Is it possible that one of the most important figures in the history of American golf could have fallen through the cracks of time? That while his name is known, little else about the man who is the father of American touring golf really is.
Imagine being third on the all-time list of majors won and yet you played the majority of your career during an era when only three of the games four majors even existed? Further, consider that as impressive as that fact is, Walter Hagen is revered for raising the status of golf professionals above a simple servant class, as one of the driving forces behind the development of the Ryder Cup and for his starring role as golfs consummate showman.
Hagen was born in 1892 into a humble, middle-class family living near Rochester, New York. He was one of five children, four girls and Walter. His father, a Dutch immigrant, was a blacksmith and seemingly a world apart from the person his only son was destined to become. Walters relationship with his working-class father was a complicated one, and short of a dossier on its complexities, the fact that his father never once saw him compete until the 1931 U.S. Open, two years past Walters last Major victory'the 1929 Open Championship'speaks volumes.
Hagen was one of those rare individuals who was clearly before his time. He possessed a drive, intellect, and perhaps most importantly, a vision of the emergence of the game and his starring role in it that ushered in the modern professional game as we know it.
Excelling in various sports as a youth, particularly baseball and golf, Hagen ultimately decided that golf would be his vehicle to stardom and the lifestyle that he aspired to live. Blessed with unnerving self-confidence, Hagen first came to national prominence at the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was at this Open where a twenty-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet beat the two top golfers in the world, Brits Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in an eighteen-hole playoff, to mark one of the greatest upsets of all time.
Finishing one stroke back was a brash twenty-one-year-old assistant professional from the Country Club of Rochester named Walter Hagen. The following year, at Midlothian in Chicago, Hagan won the first of his two U.S. Open titles in a gutsy performance over a highly experienced field. Hagen stumbled to the tee box on the first day, reeling from the effects of a less-than-fresh lobster he had consumed the evening before. Coupled with the stifling heat of a Chicago summer, the young professional hit shots that were simply ugly, following them with recovery shots that were brilliant.
His up-and-down round, reflective of the way he spent the night before, not only established a new course record and the lead in the tournament, but would also serve as a microcosm of the rest of his career.
I never wanted to be a millionaire, I just wanted to live like one. -- Walter Hagen
Among his many firsts, Hagen may well have been the games first mental coach, even if he alone was the primary beneficiary of his philosophies. Hagen was unfettered by shortcomings, mistakes, or even failure. He saw those mundane consequences as the by-products to success. Therefore he played a fearless game, for his posture was that he would take the risks necessary to succeed with a perspective that if he did not win then it did not matter if he finished second or last.
Further, he anticipated adversity, even expected it. He claimed that he expected five bad shots a round (some accounts have the number at seven), so that when a poor shot would arrive, he did not see it as an omen for his round collapsing but, rather, with almost a sense of relief that he got it out of the way and only good things lay ahead. Perhaps this was the only mental posture one could have when your game was subject to so many wayward shots, but whatever the root, he played the game with a liberty that left him unshackled by fear and thus, able to think clearly when the pressure was consuming his competition.
Augmenting his mental fortitude was his supreme ability to concentrate on the here-and-now, the shot at hand, despite carrying on a never-ending performance for the galleries that was another distinctive feature of this great champion.
So consummate were his abilities to recover, persevere, concentrate, and execute that in 1926 he defeated the great amateur Bobby Jones by a score of 12 and 11 during a seventy-two-hole exhibition. Hagen displayed his game in all of its classic eccentricities through the match. Shots veered wildly, both left and right, without anyone, including Hagen, knowing what direction they were likely to go. However, each time he would hit amazing recovery shots and coupled with an extraordinary short game and putting stroke, he would leave opponents in a frustrated heap.
Jones was no different, commenting after the match, When a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie, it gets my goat.
Armed with such skills, Hagen was a consummate match play competitor. Competing back in the days when the PGA Championship was match play, Hagen won twenty-two consecutive matches. While his ability to win holes was consummate, his ability to read an opponents psyche was equally as strong.
Hagen was a master at drawing opponents into his web, engaging them in discussions of national exhibition tours where their talents would earn them fame and fortune, causing his opponents to begin to concentrate on the spoils of victory before the victory had been earned. Then, with equal proficiency, Hagen would flip a mental switch, giving 100 percent concentration to the shot at hand, and deliver a crushing blow.
He was known to march up to the tee box when his opponent had the honor and confidently whip a club from his bag that was either far too much or far too little than for what the shot called for. Time and again, his unsuspecting opponents would fly a green or come up woefully short, only to have Walter slip the ruse club back into his bag and proceed with the club he had always intended on using.
Youre only here for a short visit. Dont hurry, dont worry, and be sure to smell the flowers along the way. -- Walter Hagen
Hagen foresaw the celebrity power of an athlete who could work magic with a golf club and ball and took full advantage of his foresight by booking exhibitions around the world and maximizing every opportunity for publicity. Hagen enjoyed life to the fullest, and he is reported to have shown up on the first tee of many an event still wearing the apparel from the night before (Hagen was an impeccable dresser and was well aware of what he was doing). He once showed up on the first tee in a top hat and tails. He was the first golfer to hire an agent, and his agent only built on The Haigs already larger-than-life reputation.
Hagen was equally at ease with winning Majors as he was rubbing shoulders with kings and barons of industry. As such, Hagen is rightfully credited with elevating the status of the profession by refusing to allow the star of the show, himself, to be treated with anything less than treatment befitting his status.
His posture in this regard was a radical departure from the norm and was met with considerable consternation at the onset. Once, while competing at the Open Championship at Royal St. Georges, Hagen was refused admittance into the clubhouse, required instead to change in the cramped offices of the golf professionals office. Instead, Hagen hired an Austro-Daimler limousine to ferry him back and forth from his posh hotel in the city, parking the eye-catching automobile in front of the clubhouse and using it to change his clothes and eat his meals. Hagen went on to win the tournament.
The following year, at the Open Championship at Royal Troon, where he finished second, he was asked to come into the clubhouse for the awards ceremony. He refused the offer, countering that if he was not invited in the clubhouse during the tournament proper, he certainly would not enter now. He said that tournament officials could make the presentation in the nearby pub where he had been spending his leisure hours. Hagens trailblazing accomplishments on behalf of golf professionals was recognized by Arnold Palmer at a testimonial dinner for Hagen, when he stated, If not for you, Walter, this dinner tonight would be downstairs in the pro shop, not the ballroom.
Walter Hagen was such a colorful character that it is easy to overlook his immense talent; however, he would finish his career having won the PGA Championship five times (and an amazing four in a row from 1924 to 1927), the Open Championship four times, and the U.S. Open twice, for a total of eleven major victories. His other international titles included the French Open, Belgian Open, and the Canadian Open.
He also won the Western Open, considered a major at the time he played, five times (this is an important note because the world is willing to concede that Joness Grand Slam included two majors, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur, while those same two events are not considered to be majors today, so as a matter of equity, Hagen could be considered to have actually won sixteen majors, placing him second on the all-time list). Hagen did compete in the Masters, known at that time as the Augusta National Invitational, however, as the Masters did not even begin until 1934, and Hagen was well past his prime.
Hagen was institutional in the development of the Ryder Cup, once again seeming to grasp the events eventual magnitude, playing a pivotal role, in the form of helping to conceive the event and supporting it financially, in the first event in 1927 at Worcester Country Club (won by the Americans) and playing on the first five teams, finishing with an overall record of 7'1'1. He would serve as a non-playing captain in 1937, leading the American squad to an 8 to 4 victory.
As life sometimes includes ironic, if cruel, twists of fate, Hagen, a lifelong smoker, would suffer from cancer of the larynx, which would rob the great communicator of the ability to speak and ultimately take his life at the age of seventy-six on October 5, 1969.
Having competed in an era before mass media and before Bobby Jones captured the attention of the country, the man who is arguably responsible for not only the Ryder Cup, but for the rich-and-famous modern American (and world-wide) touring professional, sits somewhere between the pages of history with few realizing the full impact of his life on the game we love.
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a golf journalist, best-selling author (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fairways of Life) and a golf course general manager. To view Matt's books or sign up for his 'Golf Wisdom Newsletter,'go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.