WALTER HAGEN: FLAMBOYANT TRAILBLAZER IN PROFESSIONAL GOLF
I never wanted to be a millionaire. I just wanted to live like one. – Walter Hagen
When he won the recent PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy pocketed a cool $1.8 million. Adding this to the $1.655 he made for winning the British Open and $1.53 for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, this comes to nearly $5 million for three weeks of work. Five million big ones! Not bad for playing a game. Being a PGA Tour player has become quite lucrative, indeed.
But it wasn’t always so. In its formative years, professional golf was not highly regarded and not well remunerated. Few players dared to try to make a living solely as a tournament player. One golfer changed all this. The player most responsible for the development of professional golf, both culturally and financially, was Walter Hagen–Sir Walter, or, more affectionately, The Haig—golf’s first superstar, ambassador, and flamboyant personality.Hagen was the most colorful golfer ever to play, and be successful, on the PGA tour. The famous early twentieth-century American sportswriter Grantland Rice said of him “Hagen, by his tact, deportment, style and over-all color, did for the professional golfer what Babe Ruth did for the professional ball player.”
When Hagen made his professional debut at age 19 at the 1912 Canadian Open, professional golf was in its incubation stage. Tournament purses were insufficient to enable players to make a living as touring pros. All the top pros had country club jobs. The better known played exhibitions, the lesser known hustled golf pigeons, to make ends meet. Until Sir Walter came on the scene, the top players were transplanted Brits and Scots. Hagen almost single-handedly transformed American golf from an elite pastime to a popular spectator sport. His impact was global.
He also set the table for future players when he made a lot of money designing and endorsing golf equipment. His work for Wilson Sports produced some of the first matched sets of irons, under the name “Haig Ultra.” The improved equipment helped expand golf’s appeal and made good quality clubs available to a wider market of golfers. It also raised the standard of play.
A Great Player
Walter Hagen was one of the greatest golfers of all time. He won the U.S. Open in 1914 at age 21, passing up a scheduled tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies major league baseball team to play in the tournament. During his career, he won 11 majors: the two U.S. Opens (1914, 1919); four British Opens (1922, 1924, 1928, and 1929); and, the five PGA Championships (1921, 1924, 1925, 1926, and 1927). He also won five Western Opens, considered by many at the time as a major because of its strong field (the Masters didn’t start until Hagen was on the downside of his career). He captained the first six Ryder Cup teams (1927-37), playing in the first five (his record was 7-1-1). He was selected to captain the team in 1939 and 1941, but World War II intervened. In all, he won 75 professional tournaments, including 45 PGA events. He is credited with being the first golfer to earn a million dollars.
But it wasn’t because of his great golf that Hagen is best known and why he helped transform the professional game; it was the color and glamour he brought to the sport. Sir Walter was a devil-may-care showman with a taste for expensive cars, fancy clothes, beautiful women, good booze, gambling, and all-night partying, a lifestyle that contributed to his growing fame and popularity. His showmanship and style on the course made him a crowd favorite, enabling him to charge high fees to play exhibition matches around the world. This allowed him to quit his club job at the elite Oakland Hills Golf Club in Detroit, and play exhibitions and tournaments full time. This paved the way for others to become full-time professional golfers.
When Hagen first started playing golf for a living, golf pros were considered little more than vagabond gamblers; it was amateurs who were thought of as gentlemen protectors of the competitive purity of the game.. At the elite clubs that hosted tournaments, pros were restricted from clubhouse facilities. They couldn’t even enter the clubhouse through the front door. Sir Walter would be instrumental in changing this elitist tradition.
Hagen’s participation in the 1920 British Open illustrates his showmanship as well as his trail-blazing impact on the game. When he sailed for England on the Mauritania, he took along the N.Y Globe’s Dickie Martin to provide “good press,” the first time a golfer would have his own “press agent.” On board he romanced movie star Constance Talmadge, one of the great beauties of the day. As Mark Frost reported in his book, The Grand Slam, Hagen brought along two steamer trunks filled with color-coordinated outfits, complete with matching bow ties, custom monogrammed silk shirts and complementary pairs of two-toned spiked saddle shoes.
At the course, Walter and his fellow pros were not given lockers or even allowed near the private members’ area. Meals for golfers were served in a caterer’s tent behind the clubhouse. In response, the aggravated Hagen rented a luxurious Austin-Daimler automobile, complete with chauffeur and footman, parked it in front of the clubhouse and used it as sort of a locker room, changing his golf shoes on the running board. Dumbfounded club members looked on in astonishment. He had his chauffeur meet him on the 18th green with a chilled martini and a tailored coat. Bad weather and too many bunkers on the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club overwhelmed the brash Hagen and he finished a dismal 53rd, for which he was roasted by the British press. Undiminished, he told the Brits he’d be back and win the claret jug.
Walter returned to the British Open at the Royal St. George’s Club in 1922 and took up where he left off with his boasting and theatrics. He predicted he would win. Before the final round, he was spotted by shocked reporters at 2:00 AM conducting a putting clinic on the carpet of the bar at the Ramsgate Hotel. This time, though, he fulfilled his prediction and went on to win the Open, the first American to win the world’s most prestigious golf event.
In 1923 he returned to Britain and finished second in the Open. He was asked to present the claret jug to the English winner, Arthur Havers, but since Americans continued to be denied access to the clubhouse, Hagen assembled a large gallery at the front door, thanked them for their courtesies, and invited the crowd to a local pub where he had been welcomed. Then he announced, “If the committee likes, they can present the trophy to the new champion over there.”
In Grand Slam, Frost reports that at the 1926 British Open Hagen came to the 18th hole needing an eagle to tie Bobby Jones who had completed his round. After surveying his shot from the fairway, he walked up to the green and asked the match official to hold the flagstick. Letting the tension build, he then hit his shot which landed a foot from the hole, jumped over it, and ran over the green. Jones won, but it was The Haig the crowd was talking about. At the awards ceremony he gave Jones a comically oversized niblick for future bunker shots, then drove away from St. Anne’s in his chauffeur-driven convertible Rolls-Royce, tossing golf balls and tees to a crowd swarming around him. Ever the showman, fans adored him.
As the Roaring Twenties unfolded, Sir Walter had become a swashbuckling celebrity of universal fame, on a par with such sports luminaries as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden, and Bobby Jones. He hung out with Hollywood stars, sports heroes, British royalty, and even presidents (he was a frequent guest at the Harding White House). Celebrities sought him out. While he rubbed shoulders with the economic elite, he was equally comfortable engaging with ordinary working-class folks, a reflection of his own working-class roots.
The King of Match Play
Hagen was the most competitive player of his era, and arguably of all time. He excelled at match play, as evidenced by his five PGA Championship wins, including four in a row from 1924- 1927 (in those days the PGA was a match play tournament). During his streak of wins, The Haig won a record 22 consecutive matches. Between the first match in 1921 and the fourth in 1928 when he lost, he won 32 of 33 matches.
Despite an unorthodox swing—a flat, lurching motion with an aggressive weight transfer similar to a baseball swing— that produced a number of errant shots, Walter Hagen had a remarkable ability to score. This stemmed from an excellent short game, deft putting, tactical brilliance, and mental toughness. This alone, however, did not guarantee superiority over his peers. It was his mastery of golfing psychology that gave him a competitive edge. He would employ theatrics and gamesmanship to get into the heads of his opponents. He frequently arrived just minutes before his tee time, rushing to the first tee in a rumpled tuxedo and top-hat, signs of another wild night for which he was famous (for effect, he often put on the tux on the way to the course). He would hit the most awful hooks, slices, pushes and pulls, yet still manage to make birdies and pars. Like Seve Ballesteros years later, it drove his opponents crazy.
Many believe he hit bad shots on purpose just to rile opponents with yet another miracle recovery. Hagen did confess he often set up shots like a movie director to enhance the dramatic effect. His grandstanding frustrated his opponents and delighted the galleries, and, he claimed, was equally important in releasing the tension from his game. In his autobiography, The Walter Hagen Story (1956), he admitted he dramatized shots, which he said …“came naturally, believe me. Well I always figured the gallery had a show coming to them. I deny I ever held up a game by any such shenanigans, but I don’t deny playing for the gallery. I don’t deny trying to make my game as interesting and as thrilling to the spectators as it was possible for me to make it.”
In the most famous exhibition golf match of the era, in 1926, Hagen was pitted against Bobby Jones in what was billed as the “Unofficial World’s Championship of Golf.” It was a classic match-up of opposites: the top pro versus the top amateur; the best match player vs. the game’s best ball striker; Hagen’s home-grown lunging slash of a swing vs. Jones’ classic, perfectly balanced, nearly flawless styling; the master of gamesmanship vs. the kind, considerate gentleman who played against “Old Man Par” rather than his opponent.
In the match, in which Jones was a 3-2 favorite, Sir Walter was up to his usual ways– hitting from out of trees, rough and bunkers, but making brilliant recoveries and sinking key putts. Walter laughed frequently and bantered with the crowd, appearing to be having fun, while the perfectionist Jones stressed over every shot and seemed frustrated by Hagen’s miraculous recoveries and dazzling putting. The Haig destroyed Jones 12 and 11 (over 72 holes on two different courses) and pocketed the then princely sum of $7600. He donated $5000 to charity.
After the match, the defeated Jones told reporters that while he could handle an opponent playing well and earning a victory, “but when a man misses his drive, and then his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie, it gets my goat.” Two weeks later, in an attempt to regain his honor, Jones challenged Hagen to another match at Walter’s home course, this time without the press and the hoopla. Sir Walter prevailed again, by two strokes. Yet, Jones admired and respected Hagen for never making excuses for poor play and generously giving money to friends, caddies, and charities. He is quoted by O.B. Keeler, who was Jones’ biographer, friend, mentor, press agent and traveling companion, as saying, “I love to play with Walter. He goes along chin up, smiling away; never grousing about his luck, playing the ball as he finds it. He can come nearer beating the luck than anybody I know.”
To gain an edge on his competition in stroke play tournaments, Hagen often hired a half dozen “caddies” to track rival players during a round and report back to him. This was in the days before players teed off in reverse order according to where they stood in the tournament (i.e., leaders last) and before scoreboards around the course reported real-time scores. Since Walter thrived on pressure, knowledge of where he stood worked well for him. He always exuded confidence and coolness, whatever the situation. Pressure only made him play better. Head-to-head competition fired up his juices. He never lost a playoff for a championship in his entire career.
Like Lee Trevino, Hagen would chat with and have fun with the gallery while he played. In contrast to rabbit-eared current pro golfers who pass out cold stares or admonishments to members of the gallery that make even the slightest of sounds, Hagen seemed to welcome noise. Sudden shrieks had no affect on him. He fed off the energy of crowds, who came to adore him, which helps explain why the hundreds of exhibition matches he played were so well attended and lucrative.
The Haig welcomed opportunities to prove doubters wrong. In 1921 he read an opinion piece after the U.S. Open that said he was finished as a dominant player. Angry, he changed his travel plans so he could play in the next tournament, the Western Open, in Cleveland. He won the tournament by five strokes over favorite Jock Hutchinson and eight over Bobby Jones, after which he mailed a banner headline about his victory to the journalist who had doubted him. For good measure, he won the next tournament, the Michigan Open, and then went on to win the match-play PGA Championship at Inwood Country Club, beating Jim Barnes 3&2 in the final. Players learned not to piss off Walter Hagen.
Walter Hagen is widely credited as the founder and legitimizing force behind the PGA Tour. He was one of the first golfers to demonstrate the financial rewards of playing exhibitions and endorsing products. But more than his contributions to the tour, Hagen helped extend golf’s appeal to the masses, gain accommodations and equal treatment at clubhouses for both professionals and amateurs, break down class barriers that plagued the sport, and raise standards of play. With his plus-fours, two-toned shoes, bright colors and slicked-back black hair, he brought color and glamor to the game.
Hagen was equally flamboyant and irresistible off the course, where he hung out with big shots and small fry, earned tons of money and spent it with legendary abandon on flashy clothes, fast cars, ritzy hotels, nightclubs, women, the best food and drink, and all-night parties. It should be noted, however, that his reputation as a carouser and excessive drinker was far more legend than reality. Other than being an incorrigible womanizer, he kept his drinking in check, though he didn’t let this be known to his competitors.
Golf writer Herbert Warren Wind in The Story of American Golf (1956) aptly captured the Walter Hagen mystique: “Great as he was as a golfer, he was even greater as a personality—an artist with a sense of timing so infallible that he could make tying his shoelaces seem more dramatic than the other guy’s hole-in-one.” Sir Walter became a charter member of the golf Hall-of-Fame in 1940. He died of throat cancer at age 76 on October 5, 1969.
I imagine most current PGA tour players have heard of Walter Hagen but probably are not aware of how much they owe him for the game’s global popularity and the large tournament purses his showmanship and competitive flair brought to professional golf. Phil Mickelson, who has won 42 PGA Tour titles, is an example. When asked recently what he knew about Hagen, he responded, “Not very much. I know he used to sometimes show up at tournaments in a tux.” Even Jack Nicklaus, who in winning the 1973 PGA Championship broke The Haig’s record for wins in majors, confessed a few months ago that he didn’t have a clue what Sir Walter had won, saying, “I was clued in on Bobby Jones’s record, not Hagen’s.”
Such it is with today’s ahistorical generation. Hagen’s contemporaries, however, were fully aware of Sir Walter’s significance. Gene Sarazen, perhaps best summed up the Hagen legacy: “I think Walter Hagen contributed more to golf than any player today or ever. All the professionals … should say a silent thanks to [him] each time they stretch a check between their fingers. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is.”
One thing is certain: we will never see another Walter Hagen on the PGA Tour. Combining flamboyance, showmanship, uniqueness, and a dominating golf game that endures for nearly two decades is simply not possible today. As I stated in a previous post (Where Has All the Color Gone: the Homogenization of the PGA Tour), too many forces are working against the emergence of a colorful Hagen-like character who can dominate the game. Let’s see: Arnold Palmer had a home-grown swing and go-for-broke style, Jimmy Demaret tripped the light fandango at pubs and nightclubs, Charlie Sifford broke down discrimination barriers, Gary Player travelled the world, Nicklaus was a peerless pressure putter, Raymond Floyd dominated at Ryder Cups, Seve brought passion and gamesmanship to the course, Phil Mickelson could recover from seemingly everywhere, Payne Stewart was a flashy dresser, Trevino had panache, and Tiger Woods, despite wild drives, had a long-term dominant game, but no one, no single person, embodied all these things like Sir Walter Hagen. We will never see his likes again.