The World Golf Village opened more than 24 years ago at what was believed to be a strategic spot by I-95, with a three-day festival that included parties, cover bands, fireworks, the induction of Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller into the Hall of Fame and the challenge in a commercial by charter member Gary Player: “For the love of golf, you’ve got to go.”
Not enough have.
The World Golf Foundation announced on Wednesday that the Hall of Fame and Museum building, which has more than 35,000 square feet of exhibit space, will close by the end of 2023, apparently a victim of dwindling attendance that saw visitation drop from around 280,000 at its peak to 60,000 last year.
The pending closure won’t immediately affect the Caddyshack restaurant, the Renaissance Hotel, the St. Johns Country Convention Center, the two golf courses associated with the World Golf Village and the PGA Tour Golf Academy, which all presumably will remain open since they are owned or operated outside the foundation’s purview.
The Hall of Fame declined through a spokesman to cite specifics or comment on financial elements regarding the decision.
The Hall’s assets in the locker room exhibit, including the burnished wood lockers assigned to the 164 Hall of Fame members with personal contents they or their families have donated, will be shipped to the Pinehurst Resort to be part of the United States Golf Association’s museum that will open in 2024.
The USGA will be offered other artifacts, but most will be returned to living Hall of Fame members or the families of those who are deceased, as well as their Hall of Fame plaques that adorn the wall of the main rotunda on the second floor.
The World Golf Foundation owns the Museum building but the land is owned by St. Johns County. A 25-year lease with the county and a bond issue with the state expire at the end of 2023.
What happens to the massive building with a 190-foot tower and the land surrounding it is under discussion. A Hall of Fame spokesman said its officials have been meeting with stakeholders, including the county and World Golf Village partners to evaluate options on the best future use for the area.
Input from residents around the village also will be sought. Details will be made available at a later date.
St. Johns County Commission chairman Henry Dean was optimistic that the property can be viable and vibrant in the future, given the growth surrounding it.
“I’m sorry the Hall of Fame did not work out as well as the PGA Tour had hoped,” Dean said. “But I think there will be a lot of good opportunities to develop that World Golf Village area, to really have a renaissance of it.
“We’re not at the point where it’s identifiable,” he continued. “But there is a clear push for re-development of that whole circle, that whole area and I think working with the private sector, we can come up with a vision that will make it better. This can be a bold new opportunity, a new chapter and I’m very excited about it.”
Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who had the vision to rescue the original Hall of Fame from Pinehurst, where it was struggling a decade after it was launched in 1974, said he understood the reasoning for the move.
“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “We stepped in and rescued a failing World Golf Hall of Fame in Pinehurst, but if going back to Pinehurst with the USGA presence there is what will make it prosper, I’d be delighted. I’m very hopeful that this new agreement provides the kind of financial backing that organizations like the USGA can provide. It’s about time the rest of the golf industry steps up and supports the hall of fame, not just the PGA Tour.”
Monahan’s hint at The Players
The end was foreshadowed by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan — who also is the current chairman of the World Golf Foundation board — at The Players Championship in March when he said “the business of the Hall of Fame and the way that people consume Halls of Fame has changed.”
Monahan struck an optimistic tone about the new iteration of the Hall of Fame in a statement emailed to the Times-Union.
“I’m confident today’s announcement and alignment with the USGA will further cement the long-term relevance and viability of the World Golf Hall of Fame, all while continuing to honor golf’s most storied individuals and artifacts,” he said. “Both organizations are committed to prioritizing the preservation of golf history, which will serve fans well in the years to come.”
Andy Murray, the owner of the Caddyshack Restaurant that has been the only original business to remain open at the World Golf Village’s “retail ring,” said he had not yet been informed of the decision to close the museum and termed the decision, “disappointing … very disappointing.”
“We all heard Jay in March,” Murray told the Times-Union. “They’ve been talking about it for years. I understand their thinking. It’s throwing money down the hole.”
Beyond two statements in the release that went out Wednesday at 9 a.m., World Golf Foundation CEO Greg McLaughlin had no additional comment.
“For nearly 50 years, the Hall of Fame has honored the history and legacies of those who have made golf great,” McLaughlin said in his statement. “Much like the USGA, the Hall of Fame is committed to connecting with fans around the world to highlight the greatest moments and legends of the sport. This expanded partnership will create an exciting new opportunity in Pinehurst — where the Hall of Fame originated — to celebrate Hall of Fame members and their contributions to golf.”
Village attractions dwindled
The warning signs were everywhere.
After induction ceremonies were held annually through 2013 in St. Augustine, they went on the road to other iconic golf sites at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, were reduced to every other year and the nomination requirements tightened.
As visitation dropped to a low of 40,000 during 2020 (blamed on the pandemic), other features of the property began to die off:
• The 18-hole putting green was allowed to grow to weeds.
• The museum snack bar and gift shop disappeared, leaving only movie snacks for sale at the IMAX Theater — which continues to do well this summer showing blockbuster hits such as “Top Gun: Maverick.” The gift shop moved to the IMAX.
• PGA Tour Entertainment will move from its building next door to the museum to Ponte Vedra at the PGA Tour’s Global Home.
• The 80,000 square foot retail ring, which once had two restaurants, a two-story golf equipment and clothing store and another gift shop, is now occupied only by the Caddyshack, a church and administrative offices for the foundation and The First Tee.
• And perhaps the biggest clue was in 2018, which ended a 20-year, $40 million corporate sponsorship with Shell: the Village did not mark a 20-year anniversary. The June anniversary date came and passed with zero fanfare.
Also in question is the future of the two golf courses co-designed by Hall of Fame members, the Slammer & Squire (Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen) and the King & Bear (Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus).
The Slammer & Squire is in the shadow of the Hall of Fame and Museum building and the King & Bear is located two miles away within the confines of a gated community.
Both are managed by Troon Golf of Scottsdale, Arizona. A phone message left for Troon Golf officials was not returned.
However, the first director of golf for the Slammer & Squire, Cathy Harbin, believes the two courses have been around long enough to be sustainable without the Hall of Fame.
“There was a time when it all meshed together very well and we helped each other,” said Harbin, who now owns the Pine Ridge Golf Course in Paris, Texas, and is a PGA of America board member. “We delivered people visiting the Hall of Fame and the Hall gave the golf courses credibility. That time has passed and I think the golf courses can stand on their own. They have a great reputation and with the population growth, I think they can sustain themselves.”
While the IMAX Theater is managed by the Hall of Fame and Museum, a Hall of Fame spokesman said it would be up to Troon Golf, the Renaissance Hotel (a Marriott) and the Murray brothers on how to proceed.
Murray said business has been “all right” at the Caddyshack but didn’t deny that Hall of Fame visitors were a big part of his clientele.
“When people come to the Hall of Fame, they always seem to show up at our place,” he said. “With the growth around us mushrooming, we’re doing okay. Will [the decision to close the Hall of Fame] hurt me? I don’t know.”
Hall of Fame still exists
There will still be a World Golf Hall of Fame, with a staff overseeing the nomination and election process, and planning biennial induction ceremonies. Indeed, the next induction has already been scheduled for 2024, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, during the week of the U.S. Open in mid-June.
And that’s no accident — because part of the current inventory of exhibits will have already been shipped to Pinehurst, the famed resort in the Sand Belt of North Carolina, to be stored at the USGA’s “Golf House.”
The induction ceremony will return to Pinehurst in 2029 when the USGA will stage the men’s and women’s opens in back-to-back weeks. A Hall of Fame spokesman said there would be other new members inducted between those two dates, depending on whether any nominees receive the required 75 percent vote of the voting committee.
The move also means the Hall of Fame returns to its original site. It began in 1974 at Pinehurst, with 13 charter members selected by the Golf Writers Association of America. The list included Player, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg.
The USGA eventually will have two museums, with Pinehurst joining its Golf Museum and Library in Far Hills, North Carolina.
“There’s no better connection to golf’s past, present and future than Pinehurst, and no organization that works harder than the USGA to preserve the history of this great game. We look forward to celebrating the greatest moments, and golf’s greatest athletes, by including the World Golf Hall of Fame as an important part of our new Pinehurst home,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, in a statement.
Whan vows the exhibits and artifacts sent to Pinehurst will be treated with respect and displayed with prominence.
“Simply put — it just makes sense, and together with the Hall of Fame, we’re more committed than ever to delivering experiences that build even deeper connections between golf fans and those that have truly led the way in this great game,” he said in his statement.
Merging with USGA praised
Former Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Jack Peter said the decision seems to be a best-case scenario.
“It’s probably better to be involved with the USGA in Pinehurst,” Peter said. “As much as I love the World Golf Village in Northeast Florida, Pinehurst is a worldwide recognized golf destination like Pebble Beach. I think the collaboration will probably serve the Museum very well.”
The USGA will be responsible for the day-to-day operations, management and artifact preservation related to the World Golf Hall of Fame displays. The Hall of Fame also will collaborate with the USGA on digital content and other visitor interactives.
The original World Golf Hall of Fame was operated by Pinehurst’s management company until 1983 when ownership was transferred to the PGA of America. It then moved in 1998 to its current facility in St. Augustine.
“The Hall of Fame has the utmost appreciation for the support it has received from the state of Florida — as well as the Northeast Florida community — over the past two-plus decades,” said McLaughlin in his statement. “While the Hall of Fame is looking forward to this exciting new opportunity at Golf House Pinehurst, we will reflect fondly on the memories created across nearly 25 years in St. Augustine.”
Golf boom fueled early years
The complex opened in 1998 at the peak of a golf boom sparked by a roaring economy and the emergence of Woods and other stars such as Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Ernie Els.
A vision of former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and seen to completion by his successor, Tim Finchem, the initial $80 million price tag was financed by a $40 million bond issuance and a matching contribution by Shell, which committed to $2 million per year over a 20-year period.
The World Golf Hall of Fame brought the LPGA Hall of Fame under its umbrella and also began enshrining members of other constituencies in golf: administrators, architects, agents, journalists, TV producers and two Presidents noted for their passion and support for the game, Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush.
Beman and Finchem eventually joined them.
The World Golf Village wasn’t all about golf. There were fireworks for the Fourth of July, performances of The Nutcracker during the holidays, car shows and the Murray Brothers annual Caddyshack charity tournament.
“It was really a vibrant place,” Peter said.
The World Golf Foundation also launched The First Tee, which is thriving. The initiative to make golf accessible and affordable for youth, and also provide academic and character development, is in its 25th year and has reached 3.4 million boys and girls at 150 chapters, programs at 10,000 schools and at 1,700 youth centers.
In exchange for the bond issuance, the PGA Tour provided $2 million per year in ad buys promoting Florida and First Coast tourism. The Tour and the World Golf Foundation committed to 300,000 visitors per year but according to the terms of a state statute, if the number dipped below that, the ad buy increased to $2.5 million.
“It was genius, really,” Peter said. “But we never touched 300,000.”
After Shell’s corporate commitment ended four years ago, the foundation was never able to secure that level of sponsorship.
The other major sports Halls of Fame — Baseball in Cooperstown, New York, Pro Football in Canton, Ohio, basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hockey in Toronto, report between 200,000 to 300,000 per year prior to the pandemic and all have said 2021 visitation and the current trend in 2022 are close to pre-COVID levels.
Peter believes there is still a market for a golf museum and hopes the collaboration with the USGA will work better than the World Golf Foundation going it alone.
“The key to any museum is innovation,” he said. “You have to continue to change what you present to people and how you present it. People love the stories of golf. It just needs to keep up with the times.”
Contact Garry Smits at [email protected]