June 16, 2009

US Open Heros: Walter Hagen...People Know The Legend, But Not Much About The Man

Walter Hagen won 11 professional majors, more than anyone except Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Yet few people know his story, only snippets of myth.

Hagen also won 50 PGA tournament events -- and did so in a time when there were far fewer tour events every season. This was due to the Tour just getting started, and indeed, it had just been founded with Walter Hagen playing a key role. That places him in the top ten for wins, and his record has been in that upper echelon of the game for roughly eighty years.

As Gene Sarazen once commented: "All the players who have a chance to go after big money should say a silent prayer to Walter Hagen. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is."

Many people know that Walter Hagen is primarily responsible for the very idea of the touring golf professional, because he was the first professional to play tournament golf exclusively. Other pros at the time were attached to golf clubs, and when they weren't playing tournaments, they were teaching lessons to members, running the pro shop and even building golf clubs to sell. And not only did Hagen invent the concept of the touring pro, he also vastly improved the lot of touring professionals in tournaments everywhere.

“Don't hurry. Don't worry. You're only here for a short visit. So don't forget to stop and smell the roses.” - Walter Hagen

When Hagen first started playing tournaments, golf clubs refused entry to their clubhouses to pro golfers. Hagen found this distasteful and fought hard to end the practice. Once at a tournament in England, he rented a Pierce-Arrow limousine, parked it in front of the clubhouse and used it as a changing room after the club refused him entry to its locker room. With the limo he brought himself a butler who served him a fine meal, and The Haig made a huge show of it all to make the club's policy look as petty as we would now view it. Hagen's unstated but shouted message was "if I can afford to treat myself in this grand manner, who are you to deny me entry into your clubhouse?" Once Hagen even refused to accept the winning prize at a tournament because the club's members refused him entry to their clubhouse.

Indeed, tournament organizers depended on men like Hagen and his contemporary "Long"Jim Barnes for the huge crowds they drew when they played. Hagen also commanded huge sums at exhibitions, a practice he didn't invent but went far to perfect. Like many pros today, Hagen made far more money in exhibitions than he did from tournaments.

"Flamboyant" does not begin to describe Hagen, that word is too small for him. According to sportswriter Vivian Baulch, Hagen was "the first to grab the check and the last to leave the party." His friends were the stars of the day, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and many others, and Hagen's arm was seemingly always held by a stunningly beautiful woman he referred to as "doll" -- often because Hagen couldn't recall her name.

Perhaps because of his bon vivant nature, Hagen's his tournament golf record in the majors is over overlooked, but in fact, it is one of undeniable greatness:

• U.S. Open: 1914, 1919
• The Open (British Open): 1922, 1924, 1928, 1929
• PGA Championship: 1921, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927

In fact, it is fair to say that Hagen actually won SIXTEEN majors, considering that in the prime of his career The Masters did not exist and that the Western Open was considered a major in that period. If one makes that concession, they would need to add

• Western Open: 1916, 1921, 1926, 1927, 1932

to his list of major victories. Finally it is fair to note that also during the peak of his professional career Hagen was denied playing in majors at all due to their not being played because of World War I. Were they held, it may well be that Hagen could have had twenty total major victories and it would be him and not Jack Nicklaus that Tiger Woods is in pursuit of today.

It is also notable that Hagen captained the US teamin the first six Ryder Cups and played in the first five as a playing captain in 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, and 1935.

"Make the hard ones look easy and the easy ones look hard." -- Walter Hagen

As a golfer, Hagen was an extremely entertaining, to say the least. Perhaps his play is best described by this quip from Bobby Jones:

"When a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie, it gets my goat."

Hagen was never what one would call a great driver of the golf ball, and often times from the fairway (when he found it off the tee) his approach shots could be indifferent. What made Hagen special was his ability to escape trouble and make miraculous recovery shots to land on the putting surface in regulation, and also his ability with the putter. Hagen seemingly sank every important putt in his career, many of them from 40-50 feet. Or longer.

In so doing, Hagen thrilled the crowds, which packed golf courses back then as they do now for Tiger. Indeed, Hagen was the Tiger of his day, every bit as popular in his time as Woods is now, his time being the 1920's, which were the Golden Age of Sports. Hagen's exploits were every bit as infamous as that of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Notre Dame and even Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones.

Matches between Jones and Hagen were legendary. The two had great respect for one another, and in fact, Hagen had given Jones some useful advice on how to handle major championship play that Jones later said was a turning point in his competitive career. They were at the least casual friends throughout their lifetimes, despite a fierce rivalry where both refused to give the other quarter on the golf course.

One match in 1926 was probably the lynchpin in Jones' decision to remain an amateur throughout his competitive career, which of course later led to the only Grand Slam ever recorded in golf. Had Jones turned professional, he would have been ineligible for the British and US Amateur championships, and thus no Grand Slam.

Late in 1925, Hagen approached Jones with the idea of putting on what Hagen would promote as "World Championship;" a 72-hole exhibition match between the two men, which would be played at the two golfers' respective clubs in Florida, where both had real estate interests to be played shortly after the beginning of the next year.

The idea of the "World Championship" was hardly new, in 1922, Hagen and Gene Sarazen had played one, and another contest in 1925 was held between Hagen and Cyril Walker, who had won the 1924 US Open, while Hagen won the 1924 (British) Open and PGA Championship. It was not much of a match, with Hagen winning 17-and-16 in that 72 hole affair.

The 1926 "World Championship" might be different, according to many sages of the sporting world. Jones had won the 1924 and 1925 U.S. Amateur and nearly won the US Open that same year. Hagen was the PGA Champion, his second running, making the pair two of the best, if not the best golfers in the world. Surely, the conventional wisdom of the day held, this "World Championship" would be a neck and neck affair perhaps decided by the last stroke of the last hole.

For his part Hagen figured that this particular "World Championship" match would not only draw a great deal of interest in the media and among fans everywhere, it would also draw spectators to the courses where they would be played, and of course those spectators would mean potential sales leads. Coupled with the caveat that Hagen would keep any and all financial proceeds from the match (Jones was an amateur and could not accept monetary benefits) it was a no-lose situation for The Haig -- his kind of match. Indeed, fan interest was keen and loyalties largely divided amongst those rooting for "the amateur" Jones, or "the pro" Hagen. For weeks leading up to the event, the press debated the merits and flaws in each players' game.

The match itself didn't live up to it's heavyweight title fight billing. Hagen handed Jones a humiliating 12-and-11 defeat, which Jones took it as a clear sign that he wouldn't be able to rely on his ability as a golfer to pay his bills, and that he would better be served by depending on his law practice for his salary.

The rest of Jones' story is legend. Time would of course, prove that Bobby Jones had every bit of ability one would ever possibly need to earn a living on the links, but the die was cast for the Atlantan to remain an amateur. Jones would go on to win golf's only true Grand Slam, retire shortly afterward and start a personal project that would come to be known as Augusta National and The Masters.

Lesser noticed was "The Rematch." It was not long after the "World Championship" that Bobby Jones had a chance to redeem himself when the pair competed again two weeks later in the Florida West Coast Open. This time, Jones fared better but Hagen still bested him by two strokes to win the medal play event.

Of that period, Jones recollected in his autobiography that "the biggest golfing year of my life, 1926, began with the most impressive trouncing I ever got -- and it was by a professional, Walter Hagen." Jones added "Walter was just too good for me." Jones then concluded that "I have plenty of distinguished company among the victims of Walter's rampages."

For his part, Hagen called the 1926 'World Championshi' "my greatest thrill in golf."

As a sportsman, Hagen may best be defined not by winning, but by losing. In 1950, a vote among golf writers was held to determine who was the greatest golfer of the first half of the 20th century, and there, Jones edged out Hagen. Afterward, The Haig told reporters that "I would have voted for Jones myself. He was marvelous."

Finally, it is odd that there are only two biographies generally available on perhaps golf's most colorful character: 2005's Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Golf by Tom Clavin, and The Walter Hagen Story: By The Haig, Himself (by Margaret Seaton Heck, Walter Hagen, and Daniel Wexler.)

Given his place in the history of the sport, it is surprising that there are not a plethora of books about The Haig, not to mention a definitive bio-pic from Hollywood. Of the two books, I cannot recommend one over the other, and would in fact tell someone who asked me to read both. Two books is a scant modern record for golf's biggest character and one of its greatest-ever champions -- a man who belongs in the same sentence as Woods, Nicklaus and any other golfer who lay claim to greatness.


  1. I too wish there were more done on him. I've always found him to be an enigmatic character.

    I like Bruce McGill's depiction of him in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Best line is when he's on the beach (literally) and tells his caddy to go tend the pin haha.

    Not factual but seems to capture the spirit of the man.

  2. "Flamboyant" does not begin to describe Hagen, that word is too small for him.

    Fabulous sentence, CB, and so Hagen. Is "ostentatious" still a word??

    Great article. Sorry, great is not good enough. Fabulous article, Charles. I think "YOU" are the Herbert Warren Wind of the golf blogging community...


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