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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Florida's new golf shrine swings into action

The World Golf Hall of Fame, opened two years ago, is just
a chip shot away fom the busiest interstate highway in America.

Wednesday, March 22, 2000
MICHAEL SCHUMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail

Saint Augustine, Fla. -- The experience on the 18th green would have been embarrassing if it wasn't so much fun. A man stood on the green with putter in hand. His opponent was his eight-year-old daughter, who waited to the side. An entire match had come down to this last hole. Announcer Bonnie Bailey called the action. The two golfers saw themselves on television monitors, and crowd noise could be heard in the background. The man putted. Bailey broadcasted. "The ball is curving to the right and it will land about two inches from the hole." A chorus of sighs welled up. The girl putted. Bailey intoned, "It's looking good." She paused, then cried out, "It's in!" A burst of applause filled the air.

Bailey called the winner to the side as the runner-up stepped off the green. "Did you feel confident?" she asked the young player. "Who do you want to say hi to back home?" Brief answers were supplied by the shy victor. The audience consisted of perhaps a dozen people, many of whom seemed more interested in having their golf swing analyzed or comparing the world's great golf courses than watching that mismatch.

For the match was, in the words of the eight-year-old winner, "just pretend." In fact, the 18th hole in question is the only one on the course, and the course itself is indoors -- one of the numerous exhibits at the World Golf Hall of Fame, opened in 1998 outside of Saint Augustine, Fla.

And Bonnie Bailey? She's one of the museum interpreters, not a professional announcer -- although she does play one at the museum. What does golf have to do with this city, the oldest settlement in the United States? Not much, except that there are oodles of golf courses in northeast Florida.

The locale is convenient, though, since the PGA Tour headquarters are in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach. It also doesn't hurt that the hall is located within eyeshot of the millions of cars annually cruising Interstate 95 en route to the recreation of Florida's Atlantic coast beaches and theme parks. In terms of location, the hall is roughly 640 kilometres and a billion light years from historic but remote Pinehurst, N.C., where the previous incarnation of the golf hall of fame drew a meager 25,000 visitors annually.

And while the Pinehurst hall was mainly an arm of the PGA (Professional Golfers Association), this new one is all-inclusive, a partnership of the PGA, the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association), the USGA (United States Golf Association) and just about every other important golfers' group.

What's more, the hall of fame is just one component of World Golf Village, a complex devoted to all things golf. There are 7,200 square metres of shops (including the 2,790-square-metre anchor store, the PGA Tour Stop), condominiums, a resort hotel, the home of PGA tour productions, a golf library and resource centre. And, of course, there are courses, including a putting course and the first of three planned golf courses.

But to most visitors, it is the hall of fame that is the big draw, just a chip shot off exit 95A of the busiest interstate highway in America. In a creative touch, the planners have labeled the 18 galleries "holes," with a front nine and a back nine. The front nine cover golf history, the back nine the modern era.

That eight-year-old champion putter did her putting at Hole 17, titled "The World Golf Hall of Fame Open." Fans of the game who would rather show their knowledge than their physical prowess (or lack of) should stop at Hole 15, "Rules of the Game." Here it's not man against course, but man against computer. Answer a question correctly, and the digitalized golfer on the screen drives his ball right onto the green. Answer a follow-up correctly and he sinks the putt. Answer incorrectly and the first ball hits a sand trap.

Then again, there is no reason to assume the digital golfer is a man. Unlike halls of fame for professional team sports, this one honours women, several of whom are among the many golfers personalized with offbeat mementos in the enshrinees' belongings gallery.

There is, for example, the cowbell that Pat Bradley's mother rang to alert neighbours every time her daughter won a tournament. And the football on view was not owned by Jack Nicklaus: Patty Berg's signature graces it. As a child, Berg played in a boys' football league; tired of seeing her daughter bumped and bruised, her mother steered Berg toward golf.

Indeed, even Mary Queen of Scots was known to swing a club in her day. The roots of the game of golf as we know it are in Scotland. Bagpipe music plays in the background of Hole 1 and Hole 2, which interpret golf's Neanderthal days. Balls shaped like eggs and others the size of softballs date from the time when the game was called "kolf."

The weirdest club on view might be the track iron, crafted out of necessity during the days when golf courses were not sacrosanct turf. Scottish wagons delivering fish and other goods commonly traversed existing courses, making ruts in the sod. The track iron was made specifically to whack balls out of wagon ruts.

At Hole 2 is a life-sized replica of the famous (to golfers' anyway) Swilcan Burn Bridge on the 18th hole of the Old Course in St. Andrews. Thanks to Acoustiguides offered to visitors at no extra charge, one can hear Arnold Palmer discuss his feelings when he crossed the stone bridge for the last time during the British Open in 1995 ("Everything was so emotional").

As with the back nine, there is a putting green on the front nine. But this one dates to the days when the Statue of Liberty was brand new and Grover Cleveland was in the White House. Visitors use an 1880s hickory-shafted putter on a replica of a Victorian-era green, on which the turf is thicker than turf today.

The game's 76 greats so far inducted into the hall are immortalized not by plaques or portraits, but by circular crystal plates, with the players' portraits etched in the glass. The crystal discs rest on pedestals, while nearby interactive databases flesh out the famous names with comments and video highlights of each inductee.

One unique exhibit here houses a replica of a makeshift club never used by a professional golfer. Astronaut Alan Shephard used it to drive a ball 1,500 yards. The setting was an improvisational golf course on the moon. Which means that golfers can rightly claim that theirs is a pastime that goes beyond the bounds of earth. What other sport can claim that?

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, New Hampshire.

IF YOU GO

Admission. The World Golf Hall of Fame is open year round, daily 10-6, except for Christmas Day and U.S. Thanksgiving afternoon. Admission is $10 (amounts in U.S. dollars) adults; $8 students and ages 50 or over; $5 ages 5-12. An IMAX theatre on the grounds shows such films as Everest, Grand Canyon and Africa's Elephant Kingdom until March, 2001, when one about golf made expressly for the museum is scheduled to be finished. There is an extra charge for the IMAX theatre.

Outdoor putting course and other info. $5 adults, $2 under age 12. Also on the grounds is a 132-yard challenge hole. Anyone sinking a hole in one wins 50,000 free sky miles from Delta Airlines. Greens fees for the par 72, 6,940-yard course (designed by golf course architect Bobby Weed with input from player consultants Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen), including cart, range from $90-$165 depending on the time of year. Construction has begun on the second course, to be completed by this fall. Information: World Golf Village, 21 World Golf Pl., St. Augustine, Fla., 32092; (904) 940-4000; Web site: www. wgv. com.

Lodging. World Golf Village Renaissance Resort, 500 Legacy Trail South (on World Golf Village grounds), (904) 940-8000, all rooms: $109-$229, golf packages available.

Vistana Vacation Villas, 100 Front Nine Dr. (time-share property which also rents nightly, on World Golf Village Grounds), (904) 940-2000, nightly rate $79, subject to considerable change based on availability.

Comfort Suites at St. John's, 475 Commerce Lake Dr., St. Augustine, (904) 940-5000, doubles at $59-$109.

Super 8, 2550 State Route 16, St. Augustine (about 10 minutes from the hall of fame), (904) 829-5686, doubles at $42-$49.

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