To most golfers who have any recognition of Walter Hagen it is as the ultimate showman, a man with flashy clothes and cars, a way with women, and a sense for the dramatic in golf competitions. Unfortunately this pushes his compelling competitive record and the seismic changes he brought to status of the professional golfer to the back burner and relegates memory of him to more of a caricature performer than one of the truly great golfers in history.
The attached biographical article called “Sir Walter” by Ron Fimrite was written for Sports Illustrated in 1989. It is a thorough account of the real and unreal life of Walter Hagen who single handedly changed the position of professional golfers in the U.S. and around the world. He deals with many of the myths about the man as well as the full breadth of his accomplishments both on the course and around the clubhouse.
Hagen’s competitive record was astounding. He won 11 majors over his career-(2) U.S. Opens, (4) British Opens, and (5) PGA Championships. Between 1916 and 1928 he won 32 of 34 matches in the PGA Championship, including 22 in a row, a record that is astonishing by any standard. Fimrite estimates Hagen won some 75 tournaments and played in more than 3,000 exhibition matches from 1912 to 1939. Much like Tiger in our time, Hagen’s feverish popularity helped set new standards for tournament purses and exhibition fees from which all of his professional brethren benefited.
His only shortcoming was not of his own doing. He played in an era where the amateurs were considered the aristocrats of golf and during the reign of the greatest amateur of them all, Bobby Jones. The fact that he never won a British or U.S. Open in which Jones played clung like a persistent piece of lint to his cashmere sweaters.
Hagen’s outsized personality was well cultivated. He won more money than any professional golfer of his time and appeared to spend twice what he earned. From 1926 he became known for his carousing and, as Fimrite says, “By then he had the money to live in a the grand manner and he did”. His antics made golf popular to the entire public. “He brought golf into the mainstream of the Golden Age of Sport. He was as colorful and popular as many of the other legends of his time, Ruth, Grange, Dempsey, Tilden…..golf became not merely a rich man’s game but everyman’s game.”
To the professionals who came after him he was a ground breaking hero. To the rest of us he was just another character of the Roaring Twenties who was bigger than life. Either way you see it, enjoy the details of the exploits and accomplishments of Sir Walter in this timeless article.
(Click to read Ron Fimrite’s SI article “Sir Walter” from 1989)