Toasting Walter Hagen, the most underrated 11-time major champion in golf history
Words by Travis Hill
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The early knock on that hotel room door must have sounded like cannon fire. Only Walter Hagen knew what time he’d finally laid his head on the pillow, but by all accounts sleep hadn’t been a priority the night before. After all, Hagen had won the 1925 PGA Championship, his third in five years, as the sun set over Olympia Fields Country Club. Chicago had no shortage of hot spots, and Hagen’s entourage had been determined to celebrate at them all. Thing was, Hagen and trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood were due at Sunnyside, Iowa, that morning for a lucrative exhibition. This probably had seemed like a good idea right up until Sunnyside’s head pro, tasked with bringing one of golf’s biggest stars to his club, banged on Hagen’s door.
Hagen, ever the professional, made it to Waterloo. The PGA Championship’s Rodman Wanamaker Trophy, however, did not. It wouldn’t be seen again for six years.
“This is one of my favorite stories,” says Connor T. Lewis, the man behind the Society of Golf Historians, who, like me, believes that Hagen—No. 3 on the all-time list with 11 majors, and author of some of golf’s most ridiculous and wonderful stories—is somehow underrated. “I can’t believe he lost the trophy, then showed up in 1926 and said what he said.”
How does one misplace a trophy that at 2½ feet tall and 27 pounds is roughly the size of a 3-year-old child? No one really knows. What’s generally accepted is that while the Wanamaker looks majestic in photos, it is a pain in the ass to drag to nightclubs. So Hagen, ever the strategist, hailed a taxi, put the Wanamaker in the back, peeled off $5 from his bankroll and told the cabbie to deliver it to his hotel. In the chaos of the next morning, Hagen realized that the trophy never made it. But no one asked him about it, and he kept the secret.
That is, until the 1926 PGA Championship at Salisbury Golf Club in New York, when officials understandably got curious.
“So Hagen rolls up,” Lewis says, already incredulous, “and they ask him where the Wanamaker is and he says, ‘I didn’t bring it, because I don’t plan on losing it.’ And then he freaking wins! How boss is that? Think of the pressure: You’re terrified to admit you lost the trophy, so you go and win a major. That’s how great Walter Hagen was.”
I’ll do Lewis one better: Hagen went to the 1927 PGA Championship, said the same thing about the trophy and won the damn tournament again. (He eventually came clean the next year, and it was found in a box at the Hagen equipment company warehouse in 1931. Most historians think the cabbie took the trophy back to taxi-company headquarters, where they boxed it up and sent it to the only address for Hagen they could find. Hagen lost the 1928 PGA, so there’s an argument to be made that he should have just kept talking his trash.)
Casual golf fans look back on those sepia-toned days of the 1920s and ’30s and mostly think of Bobby Jones, who is regarded as the great amateur gentleman who gifted us Augusta National, a Grand Slam and a stately, almost royal, treatment of the game. For those who have even heard of Hagen, the general image is of a flashy party animal, one of golf’s first showmen. A distant second to Jones’ greatness.
Casual golf fans: Lewis and I are here to tell you those perceptions are mostly wrong.
That night in Chicago? Hagen was out late, but it’s entirely possible he was sober when he got back to the hotel. It was part of a broader strategy to keep his eventual opponents guessing. And it worked: He once won 22 consecutive 36-hole contests back when the PGA Championship was match play.
“He was well-known for dressing up in his tuxedo and hitting parties, martini in hand,” says Lewis. “But his friends, like Henry Picard, said that if you went around those parties, most of Hagen’s martinis found their way into the plants. He wanted people to think he was out having a good time, then he would show up the next day and drop a 65 on them.”
Lewis’ research shows that the well-worn narratives around Jones and Hagen could easily be reversed: Jones was a heavy drinker and a foul-mouthed club thrower, while Hagen was much closer to a teetotaler and rarely swore. But Jones was the amateur, which was considered a more noble pursuit than being a pro. Meanwhile, due to his status as a professional, Hagen was refused access to a locker room for an event in England, so he rented a Rolls-Royce, parked it in front and changed there all week. Imagine the pearls clutched by proper society.
In 1926, a match between the two giants was arranged. Billed at the time as the “Match of the Century,” it was a 72-hole contest, with 36 at each of their respective Florida home courses. Jones, who was still four years from winning the Grand Slam that would cement his status as the era’s most famous player, was not ready for Sir Walter. Hagen absolutely destroyed him, and kept chirping: Up 12 with 12 to play, Jones chipped in, leaving Hagen a 20-plus-footer to halve the hole and win the match. Before he hit it, the Haig looked up at Jones and said, “Well, whaddya know, young Bob gets a halve,” then buried the putt to win 12&11.
Hagen’s most famous quote was, “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” Wise words, for sure. But I would argue that his most important lessons are to always do some more research before rushing to a judgment, to never trust a Chicago cabbie and that the best trash talk is eternal.