Never Too Young for Golfs Hall of Fame

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World Golf Hall of FameST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Nick Faldo was 40 when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, two years removed from winning his third green jacket at Augusta National. It was a humbling experience, even for Faldo, to be included among the greatest in golf.
 
'Now that I'm in the Hall of Fame, I need to play like it,' he said that afternoon in May 1998.
 
It was too late for that.
 
Faldo never won again. He never seriously contended in another major.
 
And that's OK.
 
Most athletes in a Hall of Fame are not even supposed to play again. Baseball, for example, requires its players to be retired for five years before they get put on the ballot. And that's why Monday night's induction ceremony at the World Golf Village again raised the question that has proven difficult to answer.
 
When is the right time to honor someone's career in a timeless sport such as golf?
 
This year's class ranged from Karrie Webb, whose first professional victory was the Women's British Open in 1995, to Willie Park Sr., who won the first British Open in 1860.
 
For those who believe athletes should be retired, if not in the gloaming of their careers, it must have been odd to see Webb, at age 30, becoming the youngest golfer inducted since the shrine moved to St. Augustine in 1998.
 
Then again, maybe the shock value had worn off from when Annika Sorenstam was inducted two years ago at age 33. And just wait -- barring a career-ending injury, Se Ri Pak will be 30 when she is eligible for induction in 2007.
 
Webb certainly has the credentials.
 
She made it through LPGA qualifying school on her first try, despite playing with a broken bone in her wrist. As a rookie, she won four times and became the first woman to earn more than $1 million in one season. Webb won the career Grand Slam quicker than anyone, male or female, capturing all four majors in a span of seven starts.
 
It's her birth certificate that makes the World Golf Hall of Fame unlike any other.
 
Webb felt a little out of place at a dinner Sunday night in a room full of Hall of Famers, such as Carol Mann and Tony Jacklin and Joanne Carner.
 
'I was just like, 'What am I doing here?' she said. 'I still don't really feel like I should be among these great players. I think that will always take a long time to sink in for me.'
 
But don't mistake that for an apology. And don't get the idea Webb would have rather waited until she was at least 40, the age minimum for the PGA Tour ballot.
 
Nor should she have waited.
 
There is no proper time to induct golfers into the Hall of Fame, so why not put them in when they've earned it? The Hall of Fame should be about performance, not age, and that's one area in which the LPGA Tour does it right.
 
The PGA Tour and International ballots are tied to minimal standards (10 victories for the PGA Tour ballot), but require their candidates to be at least 40. Players originally had to receive 75 percent of the vote until that was watered down to 65 percent, and further diluted with a loophole that takes the highest vote-getter on at least 50 percent of the ballots if no one otherwise would get in.
 
Ultimately, there is some element of popularity involved.
 
How else to explain Ben Crenshaw getting elected in 2002, while Curtis Strange still waits? Their careers were similar -- two Masters for Crenshaw, back-to-back U.S. Opens for Strange -- although Crenshaw never won a money title, player of the year, and never was considered the dominant player of his era.
 
For the LPGA Tour, it's all about winning.
 
Players now must earn 27 points -- one for each victory and major award, two for a major. There are no exceptions among active players. Laura Davies is stuck on 25 points. Meg Mallon has 22 points. Both have work left.
 
The only stipulation is they play 10 years on the LPGA Tour.
 
But age was never an issue.
 
'You get points and have to be consistent and play on top for many years,' Sorenstam said last week. 'If it is based on playing performance, it shouldn't matter what age.'
 
Sure, it seems strange that Webb fought back tears during her induction Monday night, and will be playing in the season-ending ADT Championship on Thursday at Trump International.
 
Then again, Sorenstam has won 17 times and three majors since her induction. The last male to win at the highest level as a Hall of Famer was Hale Irwin, who was inducted in 1992 and won the MCI Heritage two years later.
 
For golf, there's nothing wrong with Hall of Famers still in their prime. Webb regularly competed against Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster and Pat Bradley. Paula Creamer, the 19-year-old rookie, had two Hall of Famers as partners (Daniel and Inkster) as partners in her first Solheim Cup.
 
'It's fun to play some of your career as a Hall of Famer,' Webb said. 'I've loved playing with and getting to know some of the Hall of Fame members. I will always look at these players as though I can't believe my name is among them. Maybe it's harder to accept than if I were 45.'
 
Instead of asking whether 30 is too young to get into the World Golf Hall of Fame, perhaps the question is why Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods should have to wait until they're 40.
 
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