Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Gol

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9781476711218: Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Gol

During the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s, Walter Hagen was to golf what Babe Ruth was to baseball. The first professional golfer to make his living playing the game rather than teaching it, Hagen won eleven major professional tournaments over his long career - two U.S. Opens, four British Opens, and five PGA Championships (including an amazing streak of four consecutive PGA wins) - a record surpassed only by Jack Nicklaus. Hagen was also influential in helping to found the Ryder Cup and was the first American golfer to top $1 million in career earnings - a figure equivalent to over $40 million today. Award-winning sportswriter Tom Clavin has penned a thrilling biography that vividly recalls Hagen's dazzling achievements and the qualities that made him a star. Energetic, witty, and one of the best putters ever to walk the green, Hagen was a man who loved to party, was extraordinarily generous to his friends, and golfed the world over, giving exhibitions. He preferred to travel by limousine, and if he intended to stay awhile he'd bring a second limo just to transport his clothes, which were nothing but the finest. On his many trips across the Atlantic to compete in the Ryder Cup or British Open, Hagen was known to throw parties that lasted days, ending only when the ship reached the shore. He was also the first professional golfer to admit to playing not only for the love of the game, but also for the love of the winner's purse. Walter Hagen, forerunner of today's sports superstars, is as dynamic a character as can be found in American sports history. Bringing Hagen to life with incredible detail and countless anecdotes, Sir Walter is the authoritative biography of the man who helped create professional golf as it's known today.

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About the Author:

Tom Clavin is the author or coauthor of sixteen books. For fifteen years he wrote for The New York Times and has contributed to such magazines as Golf, Men's Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest, and Smithsonian. He is currently the investigative features correspondent for Manhattan Magazine. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

"JONES MEETS HAGEN TODAY AT WHITFIELD," blared the eight-column headline atop the front sports page of the Sarasota Herald on February 28, 1926.

Bobby Jones versus Walter Hagen was the equivalent of a heavyweight world championship bout in boxing. It would take a full week to determine the outcome -- 36 holes in Sarasota and seven days later an additional 36 holes in St. Petersburg. During that week many of the major daily newspapers and most golf fans around the country were focused on the events in Florida because they believed that the results of the match would determine who indeed was the best golfer on the planet.

For some, though, it was a match made in golf heaven. "The golfing world is not so much interested in the probable winner as it is having the chance to see the greatest professional golfer of the day -- if not in the history of American golf -- in direct competition with the greatest amateur and the most interesting golfer this country has ever produced," wrote Norman E. Brown, sports editor of the Sarasota Herald, four days before the contest.

Two players more different could not have been put into the golf ring together. Jones, from Georgia, was the newly minted challenger on the national and international golf circuits, the upstart who on St. Patrick's Day would turn only twenty-four. He had been born into a family of well-heeled Southern gentlemen and genteel ladies, and from an early age he'd had access to fine golf facilities for year-round play.

He was the boy next door with all-American good looks on a 5'8", 165-pound frame and impeccable manners (if you didn't count the incessant smoking and, offstage, the enjoyment of bourbon and salty talk). In 1923 he had won the U.S. Open, won the U.S. Amateur title in '24, lost the Open in a play-off in '25, then that same summer won a second consecutive Amateur Championship.

A modest and private man, Jones wasn't comfortable with crowds, though he always seemed to find the right thing to say when pressed in front of an audience. He was the poster boy for the honesty and integrity of golf thanks to a recent, well-publicized incident. In the previous year's U.S. Open in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had called a one-stroke penalty on himself. A poor iron shot on the 11th hole left his ball in tall grass. As Jones addressed the ball, it moved slightly. No one but him had seen the ball move, and even though U.S. Golf Association officials protested the penalty, Jones insisted on taking it. The National Championship ended in a tie, and Jones lost by one stroke in a play-off.

In very sharp contrast to Hagen, Jones's mode of dress was understated, his voice soft and even, and he was already married to the woman with whom he would share the rest of his life and raise three children.

Jones was the finest and most famous amateur in the world. Many golf purists hoped he would crush his opponent to demonstrate that playing for love, instead of money, made for a more worthy champion.

But there was more than love of golf to being an amateur at the time. All amateur players of note in the 1920s came from the upper class, were white, were of Anglo-Saxon descent, and belonged to private clubs. At these clubs and at tournaments amateurs were addressed as "Mister" to show the proper respect. Conveniently overlooked in media coverage of the 1926 match was that while, yes, Jones did love the game, he also represented a class of golfer that offered the best opportunity to keep golf the sport of blue-blooded gentlemen.

Hagen hailed from Rochester, New York, but in 1926 wherever he hung his hat was home. He was not only a professional, he also represented the new breed of golfer. He competed for money and was viewed by purists who favored the amateur ranks as being willing to play only if there was coin to be collected. (As will be seen later, this perception ignores the many charity events pros played for free, especially during World Wars I and II.) The upper crust was both fascinated and appalled by Hagen -- fascinated because of his dramatic flair, competitive drive, and winning ways, yet appalled because he was a dangerous man: Hagen was at the head of the barbarians approaching the gates of Rome.

The occupation of full-time professional golfer was less than seven years old; Hagen himself had invented it after winning the U.S. Open in 1919. He was the first champion player to emerge from the ranks of the caddies, he was a second-generation German American, and he came from a blue-collar family. He was not called "Mister" Hagen by private-club members and officials.

The Florida match was a classic American clash that this time was being played out in a golf arena: The college-educated Jones had inherited his money and social status; the seventh-grade dropout Hagen had earned his. Aristocracy was being challenged by the expanding working class.

At thirty-three, Hagen was at the peak of his abilities. He stood almost six feet and weighed a robust 180 pounds. He wore silk shirts and a red kerchief, and everything else on him was of the finest quality, down to his $100 custom-made shoes. Because of years of never wearing a hat, his oval face was tanned and weathered. His jet-black hair was slicked back perfectly and when he grinned, which was frequently, sunlight gleamed on his teeth. He smoked cigarettes not with casual or grinding abandon but with sensuous pleasure.

After golf, Hagen loved nothing more than to be out on the town most of the night with one hand on a beautiful woman and the other hand hoisting a full glass of what he liked to call "hypsonica," usually a scotch and water. Women were attracted to this famous, confident man, and he had developed an easy way with them which included calling them all "My dear" or "Sugar" because he had difficulty remembering names. (Men were all called "Junior," "Kid," or "Buddy.")

He could be, however, an awkward or even crude Lothario. Once, at a large party in New York in the 1920s, Hagen was introduced to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a buxom contralto with the Metropolitan Opera. She wore a low-cut gown; Hagen looked her over and queried, "Madam, do you know what a lovely bunker you would make?"

Hagen was at the top of his game in the late winter of 1926. He had two U.S. Opens to his credit (both won before Jones became a factor) to go with his two British Opens, and he had collected the last two PGA Championships, which were grueling match-play events, to go with a PGA victory back in '21.

The two competitors were opposites, all right, and would never be found traveling in the same circles away from the golf course, but they were united by mutual respect. They had battled each other in several tournaments, including the U.S. and British Opens, and had participated in team exhibition matches, especially in Florida during the winters.

Jones might have appeared to be a stick-in-the-mud compared to his glamorous rival, but he really wasn't dour at all. He liked to laugh with friends, just not on the course, though it seems that being on a course with Hagen did loosen him up a bit in public. One time Jones and Hagen, with partners, were staging an exhibition match. After Hagen's ball landed in a bunker, Jones secretly gave his caddie a twenty-dollar bill and instructed him to crumple it up and toss it into the bunker next to Hagen's ball.

When Sir Walter got ready for the sand shot, he spied the bill and, pretending this was all part of his pre-shot routine, he bent over, scooped up the bill, and smoothly slipped it into his pocket. Then Hagen and his partner lost the hole because of the infraction of removing a loose impediment in a hazard. Flustered for once, Hagen tried to explain, and Jones and the crowd exploded with laughter.

The time had come to pit them -- the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and the reigning Professional Golfers Association champion -- together just mano e mano over 72 holes on two separate days, and beyond that if necessary, to determine who would be left standing as the best in the world. Did the two golf gladiators object to all the hype in the national and especially the Florida press? Not at all. For Hagen, the more attention the better. Even Jones said, "I can't wait to step onto the course with Walter."

Bob Harlow had first suggested the idea of matching up Jones and Hagen. He had started out as a sports reporter and then skirted the line of being a publicist, similar to the role Atlanta sportswriter O. B. Keeler played with Jones. Finally Hagen, once more doing what no golfer had done before, hired Harlow to be his full-time PR rep and manager.

During the 1920s, Harlow had no trouble collecting and feeding good material about the Haig to newspapers and magazines such as the American Golfer and the Saturday Evening Post. Harlow's efforts, combined with Hagen's dashing appearance and personality, and his winning exploits in golf, which emerged during the decade as a major sport in America, placed Hagen in the upper stratosphere of sports stars, the one which also included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Johnny Weissmuller.

Then Harlow had the ultimate brainstorm: With golf writers and fans routinely mentioning Hagen and Jones in the same sentence and debating which one was the better player, why not let the two players settle it and generate a lot of ink and revenue along the way?

It was like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan playing one-on-one, a Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa home-run contest, Alydar racing against Affirmed, and Ali versus Frazier all rolled into the same week. Hagen immediately embraced the idea because of the potential for a very bright spotlight, the resentment he felt that Jones was sharing too much of the spotlight that he, Hagen, already had, and the money at stake. Jones was at first reluctant, then found a good reason to pick up the gauntlet.

An exhibition match featuring the two was a brilliant PR coup for golf. Good publicity helped the sport and its major figures carve out attention during a decade in which sports and individuals were followed with unprecedented enthusiasm. The 1920s were called the "Golden Age of Sport," and 1926 was the height of that Golden Age.

Babe Ruth was rewriting the baseball record book and Lou Gehrig was playing his first full season. Red Grange was helping the Chicago Bears dominate football after a brilliant college career. In tennis, Bill Tilden and Helen Wills were taking trophies away from the Europeans. Jack Dempsey was still the king of boxing, in the seventh year of his reign. That August, eighteen-year-old Gertrude Ederle from New York City became the first woman to swim the English Channel, and Johnny Weissmuller was muscling through water like no swimmer had done before. And in golf, it was time for Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones to play the ultimate exhibition match.

At the time, exhibition matches in golf were not unusual. In 1926 there was no official PGA Tour, just a loose affiliation of ten to twelve PGA-sanctioned tourneys with modest purses, not enough for a pro to make a living. While Hagen did not invent exhibition matches as a method of supplementing a pro golfer's income, with his popularity and showmanship he made them a profitable gate attraction. A player could make the same or more participating in an exhibition match as he could winning a tournament -- much the way today's players can collect huge fees for less work by doing corporate outings and made-for-TV exhibitions such as "The Skins Game."

The numerous exhibition matches played among the better-known golfers in the 1920s also offered fans in different parts of the United States (and in Hagen's case, the world) opportunities to see top-notch golf being played. Today, of course, there is enough radio, TV, and Internet coverage of golf events that the sport is available almost around the clock. In addition, with the combination of sanctioned events on the PGA, Champions, and LPGA tours and unofficial events, at least one tournament takes place in most of the fifty states.

Eighty years ago, however, there was only print coverage of golf, and the reportage routinely was given less space than baseball, boxing, or college football. For live action, the golfers had to bring the events to the audiences, and exhibition matches -- played in the South and West in the winter, the Midwest and East in the spring and fall -- were a bit like a traveling theater show.

By the time he hung up his spikes for good, Hagen would play more than two thousand exhibition matches just about everywhere but on the polar caps, at a time of relatively primitive transportation. From approximately 1915 to 1945, for literally millions of people around the world, the only live golf they witnessed featuring a top professional involved Walter Hagen.

Jones, however, played sparingly outside of tournaments, or as golf writer and editor Charles Price put it, "about as much as your average dentist." Unlike Hagen, his life did not revolve around golf, social events, and foreign adventure. He played some exhibition matches to try to keep his game sharp between "regular" events, and even though married with a child in '26, he was still a young man and exhibitions offered some travel. Florida in winter was more accommodating than Jones's Georgia home.

But this matchup was for money, and wasn't Jones an amateur? Was he risking his status? No, Jones thought at the time. In accepting the invitation to play Hagen, Jones stated right away that if he won, he would not accept the prize money, which of course added fuel to the fire of those who viewed Jones as playing purely for the love and glory of the game. Yet Jones was not being completely altruistic here.

In addition to being a brilliant golfer, Jones was a brilliant student who had ambitions that went beyond the fairway. In the fall of 1926 he intended to enter Emory University Law School, and since he wasn't making a penny from golf no matter how high he placed in tournaments, a non-golf source of income to pay tuition and support his family was a good idea.

Jones had been hired by Adair Realty Company in Atlanta as a salesman. One could do a lot worse than being in real estate in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Adair Realty owned land near the just-built Whitfield Estates Country Club in Sarasota. The course had been designed by Donald Ross, a Scottish transplant who was one of the top two or three golf architects in the country. It was a no-brainer that well-publicized and well-attended golf events at Whitfield would spur the sale of nearby lots and provide plenty of commissions for those on the sales team.

Actually, it was in the interests of both Hagen and Jones to stage this match and make sure it received a great deal of attention. While Hagen had several sources of golf-related income, he was affiliated with the St. Petersburg course and anything good for the course, such as a surge in membership and surrounding development, would be good for Hagen's income. Win or lose, staging half of the match at the Pasadena Golf Club put money in Sir Walter's deep and well-worn pocket.

In more general terms, though, there was a boom in golf in Florida. Given the economic frenzy of the Roaring Twenties, any golf activity attracting attention from other parts of the United States and even Europe meant that more people were visiting and moving to Florida. This created a lively climate for residential and golf-course development, bringing more jobs for golf pros and more venues for high-stakes exhibition matches.

It was a win-win situation for both golfers. But someone had to lose the match, and in the end some fans would exu...

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