His obituary read “He’s in golf to live–not to make a living.” But Walter Hagen proved he could do both. He dominated the world of golf for more than 25 years, using it to gain entry into the realm of society’s elite, even into the company of kings.
He was the first athlete to become a millionaire playing a sport. He created legends every time he raised his club–or his glass. He was the first to grab the check and the last to leave the party.
|A young Walter Hagen in 1912, two years before he won the U.S. Open at the age of 21.
Born Dec. 21, 1892, in Rochester New York, Hagen was the son of a blacksmith, the second of five children, and the only boy. At age five he began playing golf in the family cow pasture. “I would herd the cows all in one spot where I had made a hole, so they could eat the grass and make a close putting surface.”
He caddied at an exclusive country club where the club pro, Andy Christy, gave him lessons. One day a cocky Hagen challenged his mentor, “How about my beating you nine fast holes?”
“His eyes covered me slowly for a few seconds,” Hagen later recalled, “then he said, ‘Young man, when I want to play golf, I’ll ask you.’ Then he turned and walked away.
“Was my face red! What a lesson he taught me. I never forgot that. Afterwards when I wanted to play with him I was always careful to ask politely, ‘Would you play a few holes with me, Mr. Christy, and give me some pointers on the game?'”
Hagen continued his golf while working as a taxidermist. He also played semi-pro baseball and was about to be scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies in Florida in 1914. He cancelled the baseball tryout to play in a golf tournament, winning the U.S. Open at Midlothian Country Club at Blue Island, Ill. At age 21, doors started to open for the blacksmith’s son.
Hanging around exclusive country clubs gave him a taste for fine clothes. Tall and handsome with sleek black hair, he dressed elegantly and enjoyed being dapper. His expertise at golf allowed him to mingle with the elite on the course, but at the time golfers were not allowed entry into the clubs themselves, especially in England.
Hagen, who won the U.S. Open again in 1919 and then went on to win four British Opens in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929, changed all that with the force of his own personality, mingling with the creme of world society.
Hagen’s attitude on the golf course made him popular not only with the elite but with other golfers and fans. A tournament official irritated by Hagen’s lateness to the tee once asked, “Practicing a few shots, Walter?”
“Nope,” said The Haig, “having a few.”
|Hagen puts on a golf exhibition shortly after winning the U.S. Open in 1914.
He attracted a huge following and often outdueled the other famous golfers of the era, including Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. But in 1950 when sports writers voted Bobby Jones the greatest golfer in the first half of the century, Hagen said “I would have voted for Jones, myself. He was marvelous.”
In 1926 Hagen challenged Jones to a pair of 36-hole matches in Florida. Hagen won both. “It was my greatest thrill in golf,” he said.
Hagen traveled the world and played in more than 2,000 tournaments, but he chose to live in Michigan at the Detroit Athletic Club and the Book Cadillac Hotel. In 1954 he moved to a 20-acre estate near Traverse City overlooking East Long Lake.
Grand Rapids named a street after him. The city at the time was home to the largest golf equipment plant in the world, part of the Wilson Sporting Goods company. He married and divorced twice, and had one son, Walter Hagen Jr..
After Edna Strauss divorced him in 1927, she said, “Unless a woman is a golf addict herself, she should never marry a confirmed golfer. It can only go on the rocks. Walter lived golf, asleep and awake. Before dinner and after he was practicing strokes in the living room.”
He lost a grandson, Walter Hagen III, in 1963 to a target shooting accident.
Hagen once played golf with King Edward VIII, who later gave up the throne to marry, becoming the Duke of Windsor. “Hey Eddie, hold the flag, would you please,” Walter yelled at the king, to the astonishment of the British gallery.
Among Detroit royalty, Hagen told about playing with Edsel Ford at the Detroit Golf Club one day: “As I approached Edsel he yelled to his caddie, standing some paces away, to bring over his bag. He reached for the bag, unzipped a large pocket, and fumbled around inside it. A.38 automatic pistol dropped to his feet.
“I drew back in pretended alarrm. ‘Edsel,’ I said, ‘If you want this hole so badly, I’ll concede it. You can certainly have it!”
Ford grinned and explained the gun was a result of kidnapping threats.
|Hagen’s first wife, Margaret, with their son, Walter Jr., in 1921.
Arnold Palmer, a golf legend himself, said, “The biggest thrill I got when I set a British Open record of 276 strokes at Troon, was to have Walter Hagen phone me from Traverse City to congratulate me. I didn’t even know The Haig knew I was alive until then.”
A testimonial dinner held for Hagen August 20, 1967 at the Traverse City Golf and Country Club generated a shower of praise from Hagen fan inside and out of golf:
* Former President Dwight Eisenhower: “Your achievements at home and in Great Britain have earned you both the PGA’s Hall of Fame and an enduring place in the affections of all for your stout heart and great talent.”
* Edward, Duke of Windsor: “I recall the great kick we all used to get out of watching you play and win on the great championship courses.”
* Bob Hope: “Walter’s the fellow who said, ‘After watching Bob’s swing, you’re not sure which rest room he uses.'”
* Bobby Jones: “I always enjoyed the many rounds of golf we played together, even when you were giving me a good beating.”
* Ben Hogan: “Without you, golf would not be what it is today. I give you my deepest thanks.”
* Byron Nelson: “There is absolutely no way that we golf professionals can properly thank you for your great contribution to our profession.”
* Richard Arlen: “Had he not taken so much time smelling the flowers along the way he could have been perennial president of the United States.”
|Hagen shoots out of the bunker on No. 7 at Muirfield, Scotland, on his way to his fourth British Open victory in 1929.
Palmer told Hagen that the testimonial dinner “could be held in the pro shop if it weren’t for all you did to help build the game.”
Scotland’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which had barred Hagen 48 years earlier, made him an honorary member, something they had done for only three other Americans — Dwight Eisehnower, Tyre Jones. Jr. and Francis Quimet.
“Anyone who has known me through the years would be aware of my respect for British golf and my deep feeling for the Royal and Ancient, who have so proudly carried their banner in the forefront of golf. Though I have not publicly been known for an excess of humility, I assure you at this time it is with just such an emotion that I am pleased to accept your most gracious offer.”
Hagen, a meticulous dresser, became the first sportsman to be named to the country’s best dressed list.
He spent his money as fast as he made it, always going first class. “I never hurry. I never worry. Always stop to smell the flowers along the way. It is later than you think.”
Money came easily. He got as much as $100,000 for golf exhibitions, commanded huge fees for endorsements and made money on the stock market. He spent it with flair and graciousness.
He wrote an autobiography, “The Walter Hagen Story” which was serialized in the Detroit News in 1956.
Hagen died Oct. 6, 1969, at age 76 at his Traverse City estate. He was buried next to his grandson at Holy Sepulchre Mausoleum in Southfield.
His pall bearers included Arnold Palmer, PGA commissioner George B. Morris; General Motors executive Al Watrous; Oakland Hills pro Walter Burkemo, and Detroit News sports writer John Walter.
| Hagen, right, with Bobby Jones, his chief rival during his career.