Like that yacht, Tiger? Give big thanks to Hagen

Once the game's undisputed No.1 player, "The Haig" made being a pro golfer a worthy and lucrative pursuit.

Published August 9, 2005

Imagine Tiger Woods or any of his peers being denied access to the clubhouse at Baltusrol Golf Club this week during the PGA Championship simply because they are pro golfers. Imagine them having to work a club job just to make ends meet, or exhibitions paying them more than the prize money for winning a major championship.

Today, tour professionals are pampered with excess, given courtesy cars and lavish meals, treated like royalty, recruited with zeal. Though they can make a healthy sum from outings and endorsements, they don't need to, given the millions they can make from tournaments alone.

And for that, perhaps they should give thanks to Walter Hagen, a larger-than-life character who relished being a pro golfer at a time when it was far from fashionable.

Hagen is the next name for Woods to catch on his way to history. When Woods captured the British Open last month at St. Andrews, he ran his professional major-championship total to 10, joining Jack Nicklaus (18) and Hagen as the only players in double digits.

Though most of the attention has been on Woods' ability to catch the Golden Bear, "The Haig" is still one in front with 11 major championships. Woods will try to match that number at the 87th PGA Championship, which begins Thursday in Springfield, N.J.

Hagen won two U.S. Opens, four British Opens and five PGA Championships when the tournament was contested at match play. Overall, Hagen won 44 PGA Tour events, the number Woods matched with his British Open title.

"Golf never had a showman like him," the late Gene Sarazen said of Hagen. "All the professionals who have a chance to go after the big money today should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers. It was Hagen who made professional golf what it is."

Hagen grew up in Rochester, N.Y., near Oak Hill Country Club. In 1913, he decided to enter his first U.S. Open and finished fourth behind a trio of players, including British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. A former caddie named Francis Ouimet won the tournament in a playoff, a monstrous occasion in American golf.

Ouimet's victory overshadowed the accomplishment of Hagen, who won the U.S. Open the next year at Chicago's Midlothian Country Club. He also won the tournament in 1919.

He would go on to become the first American-born player to win the British Open in 1922, the first U.S. Ryder Cup team captain (six times) and the first to win a major four straight times, as he did at the PGA from 1924-27. Before amateur Bobby Jones came to prominence, Hagen was the undisputed No.1 player in the game.

But he did far more than win tournaments. He changed perceptions and made being a pro golfer a worthy pursuit.

"Professionals at that time were not called "Mister,"' said Sidney Matthew, a Tallahassee attorney and golf historian who has written about Hagen as well as Jones. "They were not given the recognition of social status. They were usually uneducated, came up through the caddie ranks. They had reputations of sleeping in bunkers and overindulging.

"Walter is credited with opening up the public consciousness and helping golf professionals to be treated with class."

Before Hagen, there were no professional golfers, only golf club professionals, men who were viewed as little more than servants. When they played competitively, it was for small amounts.

In 1920, Hagen traveled to England to play in the British Open at Royal Cinque Ports in a town called Deal. There, professionals were not allowed to enter the clubhouse but were asked to use a nearby shed for a locker room. In protest, Hagen used his limousine as a locker room and had it parked each day in front of the main entrance.

Two years later, Hagen won his first Open at Royal St. George's and the next year finished runnerup to Arthur Havers at Royal Troon, where he refused to take part in the trophy presentation because pros had been denied access to the clubhouse all week. Instead, Hagen marched onto the steps and invited the crowd to a nearby pub.

Perhaps that is why the PGA Championship meant so much to Hagen. The tournament, which started in 1916, was for pros only. At the time, it was match play, and Hagen won an incredible 22 matches and 31 of 32 over a seven-year period.

"If Bob Jones had not won the Grand Slam in 1930, what we would all be talking about would probably be Hagen's record in the PGA, particularly the four in a row," said Rand Jerris, the director of the museum and archives for the United States Golf Association. "The PGA was the most prestigious of the professional events at the time, and if it weren't for Jones, that is what we would all point to."

Because Jones was an amateur, he could not compete in the PGA, but their rivalry extended to U.S. and British Opens, as well as exhibition matches.

"The two were the greatest players of their era," said Fred Beltz, historian at Oak Hill Country Club. "One was an amateur, one a professional. One understated, one overstated. One a family man and much more concerned about being at home. The other just the opposite.

"I wish I had known the man. I think he'd be the type of guy who would be a thrill to be around. He was the guy who used to ask who was going to finish second. He said he didn't want to be a millionaire, he just wanted to live like one. ... And, of course, he was just the master sportsman."

One aspect that Woods would surely appreciate about Hagen was his ability to market himself. He was believed to be the first player to hire an agent, and he used his winning ways on the course to secure lucrative exhibition fees and endorsements. Hagen took a job as "president" of Pasadena Golf and Country Club in Gulfport in 1924, signing a four-year contract that paid him $30,000 a year for a token amount of work.

Stories abound about Hagen's love of the night life, how he would show up on the first tee wearing the clothes from the day before, a night of sleepless debauchery behind him. Much of it was embellished, but Hagen didn't mind. In fact, he believed it gave him an edge.

"He used a lot of gamesmanship," recalled five-time major-winner Byron Nelson, 93, who was 15 when he watched Hagen defeat Joe Turnesa 1-up at Cedar Crest Country Club in Dallas for his fourth straight PGA Championship title. "He was a great psychologist. He was very nice to play with, he was never unkind to his opponents. But he did stuff to get your attention. It was fun."

Comparing Woods' record with Hagen's is difficult because Hagen won all his majors before the Masters was even invented. The Western Open was on par with a major championship in Hagen's era, and he won it five times. So should his total really be 16? And what about Jones? He won seven professional majors. But he also won five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur when they were considered huge. That gives him 13, same as Woods, who also won three U.S. Amateurs.

"Hagen was certainly the dominant professional of his era," Jerris said. "If Tiger has been responsible for the revolution of the game, bringing more people to golf, higher television ratings and greater attendance ... Hagen was the central figure in his era. Jones was certainly the golden boy, but Hagen did a lot to promote the professional game, to raise people's awareness of it and its social standing."