From the Golf Journal Archives - Sorry About That, Walter…

Dec 21, 2012

Were it not for Bob Jones’ inimitable Grand Slam, Walter Hagen’s four successive PGA Championships might be the enduring standard of excellence in American golf.

by Frank Hannigan

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1978 issue of Golf Journal.)

WILLIAM D. RICHARDSON’S account of the 1927 PGA Championship in The American Golfer magazine began as if he intended it to be etched in granite. “Having watched Walter Hagen snap his fingers in the face of fate and make new golf history by winning the PGA title for the fourth successive time,” Richardson wrote, “one cannot help but feel that absolutely nothing remains to be seen.”

As it turned out, there was something left – the Grand Slam of Bob Jones in 1930, an achievement so staggering as to relegate all other happenings in golf, both before and after 1930, to a lesser order of things.

Jones’ feat commanded enormous attention. The New York Times, Richardson’s regular employer, devoted nearly eight columns to the final episode, the last round of the 1930 United States Amateur Championship. That came to about 8,000 words. Richardson’s copy was excellent; even if it hadn’t been, he probably deserved a special Pulitzer Prize for the typing alone.

Suppose, though, that somewhere along his path to glory, Jones had stumbled. Opportunities to stumble were certainly plentiful – in the 1930 British Amateur alone, Jones had to survive three furious matches of 18 holes or more before his relatively comfortable 7-and-6 victory over Roger Wethered in the final. Remove just one key stroke from any one of those three matches – the perfect stymie Jones laid Cyril Tolley on the 18th green in the fourth round, for example, or the treacherous eight-foot sidehill putt he holed on the 18th green for his 1-up decision over Jimmy Johnston in the sixth round – and voila! No Grand Slam!

Without the Slam to consider, of course, the story of American golf would swerve in another direction. What would now be the enduring standard of excellence? My vote goes to Walter Hagen’s performance in the PGA Championship during the 1920s.

HAGEN WON THE PGA IN 1921, did not play in 1922, was runner-up to Gene Sarazen in 1923, and then, starting in 1924, he ripped off four straight championships. During that seven-year stretch, his match-play record in the PGA was 30 wins and 1 loss (to Sarazen in a 38-hole final in 1923).

Imagine winning 30 out of 31 matches, and at the highest level of competition! Make no mistake, the fields in the PGA Championships during the 1920s included some of the finest players the game has seen, players whose names actually deserve the often overworked term “legendary.” In 1921, at Inwood Country Club, Far Rockaway, N.Y., the roster of players who reached the match-play phase included Freddie McLeod, Bobby Cruikshank, Cyril Walker, Johnny Farrell, Gene Sarazen, and Jock Hutchison. Hagen won the first of his PGA victories by defeating Long Jim Barnes, 3 and 2 – and he had to shoot 69 in the morning round and 33 on the outgoing nine in the afternoon to do it.

Hagen passed up the 1922 PGA in favor of a lengthy (and lucrative) exhibition tour with Joe Kirkwood, the Australian trick-shot artist. In 1923, at Pelham Golf Club, Pelham, N.Y., he disposed of four opponents, one of whom was Freddie McLeod, before losing to Gene Sarazen in a bizarre final. On the 37th hole, Sarazen’s putt to keep the match alive had apparently died on the edge of the hole; just as he was starting to walk over to congratulate Hagen, however, the ball suddenly fell in. On the 38th hole, Sarazen seemed to have hooked his drive out of bounds. He went ahead and hit another tee shot, but Hagen apparently had the match won – only to discover, when they neared the landing area, that Sarazen’s ball was miraculously (1) back in bounds, and (2) nicely teed up in a pathway. Sarazen wound up with a birdie instead of his expected bogey, and won the match.

At French Lick Springs, Ind., in 1924, Hagen started his string of 22 straight matches won in the PGA Championship – five each in the four successive years he won the title, plus two more before bowing out to Leo Diegel, 2 and 1, in the third round in 1928. His victim in the 1924 final was Barnes, by 3 and 2 again. For the next three years, his record in the PGA went like this:

1925, Olympia Hills Country Club, Chicago, Ill. Defeated Al Watrous, Mike Brady, Leo Diegel (1 up, 40 holes), Harry Cooper, and Bill Mehlhorn

1926, Salisbury Golf Links, Westbury, N.Y. Defeated Joe Turnesa, Pat Doyle, Dick Grout, Johnny Farrell, and Leo Diegel.

1927, Cedar Crest Country Club, Dallas, Texas. Defeated Johnny Farrell, Tony Manero, Tommy Armour, Al Espinosa, and Joe Turnesa.

His record in stroke play was almost as impressive. It included victories in the U.S. Opens of 1914 and 1919, no less than four British Open triumphs between 1922 and 1929, and five Western Opens (during the period when the Western was exceeded in esteem only by the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship).

Yet today, Hagen is remembered largely for his extraordinary presence; surprisingly little is said about his playing record.

One reason is obvious. The man’s personal flair was indeed singular, and it very understandably tended to eclipse his other accomplishments. Especially in a day when almost all the best professionals came from humble circumstances and tended not to behave as if the world owed them a living, Hagen’s regal manner, his calculated way of playing to the gallery, and his more-than-occasional flashes of gamesmanship all contributed to the picturesque image of “Sir Walter.”

His clothing, which has been described by kindly historians as somewhat flashy, is a case in point. Hagen’s preoccupation with what he considered suitable attire manifested itself early. When he first ventured out from Rochester, N.Y., to play in the 1913 U.S. Open (at 21 years old, he finished in a tie for fourth), he sported a checked Scotch cap, a fancy red bandanna knotted ever so casually around his neck, a pure silk shirt striped in the brightest colors he could find, white buckskin shoes with thick red rubber soles (not to mention broad white laces and tongues that doubled daringly back over the instep), and gleaming white flannel trousers with the cuffs turned up just once. As every snappy dresser in Rochester knew in those days, one roll of the cuff indicated pure class; two rolls, the worst kind of hick. To us, accustomed as we are to watching small clusters of peacock-types wend slowly down the fairways in living color each weekend, Hagen’s costume may not seem especially bizarre. But in the 1913 U.S. Open, the vast majority of the field wore white shirts with stiff collars, neckties, and tightly buttoned jackets of suitably somber hue.

Another thing that tends to divert our attention from Hagen’s record is his swing, or what we see of it in photographs and read about in old accounts. We have been brainwashed into believing that the contemporary swing, epitomized by players like Johnny Miller, Jerry Pate, Hale Irwin, and Tom Watson, all but exhausts the possibilities of improving the art, and Hagen’s swing bore little resemblance to theirs. He swayed. No doubt about it, he swayed like a rocking-chair. As a matter of fact, he used what seems to us an outlandish amount of body movement, including a violent right-side thrust through the shot, culminating in a strange finish that saw his right shoulder pointed out at the target. Someone once remarked that Hagen finished as if he were about to sprint after the ball.

Whether his non-classic style was a contributing factor or not, no one knows, but the fact is that Hagen was not renowned for his accuracy with the driver. In a typical round, he was quite likely to hit a number of tee shots into areas of the golf course even The Oldest Member had never seen before, and a good many photographs show him at least partially enmeshed in the branches of one bush or another. Possibly because of the frequency with which he found himself in such positions, however, Hagen was also one of the truly great players of trouble shots the game has known. His contemporaries agree that he could do every manner of incredible things with his irons, especially the more lofted ones, and that he was a magician with his putter, which he played from a very open stance.

Hagen’s temperament, too, was admirably suited to this kind of play. Richardson put it this way: “Hagen is the best forgetter of golf shots in the business. Walter starts out knowing he can’t possibly play perfect golf. He figures in advance that he is bound to play a few bad shots and he allows for them before they happen. When they do he isn't disturbed.”

Also, in considering Hagen’s record, it is important to remember that he was a consumate player of matches – and that he played during an era in which match play was a far more significant part of professional golf than it is today. The first PGA Championship was played in 1916, the same year the association was formed, and it was match play from the start. The conditions during Hagen’s reign were brutal. First, you had 36 holes of stroke play, in one day, to qualify. The low 32 scorers progressed to the match play phase, which made for five rounds of matches in five days, with each match played at 36 holes. Thus, the winner had to play 12 rounds in six days.

Hagen was 35 when he last survived that grind, and he didn’t do pushups, and occasionally he was even known to miss his bedtime entirely. So, small credit to the USGA for decreeing, after the 1964 U.S. Open, that two rounds in one day made the championship too much of an endurance contest. And still less to the 25-ish touring pro, of modest ability but a six-figure income, who declared he had played in his last U.S. Open because having to qualify at 36 holes in mid-week was just too much to ask of a man. The ordeal, he said, utterly ruined him for the next tour event!

The PGA Championship remained a match play affair until 1958, when it was converted to the conventional and antiseptic format of four rounds of stroke play in four days. Why would anyone thus strip a major championship of its identity? Money. Match play is a bad investment. Gate receipts can be ruined when the favorites are eliminated early; even worse, television is unwilling to fork over its millions for the rights to televise a tournament when it is impossible to know in advance when or where matches will end.

Hagen’s propensity for including some absolutely ghastly shots in a round, and then countering with some magnificent recoveries, made him an unnerving opponent in the direct personal confrontation of match play. Jones once observed, with some exasperation: “I would far rather play a man who is straight down the fairway with his drive, on the green with his second, and down in two for his par. I can play a man like that at his own game, which is par golf .... But when a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie, it gets my goat.”

Jones’ goat was in good company, at least, as Hagen’s feat of winning 30 out of 31 matches at the very highest level indicates. Hagen's demeanor was without malice, but it was certainly calculated, and few of his opponents were able to play up to their skills in matches against him. Moreover, when Hagen took command of a match, he tended to pour it on. A good many of the scores in those 30 PGA wins were cruelly lopsided: three were by 8 and 7, another by 10 and 9, yet another by 11 and 10, and there was one resounding 12 and 11.

Surprisingly enough, none of this resulted in his being cast in the role of villain. Quite the contrary: he was named captain of every American Ryder Cup Team from 1927 through 1941, an honor the PGA would never have accorded him unless his peers regarded him as someone very special.

If there is a major flaw in Hagen’s record, it. is the way he fared in his confrontations with Jones. Since Jones was an amateur, the two did not meet at match play in major events. They were, however, fellow competitors in a number of United States and British Opens, and Jones had all the better of it Not one of Hagen’s two U.S. and four British Open Championships was won when Jones was in the field. On the other hand, Jones won seven times – four in the United States and three in Great Britain – when Hagen was on hand.

Hagen and Jones did play a serious match once, though, under rather curious circumstances. During the winter of 1926, a 72-hole exhibition was arranged in Florida. Two rounds were scheduled for Sarasota, on a course familiar to Jones, and two more at Pasadena, Hagen’s winter domain. Hagen won by 12 and 11.

Today, we tend to place little importance on the results of exhibition contests in sports, having had our credulousness strained well past the breaking point by such tennis fiascoes as Jimmy Connors vs whomever. Further, the Hagen-Jones exhibition was tainted by some sort of Florida real estate tie-in, and the courses were probably not really first rate. In the 1920s, though, exhibition matches in golf were a major part of the game, and were taken seriously. Moreover, it is difficult to conceive that either Hagen or Jones would be likely to view this particular contest otherwise.

Who else but Jones would have been gallant enough, in his autobiography, to disinter a match he lost by 12 and 11? “Although this match involved no championship,” he wrote in 1960, “it did carry a sizable load of prestige, and I wanted badly to win it.”

The conclusion of the match was pure Hagen. Dormie 12, he watched Jones hole a putt of 40 feet for a birdie, Hagen’s role was then supposed to be to make a relaxed but unsuccessful attempt to match the birdie, grin, and make very sure that everyone realized what a grand sport he was. What Hagen did was to hole a 30-foot putt himself: Half and Match!

Someone once described Walter Hagen’s swing as “starting with a sway and ending with a lunge.” This is the lunge. (USGA Museum)

Hagen’s taste in automobiles was easy to describe: the more cylinders, the better. He once toured the country in a car that got four miles to the gallon. This little number, which he drove in Bellaire, Fla., in the 1920s, was a relatively modest model. (USGA Museum)