Walter Hagen

30Golf’s greatest showman could really play, too

Winner, PGA Championship, 1934 and ’38

I knew Walter Hagen as well as I ever knew anybody whose lifestyle was totally different from my own. I always went to bed early and ate good foods. I had good spending habits and was a teetotaler. Hagen was just the opposite, except he never drank as much as people say he did.

Hagen was underrated. I think that his winning four PGA Championships (at match play) in a row should be compared favorably with Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam, considering that two of the Grand Slam events Jones won were amateur events and he won them handily because there was virtually no competition. Hagen consistently beat the best professionals of his time. And he wasn’t afraid of Jones. They once played a series of match-play exhibitions, and Hagen beat Jones easily.

It was often written that Hagen had to scramble all the time because he was a wild hitter. They said his swing was unorthodox. Well, the hell it was. He was a very long, very straight driver, and his swing was magnificent. He did sway a bit on the backswing, but he moved the ball beautifully. He was marvelous with the putter, and under pressure he was outstanding.

Hagen was disturbed by so few things. Playing the Western Open at Olympia Fields in 1927, he came to the 18th hole early in the tournament and had an 18-foot putt for an eagle. His putt rimmed the cup and stopped six inches below the hole. He slowly tapped his next one and it rimmed the hole again and his ball was now 18 inches from the hole. He missed that putt, too. He announced, “I guess I better try on this one.” It cost him the lead, but he still won by several shots. The point is, nothing ever bothered him.

Hagen was an extremely cordial man. He never walked past you without saying, “Good morning,” shaking hands and asking how your family was. On the other hand, Hagen was a ruthless competitor and master strategist who would do anything to win, anything that was legitimate. For example, the stories about not showing up on time to play, of making his opponents wait, are true. At the Augusta Open one year we had to play 36 holes the last day. I had played very well in the morning round and was supposed to tee off with Hagen in the afternoon round at 12:05 p.m. Well, Hagen showed up at 12:40 p.m., and after we had played one hole it started to rain. Joe Kirkwood was playing well ahead of us and had to play only one hole in the rain. We played 17 holes in the rain and even though I shot a miraculous 75, I lost by one shot. Hagen came up to me on the 14th green with a sheepish look on his face and said, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you.”

I said, “Don’t worry about it. It will never happen again.”

But it did happen again. I partnered with Hagen in the International Four-Ball Matches in 1932, and when our tee time arrived, Walter was nowhere on the premises. I was sure we would be disqualified, but just as they called us to the tee for the last time, Walter drove up in a taxi and got out wearing a tuxedo. He had partied all night and hadn’t even gone to bed. He apologized for being late and proceeded to pick up on the first five holes. We were 2 down after those five holes, but then Walter went seven under par on his own ball the rest of the way, and we won in 39 holes. Walter apologized to me. He said, “Tonight I’ll get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll be better tomorrow.”

Hagen got a good night’s sleep. The next day we lost, 4 and 2. Truthfully, I wished he had arrived in the taxi and the tuxedo.

Hagen won 11 professional majors, including five PGA Championships (1921, ’24, ’25, ’26, ’27), four British Opens (1922, ’24, ’28, ’29) and two U.S. Opens (1914, ’19). He won 40 tournaments in the U.S. alone and played on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams from 1927 through ’35.

Control your mind

Top-quality golf requires concentration on every shot. And right here is where I always have an advantage. A thousand and one things can happen to distract and upset the tournament golfer. Some minor incident, perhaps something he did wrong, gets him brooding. Once he sets off on a wild trail of thought like that he might as well give up unless he can concentrate on the job at hand. Luckily for me, I realized long ago that I’m no machine. I’m going to make plenty of shots that will make me look like the rankest beginner. But if I let a blunder like that get to me, I’d have kicked away every championship or challenge match I’d ever played.

Walter Hagen