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He Stopped to Smell the Flowers Often!

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Walter Hagen
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. (Walter Hagen circa 1914.)

In the summers we spent on Cape Cod while our youngsters were growing up, I was surprised by the number of locals who claimed they had seen Francis Ouimet's historic triumph in the 1913 U.S. Open.

The Country Club at Brookline was not far away, but some of these fellows staking a claim to celebrity status would have had to be in their mother's arms if they had been there.

My skepticism prompted me to devise a trap follow-up question to spring whenever the claimant looked as if he hadn't started cashing his Social Security checks. "Well, then," I'd tell him, "you got an extra treat in seeing Walter Hagen playing his first Open."

If the response was a blank stare or a stammered groping for words, the storyteller was a fraud. But, that aside, the experience underscored how Hagen was almost forgotten in this, one of the pivotal points in American golf history. True, he was just a footnote to history, barely missing the playoff that pitted Ouimet, the skinny, unheard of ex-caddie who lived across the street from the Brookline Club, in an apparent mismatch against the British titans, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

Hagen, like Ouimet, was only 20, and a fourth place finish in his very first Open rated more than a passing glance. Especially since it was the launching pad for one of the most spectacular careers in American sports.

Hagen couldn't be ignored for long. In the very next U.S. Open, at Midlothian in 1914, he made sure he got the brass ring, beating the highly favored amateur, Chick Evans, by one stroke. Of equal historical note, the event at the club in the Chicago suburbs, marked the first time the pros were able to enjoy the same locker room facilities and social amenities of the clubhouse as the members. Hagen had difficulty understanding the barriers that had been set up against the professionals over the years - a class consciousness that put them on the same level as the club gardeners, cooks and headwaiters. He campaigned against it, and at Midlothian a "first" was achieved. There'd be more to come.

The son of a blacksmith, Hagen caddied at the Country Club of Rochester for 10 cents an hour, plus tips, and the opportunity to play a few holes occasionally. A tall, strong youngster, he caught on to the game quickly, and by the time he was 11 he had broken 80. He began to dream a little.

His school, on the edge of Rochester, New York, overlooked the golf course, and his ground-level window drew more of his attention than the blackboard. One spring morning, with dreams running amok, he crawled out that seventh-grade window, never to return. Now he was able to concentrate on golf without the distraction of things like homework, books and six hours in a restricting classroom.

And that was the beginning of the path that would take him around the world, meeting royalty and business tycoons, heads of state and celebrities of every stripe, and taking it all in stride as if he had planned it that way. Indeed, he would become the first golfer to make a million dollars - and, as his admirers would point out, spend two million.

Hog, or The Haig, as he was called, walked the course with head held high, striding smoothly and courteously responding to greetings from the gallery. And with immaculate and stylish dress, featuring a white silk shirt, silk tie, white flannels and black and white shoes, he soon turned golfers away from the hot and cumbersome tweed outfits they wore for play. Almost overnight, he had his imprint on the game and gathered the game's biggest galleries.

After a down period for World War I, The Haig came back to win his second U.S. Open in a playoff with Mike Brady at Brae Burn in Newton, Mass. Then it was on to bigger things at the British Open and winning over a whole new legion of fans. The Brits quickly took him to their hearts, thanks to his courtly manner and his heroic play out of the gorse and knee-high rough on the British courses. But getting into the clubhouse and using the facilities was something else.

To circumvent the exclusion problem, Hagen rented a Rolls Royce with chauffeur and parked it alongside the clubhouse. He used this as a combination dressing and eating room. When he broke for lunch, the chauffeur, appropriately dressed, would serve The Haig, complete with champagne. Of course, the Brits were overwhelmed by this gaudy behavior, and even more impressed when, at the presentation of prizes, he turned over the first prize check, which amounted to about $50 in American dollars, to his caddie as a tip.

Hagen won the British title four times in eight years, with the new amateur star, Bobby Jones, filling in most of the other gaps. Between them they provided most of the input for golf during the Golden Age of Sports in the Twenties and early Thirties when they joined immortals like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Big Bill Tilden, among others, in dominating the sports pages.

While his knack for winning the British Open ultimately led to him being tabbed Sir Walter by the Brit fans, it was at match play that he really earned his lofty position in the game. He won the PGA Championship five times, including the last four (1924-27) in succession, when that format was used. His gamesmanship, coolness under fire, and his ability to come up with miraculous shots marked him as the best match player ever. His victories in the major championships added up to 11 - topped only by Jones' 13 and Jack Nicklaus' 20.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Haig was his incredible ability to mix marathon partying with superstar play. He didn't like sleep, thought it cut too deeply into his fun time, and it was not unusual for him to go directly from a nightlong party to the first tee for his morning match. Indeed, one New Year's Eve blowout ran so long that The Haig had to rush to the tee for a well-ballyhooed exhibition match in Florida. Clad in his tuxedo and patent leather pumps, he teed off on time and then slipped his way around a fairway or two before he was able to duck into the locker room and don his golf attire and spikes. He shot 68.

Sir Walter, while he thought only of having a good time with his money, finally paused long enough to plan for his retirement. He put a ball and clubs bearing his name on the market, but a series of mishaps cost him a $200,000 loss. Ultimately, the Wilson Sporting Goods Company took over the line and Walter was able to "live like a millionaire," as he put it, for the rest of his days.

His life was based on a simple philosophy. "You only go this way once," he'd say, "so be sure to stop and smell the flowers." When he died in 1969 at age 77, it was if the light in that friendly tavern had suddenly gone dark.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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