He had such a jaunty manner, such a regal air, such insouciance that he was called Sir Walter or the Haig. Gene Sarazen, a contemporary and a great golf champion himself, recalls what it was like seeing him for the first time: "It was at the U.S. Open in 1920. I was just a kid of 18, and two heroes of mine, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, had already come into the locker room. And then in he marched, head held high, looking like he was the Sultan of someplace or other. But that was Walter Hagen for you. He acted like he was the whole show all the time. I remember once, a few days before the 1921 Open in Chevy Chase, Md., Walter was in the locker room calmly shaving while President Harding waited for him on the first tee. There was Walter, without a care in the world, keeping the president of the United States waiting!"
Actually, Hagen had something of a fetish about tardiness. He was notorious for appearing on the first tee at the last second, sometimes changing on the run from evening clothes to plus fours. On a pre-World War II tour of the Far East, Hagen was two hours late for a date with Prince Fumitaka Konoye of Japan. When advised by a nervous functionary of this possibly irreparable breach of international etiquette, Hagen blithely replied, "Well, the prince wasn't going anywhere, was he?" No, he wasn't. And the two played a convivial round together.
"Walter always had the guts of a burglar," says Henry W. Clune, novelist and newspaperman, now a lively 99. He's an old Hagen friend from the early days in Rochester. N.Y., where Hagen grew up and where this year's U.S. Open will be played from June 15 to 18 at Oak Hill Country Club. "For all of his truncated schooling and catch-as-catch-can upbringing, he was never a bumpkin," adds Clune.
"Walter was not quite six feet tall, but he always looked taller because he walked around a course as if he owned it," says Charles Price, the golf writer and historian. "He was supremely confident, and he knew the virtue of the grand gesture."
But he did not, as was so often reported, instruct the then prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, to "pull the pin, Eddie," during an exhibition match. What he actually said, according to Price, was, "Pull the pin, caddie," but the prince got there first and did the job himself.
Besides, as Price points out, the prince was known to his friends and family as David, not Eddie, a fact that might well have eluded Hagen who, for all of his vaunted intimacy with the royal family, was constitutionally incapable of remembering anyone's name. Chances are, if Sir Walter had truly wanted his titled pal to do some caddying for him, he would have addressed him as he did most men of his acquaintance and called out, "Pull the pin, junior."
Sarazen, now 87, is saddened that his old friend and foe, once the most famous of golfers, should now be mostly forgotten, along with so many other flamboyant figures of the Roaring '20s. "I think Walter Hagen contributed more to golf than any player today or ever," Sarazen said from his Marco Island, Fla., home. "He took the game all over the world. He popularized it here and everywhere. Walter was at the head of the class. But they'd probably even forget about Bobby Jones if it weren't for the Masters. It's the sad part about getting old, I suppose. Everybody you know is gone. But Walter should not be forgotten. What golf ought to do is build a monument to that man."
If Hagen is remembered much at all now, it is for apocrypha like the prince of Wales story. It was perhaps inevitable that his outsized personality would overwhelm his considerable achievements. So many golfers have had their moments since he, so many years ago, changed the game from a rich man's pastime to a national craze. But make no mistake, the Haig could play golf, play it better than anyone of his time, with the notable exception of Jones, his only serious rival for public affection. And on one all-but-forgotten occasion, Hagen took even that lordly shotmaker to the cleaners.
Hagen won his first major championship, the U.S. Open, in 1914, when he was 21. He won the Open again in 1919. He won four British Opens, in 1922, '24, '28 and '29, an achievement not surpassed by an American until Tom Watson won his fifth in 1983. Hagen won the PGA Championship (which was decided by match play rather than medal until 1958) five times, including a record four in succession, from 1924 through '27. He was captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team six times. When the Western Open was still considered major, he won it five times: in 1916, '21, '26, '27 and '32.
Between 1916 and 1928, he won 32 of 34 matches, including 22 in a row, in the PGA. It was his boast that in nearly 30 years of championship competition, he never three-putted an 18th green. Altogether, it is estimated that he won some 75 tournaments and played more than 3,000 exhibitions from the start of his professional career in 1912 until he retired in 1939. He was the first golfer to win a million dollars and the first, as the story goes, to spend two million. At the peak of his career he was paid as much as $1,000 per exhibition round, and in those years he might play as many as nine exhibitions a week. On one tour of western Canada, he earned $3,000, good money in the '20s, and then celebrated his good fortune by tossing a party in a Winnipeg hotel that cost him $3,400.