Build it and they might not come

The World Golf Hall of Fame's St. Augustine, Florida, site is set to close on Sept. 2 after 25 years and will reopen in a markedly downsized Pinehurst location in spring 2024

World Golf Hall of Fame
The World Golf Hall of Fame moved from Pinehurst, North Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1998.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida — On a recent late August weekday, traffic departed the Interstate 95 raceway and sat on the exit ramp and bridge of this bustling northeast Florida community. Signs indicated they were on International Golf Parkway, adjacent to the World Golf Village, World Golf Hall of Fame, Slammer & Squire and King & Bear golf courses and Murray Bros. Caddyshack Restaurant at an exit 20 miles south of Jacksonville.

Yet, this vision, established 25 years ago by the PGA Tour, of a golf haven just south of Jacksonville and two hours from Disney was just a partial mirage by 2023. The passengers in these cars were likely more anxious for the offerings on the southside of International Golf Parkway — a Buc-ee’s mega gas station and convenience store, a Costco’s warehouse and a Bass Pro Shops that is scheduled to open in 2024.

Across the street, to the north of this roaring growth, the World Golf Village offers a perfect backdrop for golf. There is quiet and little to interrupt a round. Few cars outside of residents, workers or Slammer & Squire golfers drive in on a 1.4-mile-long winding road off of the main road. At road’s end, the circular retail development surrounding a lake, the Hall of Fame and an IMAX theater has been dotted with vacancies for more than a decade since a large Tour Stop golf retail store closed in late 2013 and now houses a church. A vacation vendor, dance studio, spa, karate school and wedding venue occupy the spaces adjacent to the church and restaurant. The last Hall of Fame induction ceremony on site was held 10 years ago, with the event moving around the world and up the road at PGA Tour headquarters when marquee star Tiger Woods was inducted in 2022.

World Golf Hall of Fame
Officials for the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, hoped to attract more than 1 million visitors annually, but only reached a peak of 280,000.

Things are changing here and it’s no surprise to anyone — actually, more of a relief and a new opportunity. The Hall of Fame and IMAX are scheduled to close on Saturday, September 2, with the Hall bound for a return to Pinehurst, North Carolina, and the USGA’s new Golf House Pinehurst at the entrance to Pinehurst Resort. The USGA Experience and Hall of Fame building is slated to be completed by next spring, in time for an induction ceremony and prior to the U.S. Open in June on Course No. 2.

The move has area residents inquisitive about what becomes of the property. The Murray Bros. Caddyshack Restaurant has signs posted on its front and back doors stating, “We are not closing.” The rest of the place, on a quick walk-around, is devoid of foot traffic or activities that would attract visitors. Other adjacent businesses claim they will remain open.

St. Johns County officials are asking for community input for what the future holds, ranging from office or library space to a hoped-for green space usage that differs from the high-traffic area across the way. Movie buffs have voiced their desire to retain the IMAX, the second-largest screen in Florida. The quickly growing county owns the Hall of Fame and IMAX buildings and is the regulatory agency for future land use at the currently occupied PGA Tour Entertainment office and the 36 acres where the buildings, parking lots, roadway and retail circle sit. PGA Tour Entertainment, the television wing of the PGA Tour, will move to Ponte Vedra Beach at the end of 2024 with a new building adjacent to the expansive and shiny Tour headquarters.

“It would have been great to continue having this type of facility near the home of the PGA Tour and the honor of having a Hall of Fame in our back yard,” says Christian Whitehurst, the chair of the St. Johns County Commission. “Most of all, I am disappointed for our residents.”

“The Hall of Fame was an attractive thing to promote. But that’s the sign of the times,” says David Reese, the president of Florida’s First Coast of Golf, a travel marketing agency for the Jacksonville region. “Were we stronger with the Hall of Fame? Absolutely. But the outlook for next year looks quite strong for golf tourism in northeast Florida.”

The most stable business, Murray Bros. Caddyshack Restaurant, is hopeful after hearing the rumor mill for much of its 22 years on site.

“For quite some time, the Hall of Fame wasn’t much of a destination and that’s sad,” says Mac Haskell, the co-founder and CEO of Murray Brothers Caddyshack alongside Andy Murray, the third youngest of six brothers, led by actor Bill Murray. “Truthfully, it hasn’t affected us in one way or the other. For at least the last 10 years, most of our customers weren’t there to visit the Hall of Fame.

“This kind of news has happened to us every two to three years. We’re not going anywhere. I’m a fairly optimistic guy. So, I think it’s finally a great opportunity for the World Golf Village.”

Murray Bros. Caddyshack
Despite the World Golf Hall of Fame's closing on Sept. 2, the Murray Bros. Caddyshack Restaurant will remain open in the complex.

The original Hall of Fame opened in Pinehurst to great fanfare in September 1974 as 13 golfers in the first class were inducted with U.S. President and golf enthusiast Gerald Ford in attendance. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Patty Berg were on hand at a standalone, 25,000 square-foot facility that cost Diamondhead Corporation $2.5 million to build just behind the fourth green on Course No. 2. The PGA of America took over in 1983 and by late 1993 there was scant attendance. The Hall building was showing its age with lighting and leaking issues.

Pat Corso, then the president and CEO of Pinehurst Resort, dismissed the pending move to Florida in 1993 for “a theme parky, mass audience attraction” and “What is going to be down there in the swampland?” according to North Carolina media reports. He also bad-mouthed the PGA of America for being “stagnant.” The original building near the traffic circle in the middle of Pinehurst never resonated with locals or tourists and was eventually leveled in a spot close to where No. 2’s fifth tee now stands and just 2 miles from the forthcoming Hall location.

Similarly, there was great hope in St. Augustine in 1998, mainly because the attraction was being built in the same county as the PGA Tour headquarters and within shouting distance of I-95. There were ample corporate partners, such as founding partner Shell Oil Company and all the globel golf organizations — European Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour, Masters, R&A and USGA. A sales tax rebate provided $2 million annually that enabled the operation to secure a 25-year bond offering with the state of Florida that raised around $25 million. A corporate bond deal with Shell helped with its blanket sponsorship. Shell ended its relationship in 2018 when the 20-year bond expired.

“I wanted to build an asset for golf, not another liability for us to feed,” former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman told Golfweek in 2014.

Those involved with the World Golf Village complex 25 years ago point to the fact that entry and exit roads from the interstate didn’t go directly into the proposed centerpiece. Tour and affiliated World Golf Foundation officials believed they would draw 1 million visitors annually, but actual attendance figures fell well short. There was a peak of 280,000 annual attendees early on and the figure dropped into the 50,000 range the last few years, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Real estate interests prevailed as the winding World Golf Village Boulevard and Legacy Trail were laid out. Local outdoor holiday events and concerts once thrived on the lawns around the Hall but went away over the years. As neighborhoods were sold out, according to a source, the profitability that was moving back to the Tour and World Golf Foundation slowed considerably and their interest waned.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sent up a red flag in 2020 during the Players Championship when he said: “... with the world changing and the world, the way people consume media, consume content, we want to make certain that we come out the back end of this that we've done everything we can to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of everybody that's in that Hall of Fame ...”

Outdoor, interactive features were in place. A lighted 18-hole natural grass putting course, with an annual putting contest, was abandoned years ago and is overgrown. The challenge hole, a replica of TPC Sawgrass’ 17th hole, has remained somewhat intact along the half-mile circular walkway, but is scheduled for closure when the Hall shuts its doors.

In a 2022 press conference at the Players, Monahan rang the closing bell: “It’s the end of our 25-year lease and our bond agreement with the state of Florida is up, so that’s the basis for the decision we need to make.”

“When the Hall of Fame opened, all these executives were standing upstairs in the Hall of Fame tower waiting for the line of cars to come. There was the thought that the Hall of Fame was an instantaneous magnet,” says Bruce Lucker, the Chief Operating Officer of the Hall of Fame from 1999-2002 and a longtime St. Johns County resident.

“I think the Tour always viewed it as an albatross. It just wasn’t their focus. Their focus was on dealing with players and maximizing those players’ careers. The Hall of Fame never really operated on how do we make this a great entertainment, educational, fun tourism attraction.”

WGHoF Marquee Moments
A rendering of what the new World Golf Hall of Fame could look like in its new Pinehurst home in 2024.

Greg McLaughlin, the CEO of the Hall of Fame and World Golf Foundation, was asked via email in early August about the St. Augustine departure. In response, he noted that “the World Golf Hall of Fame will still operate out of northeast Florida, and we are contracting the USGA to manage the museum in Pinehurst.” His parting message: “The Hall of Fame is proud of its 25 years spent in Northeast Florida as part of World Golf Village, and believe it was a meaningful experience for the local community as well as many visitors to the state.”

Pinehurst should pay heed to these drawdowns at prior sites and the half-century of lateraling from the PGA of America to the PGA Tour and the USGA.

Golf’s place as a niche sport impacts the fact that a Hall of Fame is even more narrow in focus, as the cornerstone halls of fame for baseball, football and basketball will attest with multiple upgrades during their existence to stay modern. The American Alliance of Museums noted that attendance at museums was down 38 percent in 2022 from pre-pandemic levels.

As with the Hall’s the previous move to Florida, there is heavy financial support via the state of North Carolina and community-based partnerships — a total of $7 million, according to a July 2022 announcement. The allotted space in the new location will be on the second floor, take up much less room than the 64,000 square feet of the St. Augustine building and be labeled the Hall of Fame locker room.

The smaller footprint for the Hall in the USGA’s Golf House Pinehurst will hopefully be a complementary, technology-infused feature instead of a proposed centerpiece that can’t live up to its billing.