Ceremony special even without Vijay

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Going in, the induction ceremony at the World Golf Hall of Fame cowered in the shadow cast by the absence of Vijay Singh. The big Fijian -- an unquestioned Hall of Famer -- slipped into the institution on a technicality. When Singh failed to be named on the required 65 percent of the ballots last spring, he gained entrance through a rule that says if no one gets 65 percent, the highest vote getter -- providing he is named on more than half the ballots -- is elected. And thus it was that Singh became a Hall of Famer with just 56 percent of the vote.

But what was proved Monday night in St. Augustine, Fla., was that Singh was not needed. The World Golf Hall of Fame has gained such acceptance that it no longer needs to worry about accommodating the ungrateful.

When Singh was informed of the date of the induction ceremony, he politely asked the Hall of Fame to delay his induction a year, saying it conflicted with a previously scheduled overseas event. What that translate to is that Vijay had a near seven-figure appearance fee waiting for him in Asia. What's ironic is that Singh gained entrance to the Hall with barely more than half the votes because the powers that be felt a big-name, active PGA Tour player is needed to get the attention of the fans. What this year's induction proved is how wrong that notion is.

While Singh was cashing a check on the west side of the Pacific Ocean, five highly deserving individuals were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. By the end of the evening, Singh's absence was a mere afterthought. The architect, Alister Mackenzie; the winner of the first British Open, Willie Park Sr.; and the first, and perhaps greatest, golf writer, Bernard Darwin, being long dead were not on hand but they were ably represented by Ben Crenshaw, Tony Jacklin and golf writer John Hopkins, respectively. And the two players who were there -- Karrie Webb and Ayako Okamoto -- gave moving, heartfelt speeches that stole the show. Hopefully, what the World Golf Hall of Fame learned is that there's no need to slip a Singh in through the side door when there are players the quality of Webb and Okamoto being inducted.

If there was a low point in the evening it came early on when Crenshaw, a Hall of Famer and an architect who was accepting for Mackenzie, designer of Augusta National, delivered a rambling speech in search of a theme. His talk, if it had been a player, would have been put on the clock and given a slow-play warning. It meandered aimlessly and set an ominous tone for the evening. Fortunately, after an opening double bogey, the ceremony ran off a string of birdies that culminated with Webb's poignant and tearful words, recalling how her first memory of the game was playing with a plastic club at the age of 4, and being hauled around the course by her now-deceased grandfather, Mick, on his pull cart when she grew too tired to walk.

Webb, the only LPGA player to pull of the Super Slam -- winning all five of the major championships available to her -- said: "I dreamed of being a professional golfer since I was 11," and then, after breaking down in acknowledging the support of her parents and two sisters -- who were present -- added: "I still feel like that little girl with big dreams from a place called Ayr."

The talented Australian, who most likely has a lot of victories still in her, clearly demonstrated that the women's game has grown to the point where the Hall of Fame no longer needs to worry about accommodating the men in order to provide a gate attraction. Anyone who heard Webb's words will tune in next year. She was one of the most articulate advertisements the Hall -- which is still trying to emerge as the Cooperstown of the game -- could have asked for.

The induction of Okamoto could not have come at a better time. The LPGA is perhaps the most international of all sporting organizations, and the 17-time tour winner from Japan was the first of its international stars. Introduced by fellow Hall of Famer, Beth Daniel, Okamoto brought down the house by saying the firey American "taught me many words in English that cannot be found in language books." Okamoto, who still has rock star-like adoration in Japan, said her mission now is to use golf "to give back to those in need."

If there is a message that emerged from this year's Hall of Fame induction, it had two points. First off, no concessions ever need be made to the likes of Singh again. The ceremony did just fine without him. Secondly, the male players need to embrace the ceremony with the same passion shown by the women. While Hall of Famers Judy Bell, Kathy Whitworth, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Juli Inkster, Carol Mann, Marlene Streit and Danel were on hand to welcome Webb and Okamoto to their club, only Crenshaw, Jacklin and Charlie Sifford were present to represent the men in the Hall of Fame. If this institution is to climb to the next level of acceptance, the players who have been elected to it need to be more demonstrative about what it means to them.

One problem the World Golf Hall of Fame ceremony presently has is that the the induction now falls when the men are busy traveling the world in pursuit of Silly Season money. Perhaps the attendance would be better if the induction was moved to the spring -- around the Players Championship at nearby Sawgrass would be good. But overall what is needed is for the players to have the same sense of importance in the institution that organizers want the fans to have.

On Sunday night, at the legends dinner, Sifford, who last year became the first African-American inducted into the Hall, said whimsically: "I'm still waiting for my check from Tiger Woods. I know that he owes me."

Well put, Charlie. All those players currently making millions owe you, just as they owe Mackenzie, Park and Darwin. More of them should have been on hand Monday night to welcome Webb and Okamoto into the World Golf Hall of Fame. It's called giving back to the game.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine