Hagen, Walter C.

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HAGEN, Walter C.

(b. 21 December 1892 in Rochester, New York; d. 6 October 1969 in Traverse City, Michigan), first professional touring golfer, winner of eleven major championship titles, including the British Open, which he was the first American-born golfer to win.

Hagen was the second of five children born to William Hagen, a millwright and blacksmith, and Louise Balko, a homemaker. He grew up in the town of Brighton, a satellite of Rochester, in a small two-story home his father built. Never interested in formal education, Hagen dropped out of school in the middle grades so that he could devote more time to athletics, especially golf.

As the son of working-class German immigrants, Hagen was not a likely candidate for golf, an elite sport. In 1895, however, the wealthy citizens of Rochester organized one of the country's first golf clubs and constructed their course within blocks of the Hagen homestead. Before his ninth birthday, Hagen had secured a job as caddie at the Country Club of Rochester. (CCR).

Hagen became a favorite at the club, where his enthusiasm caught the eye of the local professional, Andrew Christie. In 1907 Christie promoted Hagen to assistant professional. Through hours of practice and occasional rounds with Christie, Hagen sharpened his competitive skill. He entered the Canadian Open in 1912 and finished in twelfth place. Also that year Christie resigned his post at the CCR, and Hagen was his logical successor. In 1913 Hagen played in his first major championship, the U.S. Open at Brookline, Massachusetts. There he watched as a young American amateur, Francis Ouimet, stunned the golf world by defeating two British professionals in an eighteen-hole play-off. If overshadowed by Ouimet's feat, Hagen played well, finishing in a tie for fourth place.

The next season Hagen broke through by winning the U.S. Open at the Midlothian Country Club in Chicago. That victory was quickly followed by others in such important events as the Western and Metropolitan Opens. Although he did not serve in the military during World War I, the war brought some important changes for Hagen. The cancellation of tournaments and the rise of war relief matches showed the savvy golfer that exhibition tour golf was viable. On 29 January 1917 Hagen married Margaret Johnson, and within a year his only child, a son, was born. In 1918 they moved to Detroit, where Hagen became the first professional of the Oakland Hills Country Club.

By the time he relocated to Michigan, Hagen was a handsome, famous athlete. He stood just under six feet tall, weighed about 170 pounds, had dark blue eyes and neatly trimmed black hair, and was always impeccably dressed. Before moving from Rochester, Hagen was a modest, un-assuming young man who did not drink or smoke. In Detroit, however, he discovered the nightlife, blossoming into the hedonistic, self-confident "Sir Walter Hagen." Whatever the cause of his metamorphosis, it took a toll on his marriage; he and his wife divorced on 18 May 1921.

Meanwhile, Hagen thrived professionally. After winning his second (and last) U.S. Open in 1919, he announced his resignation from Oakland Hills and his plan to become the first "unattached" professional touring golfer. He played hundreds of exhibitions nationwide between the dozen or so competitive events on the golf calendar. In 1921 he hired Robert Harlow to book events, negotiate endorsement contracts, and generally work as his full-time manager and agent.

Hagen took his first trip abroad in 1920 but performed dismally in the British Open, finishing in fifty-second place. Undaunted, he returned the following year and improved to sixth place. Then in 1922, at England's Royal St. George's links, Hagen made golf history when he became the first American-born professional to win the British Open. The victory began a three-year period during which he was unquestionably the world's top golfer. He lost the British Open by one stroke in 1923, but won it again in 1924, prompting the New York Times to declare Hagen "the greatest competitive golfer who ever lived—bar none." Hagen also picked up his second Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) championship in 1924, the first of four consecutive victories in that event. With his career reaching its zenith, Hagen made a second attempt at marriage; on 30 April 1923 he married Edna Straus, but within four years the couple was separated, and on 26 June 1937 they divorced.

In 1926 Hagen defeated the great Atlanta amateur Bobby Jones, twelve and eleven, in a highly publicized exhibition. The lopsided victory was ironic, though, because Jones would go on from that match to dominate the sport in the late 1920s. Yet if not the world's best, Hagen continued to display flashes of brilliance. He won two more British Opens in 1928 and 1929, along with his PGA championships. Hagen was also pivotal to the early success of the Ryder Cup competition, serving as captain for the first six U.S. squads (he captained a seventh squad, but unofficially). He captured his last tournament, the Gasparilla Open, in 1935 and also finished third place that year in the U.S. Open. In all, Hagen won some forty-five tournaments worldwide, including two U.S. Opens, four British Opens, five PGA championships, and five Western Opens.

By World War II, Hagen was finished with competitive golf. Always something of a golf vagabond since leaving Oakland Hills in 1919, he finally bought his first house in 1953, a twenty-acre estate on Long Lake, near Traverse City, Michigan. He spent his final years there alone, except for a housekeeper, and in surprising obscurity for a man who had once been declared "the greatest golfer ever." Hagen died quietly in his cabin on Long Lake in the fall of 1969 following a long bout with cancer of the larynx. He was interred at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Birmingham, Michigan.

Hagen's eleven major championship victories ranks third all-time, behind Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones. Yet his significance to golf history runs much deeper than his competitive record. Most important, Hagen was the first successful "unattached" professional golfer—the first to make a living through exhibiting his skill for profit instead of through giving lessons and selling equipment. His efforts laid the groundwork for a regular golf tour that began to emerge by 1930. Beyond that, Hagen was a star with a humble background in an elite sport. Like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, he democratized golf and considerably widened its public appeal. In sum, he belongs on a short list of athletes—including Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey—who established modern professional sports in the early part of the twentieth century.

Hagen's autobiography, The Walter Hagen Story (1956), written with Margaret Seaton Heck, provides entertaining but disorganized and incomplete coverage of Hagen's life and career. The only full-scale biographical treatment of Hagen is Stephen R. Lowe, Sir Walter and Mr. Jones: Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and the Rise of American Golf (2000). A tribute to Hagen by Arthur Daley appeared in the New York Times (5 Nov. 1969). Obituaries are in the Detroit News (6 Oct. 1969) and the New York Times and London Times (both 7 Oct. 1969).

Stephen R. Lowe

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