Like Gatsby, Michigan golfing legend Hagen lived a glamorous life

Golfing legend Walter Hagen, who made Michigan his home, won 11 grand slam titles in his career.

Golfing legend Walter Hagen, who made Michigan his home, won 11 grand slam titles in his career.

Leaf through a few old books and clippings about Walter Hagen, and a brief but telling anecdote eventually surfaces. It seems that one of his steady golfing partners during the 1920s was the Prince of Wales. To the astonishment of proper Britons, who reverently addressed Price Edward as “Your Highness,” Hagen simply called his blue-blooded buddy “Eddie.”

Well, such liberties are common among royalty. Although the case can be made that Walter Hagen never was fitted for a crown, that seems an oversight. Certainly few will argue that the man the sporting world knew as “Sir Walter” or “The Haig” wasn’t the king of greens during his two decades of professional play.

It was a long reign for Sir Walter. Between 1914 and 1936, Hagen won the British Open four times, the U.S. Open twice, the PGA championship five times, the French, Canadian, and Belgium Opens once each, and about 60 or so other events. In all, Hagen played in more than 200 open tournaments and some 1,500 exhibition matches on five continents, rarely finishing out of the money. He earned an estimated $1 million during this period – an era when a million bucks actually meant something. The money supported an ostentatious lifestyle that received as much ink as his play on the links.

Not that Hagen paid close attention to his account balance. “I never wanted to be a millionaire,” he maintained. “I just wanted to live like one.”

Which he did. The high-living Hagen always went first cabin, be it food, clothes, or transportation. He had his silk shirts mailed to him from Japan and his shoes from England, and until the end of his days he traded his Cadillac in every year or so. Money may have burned a hole in his pocket, but to the earthy and gregarious Hagen, the best things in life – stories, sunshine, laughter – were free. He gave his old clubs to policemen and could always be counted on to hit a bucket of balls for some charitable cause. In 1926 he beat the immortal Bobby Jones in a 72-hole match that earned him the biggest purse by a golf pro up to that time – $6,800. The Haig used $1,000 of his winnings to buy Jones a watch.

“You have to stop and smell the roses along the way,” said Hagen, who intuitively understood that a person’s true wealth is measured by the number and quality of his friends.

Although Hagen has always been closely identified with Michigan, the golfing legend actually was born in Rochester, New York, in 1892. He was one of five children of a blacksmith. He and a sister learned to play the game in a pasture while they tended the family’s cows. When Hagen was 8 years old, he got a job as a caddie at the Country Club of Rochester. He eventually moved up to clubmaker and pro.

In 1913, Hagen entered his first big tournament, the National Open at Brookline. Only 20, he was already a notorious clotheshorse. Sporting a bandana handkerchief and a silk shirt of “clamorous design,” Hagen “created a sensation that bordered on a riot.”

Hagen won the U.S. Open at Chicago in 1914, the first in a long series of victories made all the more remarkable by his unorthodox swing and comparatively lax training habits. “Eighteen holes a day is enough for anyone to play,” said Hagen, who after coming to Detroit often practiced mornings so he could hurry down to Navin Field to watch Ty Cobb and the Tigers in action. An enthusiastic ballplayer as a youth, Hagen often confided as he got older that, if he’d had his druthers, he’d be a big-league second sacker like Charlie Gehringer. He had to settle for being the world’s greatest golfer.

Hagen moved to Michigan in 1918 when he was 26, just as his career was taking off. He arrived in his customarily flamboyant style, screeching his high-powered Lozier to a halt outside the tony Detroit Athletic Club, leaping over the side, and exchanging a friendly greeting with the startled doorman before meeting with a group of leading sportsmen who were trying to entice him to leave upstate New York. After a bit of wrangling, Hagen agreed to come to Oakland Hills, where a refurbished henhouse on the old Miller Farm served as his first pro shop.

As a club professional, marveled sportswriter Eddie Batchelor, Hagen proved a great tournament player: “They say his idea of giving a lesson was to take his pupil out on the course with a bag of several dozen balls and illustrate the manner in which some shot in which Walter felt himself in need of practice should be played. He kept on illustrating right down to the end of the quota of balls and then perhaps would let the student try a shot. The pupil invariably did it wrong, so Walter would have to shoot off another few dozen to help him. At the end of the lesson the pupil had had an eyeful of golf but was not in a profuse perspiration.”

Hagen, who won the U. S. Open in 1919, surrendered his job at Oakland Hills a year later to concentrate on exhibitions. It was all to the better, a sportswriter later observed, as “one club was too small to hold the swashbuckling Hagen.”

Stories about Hagen abound, including several that have him appearing at the first tee wearing a tuxedo or frantically changing into his golf shoes on the course. The Haig loved the good life, all right, but his shenanigans had a certain style. “He was really a gentleman,” Warren Orlick, for years the pro at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in Orchard Lake, once recalled. “A ladies’ man, but a man with class, poise. Everybody liked him.”

Especially the British. In his first attempt at the British Open in 1920, Hagen inspired ripples of laughter in the gallery whenever his name and score were posted. It seems he had signed in as W. C. Hagen. To his chagrin, he discovered “W. C.” was common Brit slang for water closet – a toilet, in other words.

That’s just about where Hagen’s game was that match, as he finished 53rd in the field, a distant 28 strokes behind the winner, George Duncan. “But if Walter didn’t show much golf in that event, he showed a spirit that won him more admiration than any number of birdies would have done,” observed Eddie Batchelor. “He stuck to the bitter end, holing every putt and turning in his score as faithfully as a fifth flighter in a Rotary Club tournament. The last day, with most of the population of the British Isles around the big scoreboard, the American Open champion walked right up and had the boy post a total that resembled the national debt. Some other good men played in just as bad luck as Hagen in that tournament but they tore up their cards rather than let the world know the worst.”

Hagen returned to win the British Open by a single stroke in 1922, then repeated in 1924, 1928, and 1929. His winning play was characterized by steady nerves, patience, and a good head. Combined with his gregarious personality, this made Hagen – who captained seven Ryder Cup teams – the perfect ambassador of golf.

More than any other golfer, The Haig was responsible for breaking down the artificial barriers that traditionally separated amateurs and professionals. When he competed at the British Open in 1920, he, like all pros, was barred from the clubhouse at Deal. Nearly a half-century later, he became the first American pro to be made an honorary member of Scotland’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

Hagen dominated his sport through the 1902s and 1930s. His name was mentioned in the same breath as those other heroes of the Golden Age of Sport: Ruth, Grange, Tilden, Dempsey. But in 1939, advancing age and a heart condition convinced him to give up tournament play. “What the hell,” he said. “I’ve won my share of titles and I’m only cluttering things up.”

Hagen had helped raise $125,000 for the Red Cross during World War I, so when his son enlisted following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 49-year-old legend wobbled onto the lawn at the 1942 National PGA Championship in Atlantic City. “I’d like to show him that his old man is doing his bit again,” he explained. Going against young pros like Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan at his age proved a daunting task, he admitted. “How could I expect to win against a field like that? But I’ll be in the thick of the fun. I’m not too old for that.”

In 1954, Hagen bought a secluded 20-acre estate overlooking East Long Lake, a few miles southwest of Traverse City. He was given many honors. At a 1967 testimonial dinner, Arnold Palmer arrived via his personal jet to pay homage. “This meeting could be held in the pro shop if it weren’t for all he did to build this game,” Palmer said with genuine affection. He turned to face the guest of honor. “Dammit,” Palmer said, “thanks for everything you’ve done. You’ve been just what we all want to be.”

Hagen tried to speak, but his voice had been stilled by an operation to remove a cancerous larynx. Two years later he was dead. He was 76.

Hagen was buried at Detroit’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. The cool sunshine, quiet air, and clipped grass can stir up thoughts of distant greens, of what it must have been like to win at Sandwich in 1922, perhaps, or any of the other many titles Sir Walter won during his reign.

Not that winning was everything to Walter Hagen.

“But what are titles?” he once reflected. “It’s the game that counts and the fun you get out of it. And I got my share of the fun in all parts of the world.”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.