Don't let anybody tell you Betsy King didn't feel pressure to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame. On Sunday the weight of the Hall on her back was so great that her drive on the first tee at the ShopRite LPGA Classic traveled 20 yards. Sixty feet. She could probably throw her Hall of Fame plaque that far—and she may feel like it, after the hell the Hall has put her through these last 20 months.
For those who don't follow these hazing rituals, the 39-year-old King had spent her previous 41 tournaments trying to nail down the 30th win of her professional career—an arbitrary number established almost 30 years ago as the minimum required for entry into the LPGA Hall of Fame, assuming the golfer has also won at least two major championships and written thank-you notes for all gifts received since the seventh grade. Until she tripped on the Hall's threshold, King had won two or three tournaments a year, and nobody had ever felt sorry for her. Funny what contrived failure can do to a star. Makes you wonder how Babe Ruth would have done if, at the age of 39, he had been told he needed 10 more homers to get into Cooperstown.
All that foolishness ended for King on Sunday. One shot out of the lead when she practically whiffed on number 1, King shot a final-round 67 at Greate Bay Resort and Country Club in Somers Point, N.J., and finished two shots ahead of Beth Daniel and Rosie Jones. Regrettably, what should have been the crowning achievement of her career occurred in an untelevised event. Only a few hundred spectators got to see her make birdie putts of 14 and 12 feet on the last two holes. "It's exciting, but I am just happy that I don't have to deal with it anymore," King said. "I felt it was a little unfair that whenever I was close to the lead people would ask about the Hall."
A little unfair? The worst part of the current Hall of Fame qualifying process is that it trivializes its honorees. Never mind that King is a three-time LPGA Player of the Year, a two-time Vare Trophy winner, a three-time Solheim Cup player, a winner of five major championships and the alltime LPGA Tour money winner—she gets into the Hall for winning the ShopRite Classic? Say it's not ludicrous.
King, one must add, is the least trivial of golf champions. Other winners buy cars and clothes; King comforts Romanian orphans. Other stars complain about paying taxes; King pounds nails for Habitat for Humanity. Other Hall of Famers talk of their exploits; King makes listeners squirm with her religious fervor and antiabortion views.
Nothing illustrates the distinction better than an incident that went virtually unreported at the 1990 Dinah Shore Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif. On the final day King held a five-shot lead with eight holes left, but wild drives and a shaky putter began to take their toll. When she missed a two-foot putt on the 16th green, her lead over Kathy Postlewait had shrunk to two strokes. Walking up the hill through the crowd to the 17th tee, King looked flushed and uncomfortable. At that worst possible moment, a slender man in a baseball cap with JESUS on it yelled "Hallelujah!" and appeared at her side. Breaking her concentration, the man poured religiosity into her ear until marshals stopped him and ushered him behind the ropes. Minutes later King hit a weak iron shot on the par-3 and had to struggle for her final two pars and ultimate victory.
Asked about the distraction afterward, King got that distant look in her bottomless blue eyes. "It was O.K.," she said. "I've run into him before, and he's very sincere in his beliefs."
If there were perfect justice, the doors of the Hall of Fame would have sprung open for King at that very moment. Instead, she had to wait five more years for the honor.
It is an honor, isn't it? If not, if the LPGA Hall is just a glorified frequent-fliers club, then we can merely shrug and let it go. But if the Hall is to have lasting significance, the LPGA needs to stop counting miles and simply acknowledge the women who have made the journey worthwhile. Betsy King is one of those women—and was before Sunday.