Walter Hagen: The ‘flamboyant’ golfer who ‘stung golfing aristocracy in the eye’
When Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship for the second consecutive year in 1925, he did what any champion would do: come out to celebrate.
So he grabbed the famous Wanamaker trophy – given to the winner of the major – jumped into a nearby taxi and headed to a nightclub where he knew his friends were.
When Hagen arrived at the club and to avoid hanging around with the 27-pound trophy, he paid the taxi driver to drop him off at his hotel.
It was the last time he saw the trophy.
The Wanamaker never made it to his hotel, and even though Hagen knew he no longer had it in his possession, he kept it to himself.
At the following year’s PGA Championship, when asked to produce the trophy as returning champion, Hagen said with his typical bravado: “I’ll win it anyway, so I didn’t. brought.”
In fact, he won it. And in 1927, he won it for the fourth consecutive time. It was not until 1928, when he was eliminated by Leo Diegel, that he was forced to admit that he no longer had the trophy in his possession.
A replacement was made, before the original mysteriously appeared in 1931.
Hagen was born into a “blue-collar family” in 1892 in Rochester, New York, says Tom Clavin, author of “Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Golf.”
Hagen’s early days in golf were spent caddying at the Country Club of Rochester.
By his mid-teens, Hagen was a competent player and helped out in the club’s pro shop. He made his professional debut at age 19 at the 1912 Canadian Open.
Playing in his first major – the 1913 US Open – Hagen shocked many when he finished tied for fourth. But upon his return to Rochester, he came with stories of mistreatment from other professionals.
“They pushed me off the tee and told me I could practice when they were done,” he said.
So he made them a promise. “I’m going back next year and winning this tournament.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Golf wasn’t the only sport Hagen was proficient at. From an early age, he also excelled at baseball.
But his baseball talent and thriving golf career gave Hagen a dilemma.
“Baseball is a team sport. Walter liked having all the attention on him,” Clavin explained. “So he didn’t want to share the attention with the pitcher, the first baseman or the catcher.
“I think a big part of that was that he was not only good at it, he probably thought he would be better as a golfer than as a baseball player, and he could call its own shots, so to speak.
“He didn’t have to depend on anyone else. Either he won because he was better than everyone on the pitch or he lost because he wasn’t. And in baseball, you’re kind of dependent on the other guys on the field.
As Clavin describes it, when Hagen was taking his first steps in golf, it was a sport in its infancy in the United States. And Hagen, being a budding professional, saw huge potential for growth, both for the game and for himself.
His professionalism irritated many golfers.
“He kind of poked the aristocracy in the eye. And there were a lot of people in the aristocracy who really despised Walter Hagen because of what he stood for,” Clavin explained.
“He represented the Barbarians at the gate of golf, and he took that as motivation, and they despised him even more when he kept winning.”
With plenty of disposition income, Hagen was keen to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
He also briefly tried marriage, but Clavin says it “didn’t work out very well.”
Due to his “extravagant lifestyle” choices, as Clavin describes it, winning became a necessity.
“He wanted to win that purse for first place, he wanted to go on those paid tours, he wanted to do those endorsement deals and endorse cigarettes and other stuff,” Clavin said.
“And so obviously, if he hadn’t been able to win as often as he has, at some point he would have had to face the reality: ‘I can’t live this lifestyle because I just can’t afford it. ”
During his illustrious career, Hagen won 11 major titles – the most at the time – as well as 45 PGA Tour victories.
What’s even more remarkable is that the Masters wasn’t founded until well after Hagen’s heyday.
Most of the stories that are told about Hagen are stories of his arrival in town and his disheveled appearance for play the next day.
However, Clavin thinks Hagen wouldn’t come out the night before and was trying to let his opponents’ guard down. Clavin calls Hagen “the first great sports psychologist”.
“Like, say it’s a major tournament, he’d pop his limo and he’d get out of the limo in a rumpled tuxedo,” Clavin said.
“So everyone would be thinking, ‘Oh, poor Walter, he’s probably very hungover. He won’t be a factor today. Then he would go into the locker room and change and go out to the first tee and hit one right in the middle of the fairway.
“He knew before he even hit his first ball, he was like, ‘I’m a winner and these guys are going to be losers because they’re a little intimidated by me. They can’t understand me. He had a mental edge unmatched by his competitors at the time.
Hagen won favor with his fellow golfers by always paying the bill at the bar. His pioneering nature when it came to proving that golf was a reliable source of income also caught on with others.
Their rivalry with Bobby Jones at the time also went a long way in popularizing the sport, with the pair traveling the world to compete in lucrative individual competitions.
They both made endorsing golf equipment for players a more common business and something that helped make the sport more accessible to everyone.
Gene Sarazen, who was 10 years younger than Hagen and won seven majors in his career, said golfers should thank Hagen for his impact on the sport.
“All professionals…should say a silent thank you to Walter Hagen every time they pass a check through their fingers. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is.
Not only that, he played a vital role in the creation of the Ryder Cup, appearing in the first editions of it and being captain of the American team six times, winning it four times and losing only twice.
And so, given everything Hagen has done for the sport, Clavin thinks it’s no exaggeration to call him the “father of professional golf.”
“Walter Hagen was very aware that he was a pioneer. He could look around and realize that there were very few professional golfers, but of those few golfers he was the one who had the most hit.
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“And so he understood the responsibility he had to continue to play well and not even play well for his own ends to win the tournament purses, but to be kind of like this Johnny Appleseed of golf; he took part in these world tours, which no one else had done before.
“Not Bobby Jones, not anybody else. Going on these world tours more than once that took him to Africa, took him to Asia, took him to Europe obviously, took him taken to just about every continent except Antarctica to play these exhibition matches and spread the word of golf and introduce golf to countries that never even had it.