Walter Hagen (1892-1969), often referred to by golf fans as "Sir Walter" or "The Haig," was the first superstar of American golf. Hagen earned his fame by winning tournaments with spectacular recovery shots and unmatched putting ability, skills that made up for his unpredictable tee shots. He is remembered as a master gamesman with an uncanny ability to remain relaxed and make the game of golf fun.
Hagen was born in Rochester, New York, on December 21, 1892, into a middle-class family of Dutch descent. His parents were William, a blacksmith for auto shops, and Louise Balko Hagen. As a child Hagen excelled at both golf and baseball. He became the leading baseball pitcher in the district, honing his fastball in his backyard after teaching his sister to catch for him. He was also exposed to golf at an early age, shagging balls at the Country Club of Rochester by the age of seven. During his teenage years Hagen wavered between pursuing a career in baseball or golf. Finally, speculating that baseball required the skills of eight teammates, Hagen decided to choose the sport over which he alone controlled his destiny.
Became a Golf Professional
When the National Open came to Buffalo, New York, in 1912, 20-year-old Hagen, having been promoted to working in the pro shop, asked his boss, club pro Andy Christie, for time off to play the tournament. Christie, afraid Hagen would be easily out-played by the professionals, refused to allow him to enter, but afforded him time off to watch the tournament. When Hagen returned from watching Johnny McDermott win the Open, he was wholly un-impressed with the play of the field. The following year Hagen was determined to enter the ranks of the golf greats. In his first outing at the 1913 Shawnee Open he played respectably but failed to finish in the money. Hagen's brash personality first came to the attention of the pros in the same year when he entered the National Open in Brookline, Massachusetts. The odds makers were favoring Harry Vardon or Ted Ray to win the tournament. Hagen made a legendary entrance into the locker room prior to the start of play and introduced himself to McDermott amidst a group of onlookers, explaining that he had come down from Rochester to help him stop Vardon and Ray. The golfers chuckled, but Hagen won new respect by finishing in a tie with McDermott for fourth place, with Francis Ouimet taking the victory away from Vardon and Ray.
In 1914 Hagen won his first tournament, the U.S. Open at Midlothian in Chicago. Hagen led from first round, shooting a new course record of 68. Going into the final day of play, Hagen held a four-stroke lead over crowd favorite Chick Evans, an advantage that Evans reduced to one by the time Hagen reached the final hole. According to Herbert Warren Wind in The Story of American Golf, "All Chicago, it seemed, was following Evans. Playing about three holes ahead of Chick, with no gallery to speak of, Hagen heard one mighty roar after another come from Evans' mob. All the way in Hagen heard the bursts of applause from Evans' gallery telling him that Chick was still coming." Hagen showed the first signs of his uncanny ability to focus and stay calm despite unnerving pressure, sinking an 8-foot putt on the final hole to win by one stroke.
Wins and Losses
Many were skeptical that the new champion could maintain his place among the leading golfers. His swing on his tee shots was unorthodox at best, and whether his drive would land in the fairway or in the rough to the left or to the right, no one, not even Hagen, was ever sure. But his putting skills, deft short iron play, and ability to get himself out of the trouble caused by his regular miscues gave him the ability to win tournaments. Grantland Rice, a sportswriter who followed Hagen throughout his career, wrote in The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport, "Walter Hagen, a dazzling ornament to the history of sport, had the soundest golf philosophy I've ever known. More importantly, he applied it. 'Grant,' he said, 'I expect to make at least seven mistakes each round. Therefore, when I make a bad shot I don't worry about it. It's just one of the seven."' According to Rice, "A mistake meant nothing to him. Neither did defeat. He scorned second place. 'The crowd remembers only the winner. I'd as soon finish tenth as second,' he said."
Hagen's distracters were not entirely wrong. Hagen's career performance was, in fact, a series of peaks and valleys. He always went for the win when other golfers opted for safer play to place in the money. He won in spectacular fashion, and sometimes he lost in similar style. In 1915 Hagen failed to defend his U.S. Open crown, and the following year was not even in contention. He took an even bigger blow in 1920 during his first attempt to play in the British Open, characterized by barren, bunker-filled courses and strong winds. Because Hagen lofted his shots high in the air, some predicted that his basically unsound game would be completely dismantled by the winds and bunkers. Confident as always, Hagen teed up the first day of play but ended with an abysmal score of 83 and finished the second day in last place of the field of 53. However, nothing could shake the unshakable Hagen. The next year he finished in sixth place at St. Andrews. In 1922 he won at Sandwich, becoming the first American to win a British Open. He would return to win again in 1924, 1928, and 1929.
By the end of the 1920s, Hagen had established himself as one of the greatest and most colorful golfers of his time. During his career he won the U.S. Open twice (1914 and 1919), the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Championship five times (1921, 1924, 1925, 1926, and 1927), and the British Open four times (1922, 1924, 1928, and 1929). He also won the French Open (1920), the Belgian Open (1924), and the Canadian Open (1931). Preferring to have a major title to his name throughout the year, Hagen did not mind working his way around the U.S. circuit. He won opens in Massachusetts (1915), Michigan (1921 and 1931), New York (1922), and Texas (1923 and 1929); three Metropolitan Opens (1916, 1919, and 1920); two North and South Opens (1918 and 1923), five Western Opens (1916, 1921, 1926, 1927, and 1932); one Eastern Open (1926); and the Gasparilla Open (1935). He was also selected to play as a member of the American Ryder Cup team, which played golf against teams from other nations, in 1927, 1929, 1921, 1933, and 1935. He was the nonplaying captain of the Ryder Cup team in 1937.
More than a Superstar
Hagen did more for golf than win tournaments. He was the sport's first superstar, ambassador, and flamboyant personality. According to Stephen Goodwin in Golf Magazine, "Hagen could have been a poster boy for the 1920s. As a professional golfer, he became an international celebrity, known not only for his accomplishments on the golf course, but his extravagant lifestyle. His story wasn't exactly a tale of rags-to-riches, but he made pots of money and spent it with legendary abandon. He liked to travel in chauffeur-driven limousines, and he once showed up on the first tee of an exhibition match in top hat and tails, and a wee bit tipsy." Hagen enjoyed drinking and was known to occasionally arrive at a tournament or exhibition match slightly late and still wearing the clothes from the day before. His love of show did not bode well for his two marriages. He wed Margaret Johnson in 1917. They had one child and were divorced in 1921. He married Edna Strauss in 1924, and they divorced in 1934. Financially, Hagen was the first professional golfer to reach 1 million dollars in earnings and spent it all on extravagance as he went. He was also the first golfer to hire an agent to represent him. Hagen, like no other pro before him, knew the power of image and appearance.
The King of Match Play
Match play was where Hagen was the king of his domain, which included the PGA Championship. He won 29 consecutive matches in the PGA Championship and 34 out of the 36 he played. He also played in some legendary match play exhibitions. Perhaps the most famous was the 1926 challenge match between Hagen and the great amateur golfer, Bobby Jones. Publicized as a battle between amateur and pro, Jones was considered by most to be a better golfer; however, Hagen was the supreme match player. According to Pat Seelig in Golf Magazine, Jones, who was already considered a great golfer and a favorite of the press, represented golf in its unsullied purity as an amateur, whereas "on the other hand was Walter Hagen, a brilliant showman for whom money was nothing more than something to spend-and the only way to get it was by playing golf. In other words, professional golf at its best-or worst." In his usual manner, Hagen combined ridiculously poor shots with brilliant recoveries and spectacular putting to take the lead. Jones, who agonized over every errant shot and bemoaned each Hagen recovery, lost his focus, and Hagen won the two-round match, 12 and 11.
He was not only a master of playing golf, he was also a master at playing people. This made match play, in which score is tallied by the number of holes won, not total shots, a perfect venue for Hagen who loved to play with the minds of his opponents. John M. Ross described Hagen's "applied psychology" in Golf Magazine, "One of Hagen's most successful tactics was to lull an opponent into swapping banter between shots, getting him so amused he was vulnerable to a crack in concentration when important shots were played. Hagen, on the other hand, could turn off the fun like a light switch and devote total attention to the task at hand." Hagen would distract younger opponents with conversations of a possible invitation to a future exhibition tournament. He acknowledged in his autobiography The Walter Hagen Story (1956): "Through the years I've been accused of dramatizing shots. Of making the difficult shots look easy and the easy shots look difficult. Only that last 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" deny trying to make my game as interesting and as thrilling to the spectators as it was possible for me to make it."
Despite his love for flashy clothes, limousines, and nightclubs, Hagen was the consummate gentleman, always charming and at ease, making others, including Hollywood stars and British royalty, desire to be in his presence. As Sir Walter, Hagen was both golf star and entertainer. Wind concludes, "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." Hagen was named a charter member of the PGA Hall of Fame in 1940 and retired the following year. He died in Traverse City, Michigan, on October 5, 1969.
Hagen, Walter and Margaret Seaton Heck. The Walter Hagen Story by The Haig, Himself. Simon and Schuster, 1956.
Rice, Grantland. The Tumult and the Shooting: My Life in Sport. A. S. Barnes and Company, 1954.
Wind, Herbert Warren. The Story of American Golf: Its Champions and its Championships. Simon and Schuster, 1956.
Golf Magazine, 34 (August 1991): 68-70; 35 (January 1993): 62-64; 39 (December 1997): 48-56.
"Walter Charles Hagen," Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 8: 1966-1970. American Council of Learned Societies, 1988. http://www.galenet.com(December 21, 2000). □