Walter Hagen was golf’s greatest showman, a flamboyant, princely romantic who captivated the public and his peers with sheer panache. He was “Sir Walter,” and “The Haig.” Such is his legacy as the most colorful character the game has ever seen that it often overshadows what a supreme player he was.
Hagen was the world’s first full-time tournament professional. He won so often and in such lavish style that he single-handedly ushered in the era of the playing pro-who through the early century was clearly of a lower station than the game’s wealthy amateurs-into the socially exclusive world of golf. As Arnold Palmer, the other great democrat of his sport, once said at a dinner honoring Hagen: “If not for you, Walter, this dinner tonight would be downstairs in the pro shop, not in the ballroom.”
"I expect to make at least seven mistakes a round, therefore, when I make a bad shot, it's just one of the seven."
Of course, what gave weight to Hagen’s persona was his often underrated talent and never overrated champion’s heart. Hagen won 11 professional major championships, third only to Jack Nicklaus with 18 and Tiger Woods with 15. Between 1914 and 1929, he won the PGA Championship five times (four of them in a row, only the second time that has been accomplished in a major championship); the British Open four times and the U.S. Open twice. He also won the Western Open five times between 1916 and 1931 when it was widely considered a major championship.
Hagen is generally considered the greatest match player of all time. He once won 22 straight 36-hole matches in the PGA and, between the first round in 1921 and the fourth round of 1928, 32 out 33. With a long game often made erratic by the pronounced sway in his swing, but with an incredible ability to scramble and putt, Hagen lived by the principle that “three of those and one of them still count four.” After he defeated Bob Jones, 12 and 11, in a 72-hole challenge match in 1926-which temporarily decided which of them was the greatest golfer of the day-even the gentlemanly Jones couldn’t contain his frustration. “When a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie,” said Jones, “it gets my goat.”
Hagen had a model attitude during competition, one part bravado and five parts serenity. He understood completely that the only shot that matters is the next one, and wouldn’t let a bad one ruffle him. “I expect to make at least seven mistakes a round,” he said. “Therefore, when I make a bad shot, it’s just one of the seven.” He never complained about bad breaks, and, perhaps because of that attitude, always seemed to be getting good ones. “I love to play with Walter,” said Jones. “He can come nearer beating luck itself than anybody I know.”
It was all a natural extension of his overall philosophy of life. Born in Rochester, N.Y., Dec. 21, 1892, the son of a blacksmith, Hagen came from modest beginnings and entered golf as a caddy, but he resolved to live big. “I never wanted to be a millionaire,” he said. “I just wanted to live like one.” Although an imposing six feet tall with slick black hair and covered in the finest fabrics, Hagen nonetheless had a kindly face and a twinkle of irony that invited rather than repelled the common man. His gestures were grand, but wonderfully human. When he won the 1922 British Open at Royal St. George’s, Hagen’s reaction to professionals not being allowed in the clubhouse was to hire an Austro-Daimler limousine, park it directly in front of the clubhouse and change his clothes and take his meals in the car.
Hagen once expressed his creed in these words: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” When he died in Traverse City, Mich., Oct. 5, 1969, there was no doubt he had lived it.