65 percent of the vote would get admitted. None did, so Plan B kicked into gear: if no player gets at least 65 percent, then the highest vote getter gets in, provided he is named on at least 50 percent of the ballots. Couples got 51 percent.

I asked the Hall of Fame what the number was to the decimal place. Was it 50.5% rounded up to 51? The answer was that no answer would be forthcoming. I was not able to learn the precise number of voters, either, although I do know there are at least 200. According to the published results, at least some of those voters voted for Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, David Duval and Don January for Hall of Fame election. I find that hard to fathom, but you have to think that some of those same voters voted for Couples, too, and gave him the votes he needed to get over the 50 percent mark. Is one or two or three votes over 50 percent a mandate? No. Not even close. It's more like a fluke.

Here's the weirdest part of Fred getting in, with one major and 15 Tour wins. Where does the standard go from there? Does Mark Calcavecchia get in? (Thirteen Tour wins including a British Open?) How about Justin Leonard? (A U.S. Am, a British Open and 11 other Tour events?) How about Jim Furyk and David Duval? If Fred's in, and he is, then they all deserve serious consideration, too.

Jim Furyk and David Duval are two unusually honest people. I don't think either one of them would look you in the eye and tell you they have had a Hall of Fame career. Not yet, anyway. Check back with them when they're 60.

Some will say that Fred got in because of his particular place in the game, and I'm sure that's true. Tim Finchem, the Tour commissioner, said in a press release that Couples "has been a fan favorite for decades, thanks to not only his significant achievements on the golf course but also because of his relatable, friendly demeanor that has connected him to fans around the world." I would disagree with that. I would say Fred' popularity is rooted in the fact that you can NOT relate to him, and to his outrageous talent. He's not friendly to fans. Fans are drawn to him because he's cool and aloof.

Fred's election is excellent news for Ken Venturi and Davis Love (who were named on 38 percent of the ballots), Mark O'Meara (36), Macdonald Smith (24), Fuzzy Zoeller (22) and Dave Stockton (21). If Fred got in, and he did, then those guys have to get in, right?

Are they true golfing greats? No. But they're great enough. That's the lesson of Fred's election. Play hard, Calc. Your day is coming.