The World Golf Hall of Fame is in its final days in St. Augustine before moving to Pinehurst

That World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum will be running for one more week in St. Augustine — after a quarter-century that included 16 induction ceremonies, 76 new members, special exhibits honoring the game’s greatest players, entertainers and U.S. presidents — plus the memories of as many as 280,000 visitors a year at its peak.

Therein lies the problem: attendance dropped to around 40,000 during the pandemic year 2020 and was around 60,000 in 2021 and 2022.

That wasn’t enough to financially sustain the facility, and some of its assets — and the brand — are being sent to Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina as part of the United States Golf Association’s new USGA Golf House Pinehurst, to open in late spring 2024.

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And it has been with a mixture of curiosity, sadness and regret that visitors roam the halls and exhibition rooms of the Hall of Fame in recent days.

“It was so much fun coming here,” said Melody Herbert of St. Augustine, who came to the Hall of Fame with her husband Hank and their granddaughters Camille and Audrey to escape the heat of a late summer afternoon. “I loved the putting green, and now that they’re old enough for it, it’s gone. I thought they’d made improvements after [the recession of 2008].”

The signature tower of the World Golf Hall of Fame.  The World Golf Village and Hall of Fame and Museum is gearing up for its annual Independence Day celebration on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the golf-themed complex in St.  Johns County. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

The signature tower of the World Golf Hall of Fame. The World Golf Village and Hall of Fame and Museum is gearing up for its annual Independence Day celebration on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the golf-themed complex in St. Johns County. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

Another set of visitors were the Reyes brothers Benny (and his wife Janie) and Arnold (and his wife Elizabeth) from Corpus Christi, Texas. Arnold Reyes’ son was a graduate of the US Customs and Border Patrol Field Operations Academy in Brunswick, and they took the opportunity to drive to St. Augustine when they read about the facility’s closure.

“It’s a bucket list item,” Benny Reyes said. “We’re just lucky we were able to get here before it closed. It’s a real shame. If you’re a golf fan, this is an incredible place.”

They are not alone in those feelings.

“We are saddened … the vision 25 years ago was incredible,” said Sarah S. Arnold, vice president of the St. Johns County Commissioner, who represents District 2, which includes World Golf Village. “Unfortunately times have changed.”

Among the visitors in the final days of the World Golf Hall of Fame in St.  Augustine were (from left), Benny Reyes, his wife Janie, his brother Arnold Reyes and his wife Elizabeth, all of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Among the visitors in the final days of the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine were (from left), Benny Reyes, his wife Janie, his brother Arnold Reyes and his wife Elizabeth, all of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Henry Dean, the District 5 commissioner who previously represented the district where World Golf Village is located, said the county has an option for the property’s future rather than dwelling on why the concept failed.

“I think all of us at the St. Johns County Commissioner and many citizens of the county are a little sad that the Hall of Fame is leaving,” he said. “It had become kind of a fixture, but it was never as successful as we hoped and what they had [the World Golf Foundation and PGA Tour] thought. We turn the page. We have a blank canvas and we have to decide what is best for the residents, what to do with the property. We see this as an opportunity to bring good things to the area.”

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Free entry last week

With a week to go, the facility is giving golf fans on the First Coast a parting gift.

Admission will be free to the Hall of Fame and Museum, plus the IMAX Theater, from August 28 to September 1 from 10 a.m. to 18.00 (no visitors will be admitted after 17.00). The theater will show a series of documentaries, with films and showtimes available at IMAX website.

All the golf artifacts and memorabilia still remain at the museum, such as the Hall of Fame Members Locker Room, the replica Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrewsplus bags, balls, clubs, clothing, trophies, trinkets and treasures that tell the stories of the game’s greatest players, administrators and course architects.

The Hall of Fame and Museum and the IMAX Theater are all departing at this time. Still in place will be St. Johns County Convention Center, Renaissance Hotel, vacation rentals, the two golf courses managed by Troon Golf (Slammer & armourer and King & Bear) and Caddyshack Restaurant.

Also remaining will be the bronze plaques honoring members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, which will currently remain in the second floor rotunda of the museum building.

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“It’s important to the community that there’s still some kind of identity to golf,” Arnold said.

Most museums have a hard time

The Hall of Fame and Museum, the brainchild of former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who was later one of its inductees, fell victim to dwindling attendance even before the pandemic, when most museums closed in 2020.

The challenges of keeping St. Augustine facility open was not unique: according to the American Alliance of Museums, the number of visitors to museums nationwide had still fallen by 38 percent in 2022 from pre-pandemic levels, and 17 percent of museum directors believed there was some risk of having to close.

When a 20-year sponsorship deal with Shell expired in 2018, it became harder and harder for the Hall of Fame to pay for itself.

But World Golf Foundation officials are quick to point out that The Hall of Fame only changes places.

In the spring of 2024, the United States Golf Association will open the new version of the Hall of Fame on its six-acre Golf House Pinehurst Campus. That means it will have come full circle — the inaugural Golf Hall of Fame, with the charter class chosen by the Golf Writers Association of America, opened at Pinehurst in 1974.

“It’s back to where it started,” Herbert said during his visit last week. “It makes good sense to move it there.”

A rendering of the World Golf Hall of Fame Members Locker Room at Pinehurst Resort.  It will open in late spring 2024.

A rendering of the World Golf Hall of Fame Members Locker Room at Pinehurst Resort. It will open in late spring 2024.

From now on, the World Golf Hall of Fame will be a joint operation between the USGA and the World Golf Foundation, which has moved to offices at The global home of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach.

The Foundation will manage the process of nominating and electing new members and planning and staging the induction ceremonies. The next ceremony will be the week of the US Open at Pinehurst next June, when Padraig Harrington, Tom Weiskopf and the 13 founding members of the LPGA will highlight the class of 2024.

“One time in the USGA will do [the Hall of Fame] day to day,” said Greg McLaughlin, the executive director of the World Golf Foundation. “The foundation will work with them on events and offer curatorial support.”

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What to do with the property?

The question now is what to do with a 64,000-square-foot Hall of Fame and Museum building, a 17,865-square-foot IMAX theater and 36 acres of land.

There will also be the problem at the beginning of 2025 after PGA Tour Entertainment is leaving its 32,000-square-foot building for a new structure in Ponte Vedra near Tour headquarters.

St. Johns County is in the midst of soliciting public opinion on the use of the property and buildings through a survey on the municipality’s website and two public meetings.

The meetings will be on September 27 at 17.30-19.30 and on 28 September at 9-11 in St. Johns County Administration Building Auditorium, 500 San Sebastian View in St. Augustine.

Arnold said the county has received more than 2,300 responses to the survey or via emails. She said many of the ideas center around the recreational use of the property, which has previously served that purpose through Easter egg hunts, holiday tree decorating, car shows and school field trips.

“I think people would very much like to see some kind of recreation,” she said. “A community asset that serves the entire demographic and the county as a whole. It’s important to have a strategic plan going forward.”

Michelle and John Morgan visit the World Golf Hall of Fame Members Locker Room in St.  Augustine after opening in 2013.

Michelle and John Morgan visit the World Golf Hall of Fame Members Locker Room in St. Augustine after opening in 2013.

Arnold largely ruled out additional residential construction, pointing to the number of single-family homes and condominiums on the site or that have been built around it over the past quarter-century.

“We have plenty [residential] there and don’t want to add to the traffic problems,” she said.

Dean said other ideas have included using part of the Hall of Fame building as another branch of the county library and renting kayaks and canoes for the lake.

“It could be a kind of town center, a multipurpose park, a place for kids and families to play,” he said. “But want our residents to think creatively. We listen.”

That "Retail ring" at World Golf Village has had difficulty sustaining commercial business.

The “retail ring” at World Golf Village has had difficulty sustaining commercial business.

Where will the assets go?

There is also the question of what to do with the museum’s assets beyond the cabinets and their contents.

Pinehurst accepts items such as Gene Sarazen’s 1922 PGA Championship and 1935 Masters Championship trophies; Jack Nicklaus’ MacGregor bag from his 1965 Masters victory; Johnny Miller’s club, ball and gold medal from the 1973 US Open at Oakmont (where he shot a record 63 in the final round); Seve Ballesteros’ wedge he used when he won the first of his five majors at the 1979 Open Championship; and the jersey worn by Annika Sorenstam when she became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event at the 2003 Colonia.

But there are about 7,500 other items that were loaned or donated to the Hall of Fame. McLaughlin said the offer was made to living Hall of Fame members and the families of the deceased to return some items, but other members have chosen to send the items elsewhere:

  • Two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange has asked that his donations be sent to his alma mater, Wake Forest.

  • Items belonging to Chick Evans will be sent to the Western Golf Association.

  • Augusta National accepts memorabilia associated with founder Clifford Roberts.

  • More than 3,000 books went to the USGA for the Southern Methodist Sports Management program.

“We’ve had no problem finding a home for most of the assets,” McLaughlin said. “Eventually, we hope to find a home for everything.”

The terrifying process begins in six days – after the last visitor leaves the structure.

That’s when an era in First Coast golf history ends in St. Augustine, followed by the Hall of Fame’s mulligan at Pinehurst.

This article originally appeared on the Florida Times-Union: The World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum in its final days in St. Augustine

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