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Hagen: A Swinger Who Changed the Game

August 14, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

In Britain, they called him Sir Walter. Around his native Rochester, N.Y., he was the Haig.

Walter Hagen, by any name, was one of the most remarkable golfers who ever played the game, one of the very best, and one of the very unusual.

Hagen won the PGA Championship five times when it was a grueling match-play event. No one except Jack Nicklaus has won it that many times. This week, the 85th PGA will be played for the first time in Rochester, not at the Haig's old Country Club of Rochester, but at Oak Hill Country Club.

When today's professional golfers enter the clubhouse, they should stop a moment and say thank you to Walter Hagen, the man who took the pros out of caddie shacks and parking lots and into the dining rooms of posh clubs, where before they were treated like dishwashers or gardeners.

His refusal to accept his place in the 1920s social structure broke down the barriers between the rich amateurs of the day and professionals. His demands for large sums for exhibitions helped raise the prize money for pro tournaments.

When one club refused him entrance into the clubhouse, Hagen rented a Rolls-Royce, complete with a footman, and parked it outside the front entrance -- then grandly used it to change into his golf clothes. He often arrived for tournaments in a chauffeur-driven limo, usually late so that everyone would be looking for him.

Hagen opened the doors for pros the way Arnold Palmer later opened the gates for everyone to become a golfer.

Curiously, their styles were similar. Hagen had a noticeable sway in his backswing, but when he lunged at the ball at impact, he had that same look of a man pounding on an anvil that made Palmer such a favorite several decades later. Perhaps Hagen came by it naturally; his father was a blacksmith.

Before the Masters became one of the Grand Slam's majors, Hagen won two U.S. Opens and four British Opens to go with his five PGAs. At the time, his 11 titles in what would be considered majors were second only to Bobby Jones' 13.

During that period, there was no such thing as a "major," but the Western Open was considered the second-most prestigious tournament in the country, second only to the U.S. Open and ahead of the PGA. Hagen won it five times from 1918 to 1932.

"I think Walter Hagen contributed more to golf than any player today or ever," Gene Sarazen told Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated in 1989. "He took the game all over the world. He popularized it."

He was not quite 6 feet tall but appeared taller, said golf writer Charles Price, "because he always walked around a course as if he owned it."

He was also notoriously late for starting times, a habit that seems impossible with today's rules, but times were different in the Roaring '20s.

Hagen once arrived on the first tee for the Pasadena Open in a tuxedo. His playing partners had already completed two holes.

"He had been up all night with no sleep and no food," wrote Grantland Rice, dean of sportswriters in that era. "They drove him to the third tee to catch his two playing partners. He had to play the first two holes [later] alone. Yet he finished with a 71.

"Later in the afternoon, he finished the second round in a sixsome, just at the edge of night. 'I can't lift my feet, I can't pivot a lick,' he told me. But he had a 72."

Spec Hammond, a familiar figure around Los Angeles in the early days of the L.A. Open, once recalled one of Hagen's tricks.

"He'd have me roll his tuxedo up in a wad so it looked like he'd worn it all night, when he'd really had a good night's sleep. And sometimes he'd play the first hole wearing his dancing pumps as if he'd just come from a party, then change into his golf shoes on the second tee."

Once, Hagen recalled in his 1956 autobiography, "The Walter Hagen Story," he was two hours late for a round with Prince Fumitaka Konoye of Japan. His response to his tardy arrival, "Well, the prince wasn't going anywhere, was he?"

An old friend from Rochester was quoted as saying, "Walter had the guts of a burglar."

It was his association with royalty that inadvertently helped break down the barrier between the professional golfer and the country club set.

The Prince of Wales, a golfing fanatic, invited Hagen to lunch at Royal St. George's, site of last month's British Open. The maitre d' discreetly told the prince that there were rules prohibiting players from dining rooms.

"You stop this nonsense or I'll take the Royal out of St. George's," roared the prince. When word reached America of the incident, doors were not exactly opened, but there was a bit of a crack to squeeze through.

It was slow, though. It wasn't until 1960, more than 20 years after he had retired, that the Country Club of Rochester made Hagen a lifetime member. It was the course where he had started as a caddie, lugging bags for 10 cents a round and an occasional nickel tip.

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