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By Joel Beall
CARMEL, Calif. — Words like “vision” and “perseverance” often are used in golf, describing a gritty round or bounce-back effort from a slump. And book it, those words will be used to describe this week’s U.S. Open winner in some fashion. While true to varying degrees, those words are personified by the five newest members to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Retief Goosen, Billy Payne, Jan Stephenson, Peggy Kirk Bell and Dennis Walters were enshrined Monday night in a ceremony at Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Though all blessed with talents in their respective roles, it was those tenets of fortitude and creativity that spurred them to greatness.
With more than 30 fellow Hall of Famers on hand, the inductees spoke of the influences that brought them to this honour.
Payne, who earned his place via the Lifetime Achievement category, is best known as the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. In his position, Payne was the first to admit female members to the club, in 2012, and oversaw upgrades to the press building, practice and patron facilities and Berckmans Place. Innovation that strengthened the brands of the club and the Masters.
Payne, who helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta in 1996, also led efforts to grow the game with the Drive, Chip and Putt National Championship, Asia-Pacific Amateur and Latin America Amateur initiatives. But Payne deferred the spotlight, putting it back on the club he loves so dear.
“I know I am the outlier,” Payne said. “Let’s be clear: it’s Augusta National Golf Club being honoured tonight.”
As for his motivation? His wife, Martha, who Payne attributed all his successes and triumphs. “Without her, none of this is possible.”
Goosen is famous for his two U.S. Open victories, but that hardly encapsulates his career. He won 33 times around the world and was consistently a competitor at the sport’s biggest stages with 16 top-10s at major championships. The 50-year-old made five Presidents Cup teams in his career and represented South Africa five times at the World Cup.
All accomplished after surviving a lightning strike when he was 15.
“You don’t know where you’re going to wake up when that happens,” Goosen said of the near-death experience. “Three weeks later, I was back on the golf course, and here we are.” Then adding some levity to the moment, Goosen joked, “I think the lightning really struck something in me, I started to play some real good golf.”
Stephenson won three majors and 41 worldwide wins. But her legacy was built outside the ropes just as much as it was in.
She was the key figure (literally and figuratively) in an LPGA marketing campaign the leaned on players’ looks. Though her embracement of this tactic was somewhat controversial and drew detractors, Stephenson was a primary reason the tour was able to gain new and financially-sound sponsors.
“To now be counted with fellow LPGA friends who are World Golf Hall of Fame members is both an honor and very humbling,” Stephenson said.
Kirk Bell, who died in 2016, was one of the pioneers of the women’s game, helping form the first professional tour with Babe Zaharias and others. She won the Titleholders Championship (once considered a major) and the North and South Women’s Amateur, and represented the U.S. in the 1950 Curtis Cup. With her husband Warren (Bullet) Bell, the two purchased and ran Pine Needles until Bullet’s death in 1984. She was the winner of the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 1990 and an inductee into seven halls of fame, but it was as a teacher that she made her greatest contribution.
After starting one of the country’s first golf schools at Pine Needles, she began running five-day group lessons she called “Golfaris” for women to learn the game. More than 20,000 women went through the program.
Walters, a recent recipient of the USGA’s Bob Jones Award, said he was overwhelmed when receiving his induction news from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. “I can’t walk, but when I got the call, I felt like I could fly,” Walters said.
Walters was an elite amateur when he was paralyzed in a car accident at 24. Resolute in continuing his relationship with the sport, Walters had a customized wheelchair built to accommodate his love of the game.
He began to host clinics, starting with the 1977 PGA Merchandise Show, built around performance (Walters mastered a number of trick shots) and inspiration, telling his story of perseverance and chasing his dream. He has appeared in over 3,000 golf clinics, including a number of television shows. Walters is just one of 11 honorary lifetime members of the PGA of America.
“Ben Hogan watched me hit golf balls, Sam Snead told me dirty jokes, and Byron Nelson was once standing so close I had to tell him to back off,” Walters joked.
And though he was the first speaker of the night, his words proved an apt summary of the night’s theme.
“Never let anyone tell you your dream is impossible,” Walters said.