Couples' HOF election raises issues

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ATLANTA -- The World Golf Hall of Fame had an easy out. The shrine to the history of the game based in St. Augustine, Fla., could have simply had a ceremony next spring in which it inducted no player off the PGA Tour ballot. Celebrate the international players who make it, or a veteran honoree.

But because there is language that stipulates if no player receives at least 65 percent of the vote, the Hall will take someone who has at least 50 percent, Fred Couples is headed to the Hall next spring.

And in the process, Hall voters look silly.

The popular, sweet-swinging Couples is going in because, frankly, the voters could agree on nobody else. His career numbers are certainly debatable for Hall candidacy, and it's possible he might have made it down the road.

But now?

Couples, 52, won 15 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1992 Masters, and the Players Championship in 1984 and 1996. He played on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams, four Presidents Cup teams and next year will captain the U.S. Presidents Cup team for the third time. Next week, he will assist U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love III.

Love, of course, is not in the Hall of Fame, although he has 20 PGA Tour titles, including a PGA Championship and two Players. He's played on six U.S. Ryder Cup teams. So basically Love has five more wins than Couples, but is not in the Hall?

Or consider Mark O'Meara, who also didn't make it. He's got one more victory than Couples, but two majors -- the 1998 Masters and Open Championship -- along with numerous Ryder Cup appearances and a U.S. Amateur title.

This is in no way meant to knock Couples, who might have won far more than 15 times were it not for back problems that began at the height of his career. The way he still performs today when healthy is testament to his immense talents. Being a fan favorite and a well-liked player certainly doesn't hurt his inclusion, which was announced by commissioner Tim Finchem at the Tour Championship.

And that's the problem. You wonder about the makeup of the voting body that tends to skew its selections toward popularity and modern players and doesn't take the time to consider history.

Full disclosure: As a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, I have a vote. Although I voted for Phil Mickelson last year, I typically wait for a player to turn 50 before placing him on my ballot. (Many players remain quite competitive to that point; Ernie Els won the Open Championship in July a year AFTER going into the Hall.) Hence, Love did not get a vote from me, either, as he doesn't turn 50 for two more years.

But the voting body is made up of far more than media people. The World Golf Hall of Fame does not release the names of voters, saying only that golf media, historians and golf dignitaries (read: sponsors) get a ballot. No breakdown is given, only a percentage.

Because nobody received more than 65 percent of the votes on those ballots returned, the Hall will put in someone who has at least 50 percent -- which is a way to make sure somebody is at the ceremony next May. (For baseball, a minimum of 75 percent of the vote is required.)

The highest vote-getters after Couples were Ken Venturi, Love, O'Meara, Tony Lema and Macdonald Smith.

Smith remains a personal head-scratcher. He gets my vote every year. A Scotsman who emigrated to the United States, both of his brothers won U.S. Opens. In fact, Macdonald Smith lost a playoff for the 1910 U.S. Open title to brother Alex, who also defeated John McDermott.

Macdonald Smith never won a major championship, which might be reason for argument. But he won 24 times during the early days of what is now the PGA Tour and had 17 top-10s in the majors. Three of his victories were at the Western Open in 1912, 1925 and 1933 at a time prior to the Masters and when it was considered on par with majors.

Smith is not in the Hall, nor is Venturi, who not only won a major championship but built a second career as one of the game's most famous broadcasters. But Venturi has been off the air for years, and you wonder if people have forgotten or don't do their homework.

Payne Stewart and Larry Nelson have fewer victories than Couples and are in the Hall, but both won three major championships.

"I guess I won a popularity vote here,'' Couples joked during a conference call. "I have over 30 junior tournament wins in Seattle, Wash., which may have put me over the top here to be in the Hall of Fame. .. For everyone who votes for this thing, I'd like to say I fooled you.''

Couples said he's never considered himself a great player, but a great competitor, and he's certainly good fodder for bar room debate.

And if nothing else, he's unwittingly brought awareness to a less-than-transparent process.