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Golf

Course selection is a nod to first U.S. captain Hagen

By Associated Press
Published September 14, 2004

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - When Oakland Hills was selected as the site of the 35th Ryder Cup, the PGA of America chose more than one of America's golf jewels. It selected the one-time home of the man who helped usher the competition into its present-day prominence.

Nine years before he captained America's first Ryder Cup team in 1927, Walter Hagen became the first golf professional at Oakland Hills, located in this affluent suburb 25 miles north of Detroit.

By then, Hagen had won the U.S. Open - the first of his 11 major championships - and was well on his way to establishing himself as the world's best player of the roaring '20s.

The princely Hagen went on to serve as captain of the first six U.S. Ryder Cup squads, winning four times against Britain in the biennial matches. Hagen's admirers say it's appropriate, if only coincidental, the Ryder Cup will be played at a club that adopted the New York native more than 80 years ago.

Hagen lived for years at the Detroit Athletic Club and often attended Tigers baseball games. He is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in suburban Detroit.

"He was such a flamboyant and outgoing person, I think that had a great deal with helping promote the Ryder Cup in the early years," Arnold Palmer, another former Ryder Cup captain, said. "He was probably the most outgoing of all the golfers."

"Outgoing" might be a bit of an understatement for the gregarious Hagen, whose nickname, appropriately, was Sir Walter. He was a natty dresser, known for ordering silk shirts from Japan and shoes from England. On at least one occasion, he showed up at a tournament minutes before his starting time wearing a tuxedo. Turns out, he'd partied into the wee hours on a yacht that was late getting back to its berth.

Tall and handsome with slicked-back dark hair, Hagen stayed at Oakland Hills for only a year before setting out to play in tournaments and exhibitions worldwide. He became golf's first superstar, winning the U.S. Open twice, the British Open four times and the PGA Championship five times.

In all, he won roughly 75 titles and is considered the first athlete to become a millionaire from competing at his sport. "I never wanted to be a millionaire," Hagen once remarked. "I just wanted to live like one."

Hagen excelled at match play - which pits one golfer against another - and was close to unbeatable in the 1920s.

He won the PGA Championship a record four straight times, his final trophy coming in 1927 with a 1-up victory over Joe Turnesa. That's when the Ryder Cup made its debut, and Hagen was a natural to lead the U.S. team because of his skill, his style and his popularity around the world.

Captains often played in the matches until 1963, and Hagen lost only one match in compiling a 7-1-1 record.

Still, Hagen often is remembered more for his deeds away from the course. The son of a blacksmith, Hagen was at the forefront of charging large sums of money for playing in exhibitions and signing endorsement deals.

Palmer said one of Hagen's greatest contributions was opening clubhouses to professionals, who before Hagen's time were looked upon as second-class individuals behind amateur stars like Bobby Jones. Hagen wouldn't stand for such treatment. Doors began opening after he parked his limo outside the clubhouse at a British Open and used it as his changing room.

"The fact that he did what he did and called attention to the things that all of us enjoy today - like the professional opportunity to be in the clubhouse - is the sort of thing Walter Hagen should be noted for," said Palmer, who served as a pallbearer at Hagen's funeral in 1969.

Stephen Lowe, a history professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois who has written on Hagen's life, said Hagen traveled so much in the 1920s and 1930s that he never established a home and landed back in Detroit.

"He'd made some contacts at Oakland Hills, so this was where he wound up," said Lowe.

Hagen never seemed bothered by what others thought of his record. He was all about enjoying life, which he summed up in his most-noted line: "Don't hurry, don't worry, and stop to smell the roses along the way."

[Last modified September 14, 2004, 00:36:12]


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