"If you come in second on Sunday, they will not ever remember your name on Tuesday."
For every thing that happens in this life, there had to be a first. Somewhere in our murky past, there was the first humanoid who managed to create fire. There was the first man or woman who churned milk into butter. There was (or soon will be) the first Frenchman who understood that bathing might be a good idea. Walter C. Hagen was the first man to ever make a profession out of playing golf. He was also the first golf professional to win a million dollars, and this was back when a million bucks meant something. He won 11 major golf championships, and (until Tiger Woods grows up) this is currently the best anyone except the Golden Bear (20) and Bobby Jones (13) has ever done. And Hagen only got to play in three of the tournaments which are considered the six majors these days. One could say, in light of this fact, that his record is better than anyone's to date. One could imagine that Tiger Woods might loosen up one day and consider the unrestrained Walter Hagen as a role model instead of the sometimes-pompous Nicklaus.
Also known as "The Haig" or "Sir Walter," Hagen understood that showmanship is a large part of any game. He single-handedly increased the size of golfing galleries to crowds previously unheard of in the sport prior to his elegant arrival on the scene. Once, at the British Open in 1924 (just known as "The Open" during those days), he was faced with a six-foot putt on the final hole for the win. He struck the ball and turned away, tossing his putter to his caddy. He walked off the green as the ball fell in the hole. Just imagine seeing that on the PGA tour one Sunday these days. Johnny Miller would be laughing his ass off just as surely as Peter Kostis would be tumbling into apoplexy describing the careless abuse of this sacred and honored sport. But if some young upstart golfer had the balls to pull it off, you can bet your ass that he'd be one famous dude that Monday morning when the papers hit the rack and the daily sports shows cued up. Being cool means taking a chance and pulling it off. There seems to be too much money on the line these days to allow for a whole lot of cool.
Walter finished fourth in the U.S. Open in 1913 which must have pissed him off just a bit, because he won it the next year in 1914, thus becoming the first professional golfer to ever win the U.S. Open. You'd have to understand the world of the professional golfer back in the early 20th Century. They were not the esteemed gentlemen that (for the most part) make up the PGA Tour today. Today's professional golfers live the lives that were reserved for the amateurs in Hagen's day. And most of the golfers who played in and won tournaments at that time were amateurs. You can imagine that this was primarily made up of the Leisure Class of the day. Folks like Hagen were the interlopers to a very snazzy little private club, and anyone who called themselves a Professional Golfer was not allowed in the clubhouse during tournaments. So Walter would roll up in the most expensive ride available during the time (usually a Rolls-Royce) and change clothes in his car. It might not be using too much imagination to think that a couple of underclothed and over-endowed hootchie mommas might be standing guard outside the auto to make sure no one saw dear Walter unclothed (except them). Throw in a couple of Champagne glasses sitting on the trunk with a chilled bottle being poured by Walter's caddy/servant-man prior to the walk to the first tee and I think you get the picture of the life he lived.
The insults came primarily on the island where golf began. One could imagine that it was a stubborn streak of American rebelliousness that led to some of his extravagant behavior during some of the visits to play the British Open. Once, he refused to go into the clubhouse to accept the trophy he'd won because he'd been refused admittance all during the tournament until that point. In later years, he played a round with King Edward VIII, who later gave up the throne to marry, becoming the Duke of Windsor. Just to tweak the gallery, at one point in the round he yelled from across the green, "Hey, Eddie, hold the flag, would you please?"
He was born in Rochester, New York, on December 21, 1892. Those pesky Sagittarians. What can you do with them? His mom was Margaret Daly (no lineage to the current Daly -- a Taurus, if that helps you understand -- who's wishing he had just a thimbleful of the class old Walter showed with a tumbler in each hand). She was from Northern Ireland, County Antrim. His dad was a German blacksmith. He was one of five kids and the only boy. He practiced in the family's cow pastures while working as a taxidermist. He 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 and wound up winning that aforementioned U.S. Open at Midlothian Country Club at Blue Island, Ill.
He won the U.S. Open again in 1919 and then went on to win four British Opens in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929
He lived to the ripe old age of 76 and died October 6, 1969. I imagine him listening to the Isley Brothers on the radio singing "It's Your Thing" as he passed on to play once more with Gene Sarazen and the rest of the boys on that other course. During his tumultuous life, he was married twice. His first wife, Margaret, was the mother of his only son, Walter Jr. His second wife, Edna, divorced him in 1927, saying that the only thing that took him away from golf was dinner and that sometimes he skipped that, as well, in order to work on his swing.
After he resolved to live as a single raconteur, he spent most of his life 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.
During his playing days, his main rival was Bobby Jones. It's often said that his greatest accomplishment during his entire life was besting Jones in a 1926 challenge match. Much later, in 1950, Jones won more votes than Hagen to become "the greatest golfer in the first half of the century." Hagen said, "I would have voted for Jones myself. He was marvelous." You cannot imagine how much cachet these two had back in these formative years in the early days of golf as a well-known sporting event. The papers of the day loved to play on the differences between the stoic Jones and the frivolous Hagen. But if you had been there, you would have seen that they were both loving every minute of it, each in their own special way. Jones hit the perfect shots, right down the center, as Hagen sprayed them right and left only to get up and down from impossible situations. He was what is known as a "head shaking" player, meaning that the spectators and competitors would just have to wonder, "How the hell did he make 3 from there?"
Walter Hagen retired from golf in 1939, at the age of 47, with 75 tournament wins. Two U.S. Opens, five Western Opens, five PGA championships (Hagen helped found the PGA in 1916), and four British Opens. He also captained the American Ryder Cup teams in 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935 and 1937. If the Senior Tour (now called the Champions Tour in some marketing fuck-up beyond belief) had existed in 1942, I am quite sure that Sir Walter would have found a new reason to toss back a few and tee it up again.
"You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry. Don't worry.
And be sure to smell the flowers along the way."