John Huggan: Credit where it’s (over) due

TOMORROW evening, five men will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida.

Colin Montgomerie will be inducted into the Hall of Fame tomorrow. Picture: Getty

And, in something of a turn-up for a supposedly global institution that illogically and insularly insists on incorporating an “international” section within its US-centric walls, three of the five are Scots – the late Willie Park junior, Ken Schofield and Colin Montgomerie – each one representing varying aspects of the game our nation gave to the world.

There remain obvious doubts about the validity and neutrality of the voting/election process – the insidious and supposedly overwhelming influence of various individuals and organisations, not least PGA Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem, does the place no credit. But 6 May is still a big day for wee Caledonia.

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Of the three Scots (former Masters winner Fred Couples and the 1964 US Open champion, Ken Venturi make up the quintet being honoured), Park has the most obviously impressive credentials. Indeed, it is something of an outrage that the Musselburgh man is not already in the hall. Twice Open champion, Park built a successful club-making business, was an acclaimed writer on the game (The Game of Golf and The Art of Putting) and designed the enduringly magnificent Old Course at Sunningdale and the Maidstone Club on Long Island. Many of those previously enshrined – the likes of Chi Chi Rodriguez, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and former US president George Bush (the first one) spring immediately to mind – do not have anything like the same golfing resume.

Schofield’s election stems, of course, from his three decades in charge of what was then a burgeoning European Tour. Admittedly, armed with Seve Ballesteros and the other four members of the so-called “Big Five” – Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle – the former TSB bank manager (he was the youngest in Scotland at the time) built a highly successful multi-national business that endures even in these economically challenged times.

Schofield was more than lucky, however. Most notably, his forward thinking (eventually) advanced the cause of his members on the game’s biggest stages. Having seen how those one step down from superstar level – the likes of Howard Clark, Ken Brown, Sam Torrance and Mark James – were frustratingly all but excluded from the three American majors, he fought to change the xenophobic exemption policies employed by the Masters, US Open and US PGA.

Had Schofield come along 15 years earlier, it is far from outlandish to argue that at least one of the four players named above could and would have popped up and won a major title in the US. (Go back two more decades and the same can be said of Christy O’Connor senior, Neil Coles and Peter Alliss). It is, after all, hard to imagine Americans Bob Tway, Andy North, Larry Mize and Jeff Sluman – major champions all – were better players than Clark, Brown, Torrance and James. Many might say they were inferior. It was former Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said “history is written by the victors”. Swap “those biased Americans writing the rules” for “the victors” and nowhere is that more true than in major championship golf.

“Back in 1987, I remember boarding a plane to Atlanta at Heathrow,” says Schofield. “Nick Faldo was on the same flight. But, when we arrived, he went on to Hattiesburg in Mississippi as I journeyed on to Augusta. He hadn’t qualified for a Masters invitation. That only underlined for me the fact that we, as a tour, should be pushing for our best players to be exempt into the American majors – even if we had our own tournament on that week. There were bigger and wider benefits to the tour if our members could go over there and win”

He was true to his word, too. Back in 1980, when Ballesteros won for the first of two times, the Spaniard was one of only four old world representatives in the Masters. And one of those, Peter McEvoy, was an amateur. This year 28 Europeans teed up at Augusta. For that startling transformation alone, Schofield deserves at least consideration for the Hall of Fame.

If there is a debate to be had over a mere administrator’s induction, however, the same has certainly been true of the youngest Scot entering the hall this year.

Especially on the other side of the Atlantic, Montgomerie’s election has been controversial indeed.

The most cynical (and those more inclined to conspiracy theories) immediately pointed to the proximity of Monty’s 50th birthday on 23 June as the most likely reason for his imminent elevation. Citing the undoubted power and influence wielded by those representing him off the course, International Management Group, it has been widely suggested that this whole thing has more to do with providing Monty with automatic exemption into the over-50 Champions Tour than anything else. Without hall of fame status, any non-major and PGA Tour winner would be forced to attend the year-end qualifying school. Surely not quite what the eight-times European No.1 had in mind early in his sixth decade.

Slightly less pointedly, others have voiced concern that anyone who has failed to win at the very highest level is not deserving of the tribute coming Monty’s way tomorrow evening. But that has no legitimacy here, as the presence of so many less-gifted hall members shows only too clearly. Which is not to say that even his biggest fans must acknowledge the obvious holes in the Montgomerie CV.

Monty’s lack of a major title, albeit his career is littered with near misses in that respect, is a tough argument to counter. While not every major champion has been a great player, every truly great player has won a major championship. At least by that harshly black-and-white definition – and rated against the true genius – Monty is not and never was a “great” player.

But, again, that is no basis for exclusion from the hall. Given that we have reached the stage where almost every obviously deserving candidate is already in – although the continuing omission of former US Open and PGA champion David Graham remains perplexing – Monty is clearly good enough to be stuffed and mounted.

His portfolio of eight Order of Merit wins, 31 European Tour victories and an unbeaten Ryder Cup record in eight singles matches makes him at least a strong candidate.

For all that, after even the briefest study of Monty’s overall impressive career it is hard not to utter, “what if?” Had he – instead of lazily hoovering up appearance fees in Europe – gone to play the PGA Tour full-time in the mid-90s (just before the arrival of Tiger Woods) he would surely have won many tournaments and, in all probability, topped the money-list at least once, such was the amazing consistency of his scoring. Certainly, only a select few have ever matched his ability to hit approach shots exactly pin-high. Back then, anything lower than third place represented a bad week for him.

Anyway, the debates are long over and our men will, like it or not, take their places among the Gods of the game. In the face of such obvious bias and prejudice, that at least is something to be proud of.