August 21, 1914—With a one-stroke victory over amateur Charles Evans Jr. at the U.S. Open, 21-year-old Walter Hagen started on the path that would make him what many consider America’s first professional golfer, as well as one of the premiere figures in the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s.
Fifteen years ago, while vacationing in Savannah, I was lucky enough to watch location shooting for The Legend of Bagger Vance. Seeing Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron perform, directed by Robert Redford, is an experience that I, as a film fan, will not soon forget.
The movie itself was, given Redford’s track record, a keen disappointment. But it did intrigue me with its depiction of the rivalry between cool, gentlemanly Bobby Jones—whom I already knew about—and the bon vivant Hagen—whom I knew nothing to speak of. Having researched the latter’s life for this post, I now think Redford might have been better off making a jaunty biopic about him rather than the pedestrian adaptation of the Steven Pressfield novel.
A June article in The New York Times by Karen Crouse noted that Hagen was, in his heyday, as famous as Babe Ruth. He did not dominate his sport as thoroughly as The Sultan of Swat had (remember that, at the latter's retirement, no other major leaguer had even half his career home run total). But it might be said that he transformed the golfer's life on and off the links as thoroughly as Ruth did on the baseball diamond.
Just as the “The Babe” ushered in the longball with his Bunyanesque blasts, so “The Haig” facilitated the rise of a new type of golfer with his pioneering 1919 decision not just merely to accept the occasional payment for playing, but to pursue his fortune full-time in exhibitions and tournaments. Just as 1914 saw Ruth’s debut with the Boston Red Sox, so that same year witnessed Hagen’s breakthrough to the front rank of his sport with his U.S. Open win at Chicago's Midlothian Country Club. Just as Ruth was sidelined for much of 1925 with a mysterious “bellyache heard round the world,” so Hagen had to overcome a ferocious case of food poisoning just before his U.S. Open victory.
Each man had a flair for the dramatic: Ruth with his Buddha belly, preposterously heavy 40-ounce-plus bats and swing so savage that it was said to be more entertaining to watch him strike out than for other batters to hit homers; and Hagen, confessing that he “set up shots the way a movie director sets up scenes”—rushing to the first hole mere minutes before his scheduled start, in a wrinkled tux and dancing pumps, as if at an all-night party, and never overly concerned when one of his shots landed in a rough, because he knew he could clobber “that little white ball when the chips were down.”
And both men’s membership among the athletic elite (each an original member of their sport’s Hall of Fame) validated for millions the promise of social mobility and democratization in their contests. Growing up in decidedly modest circumstances, they earned fortunes—and unashamedly enjoyed every penny of it. ("I don't want to be a millionaire,” Hagen admitted. “I just want to live like one.")
The differences between the two were just as fascinating:
*Ruth’s father was a bartender; Hagen’s, a blacksmith.
*Perhaps because of these work environments, the youthful Hagen tended to be fun-loving, while Ruth was positively feral, necessitating his commitment at age seven to St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore (where his life was, famously, turned around by the school’s 6 ft.-6-in. disciplinarian, Brother Matthias).
*While each man thought seriously about becoming a baseball pitcher, the ambidextrous Hagen put aside that dream when a member of the Country Club of Rochester paid his way to the U.S. Open, while Ruth, of course, after several successful seasons on the mound, became a legendary outfielder. (Early in his career, he also discovered the joy of golf—though Ruth was about as good on the links as Hagen was on the diamond.)
*While the adult Ruth really was wild, Hagen’s image was far closer to Dean Martin’s: a carousing one, to be sure, but shrewdly inflated to create a bankable persona. “It pleased the public to think I lived the easy, carefree life, the playboy of golf,” Hagen wrote in his autobiography, The Walter Hagen Story (1956). “Frankly, I was happy to support both those illusions since I was making money out of the showmanship.” That persona could also lull into a false sense of security unready rivals, who simply could not believe that someone who cared so little about appearance or schedules—and who found himself in one difficulty after another—could extricate himself from a mess of his own making. How could anyone be so low and succeed?
That’s how some snooty country-club members, put out by the notion of a former caddy and golf professional at the Country Club of Rochester—someone whose job was giving lessons, repairing clubs, and selling clubs, balls, and tees, for heaven’s sake—felt when they told Hagen that he and his fellow golf pros weren't welcome in their clubhouses. Not bothered in the slightest, Hagen simply rolled up in a Rolls-Royce, sipping champagne. “Sir Walter” had created his own athletic aristocracy.
Hagen ended up third among the all-time leaders in winning majors (11, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods). But—again like Ruth—his importance transcended the sport. Ruth might have shown, with the help of licensing specialist Christy Walsh, how an athlete—even ones like himself with gargantuan appetites—could put aside enough money for retirement. (See my prior post on this.) Hagen’s shrewd decision, however, was even more imitated: investing in golf clubs bearing his name and design.
The two men also served, in effect, as international ambassadors for their sports. Ruth and the rest of the New York Yankees engaged in a hugely publicized barnstorming tour of Japan in 1934. For his part, Hagen took to playing throughout the South Pacific, the Far East, Africa, and Europe, when his exhibitions in the states did not earn as large purses in the Great Depression.
I wrote, toward the start of this post, about my preference for a Hagen biopic over Bagger Vance. But, in truth, the spirit of Hagen, if not the facts of his life, were contained in another golf film, Ron Shelton’s infinitely superior Tin Cup. Like Hagen, Kevin Costner’s Roy McEvoy is a raffish, small-time golf pro with big-time ambitions. Like Hagen, his “I’m having a ball,” go-for-broke spirit contrasts sharply with a far more conservative field, but also confirms the promise of the U.S. Open—“not just the biggest golf tournament in the world, the most democratic,” he marvels.
Unlike McEvoy, Hagen won not just hearts of the fans and a woman (or, in the latter case, women plural), but also the tournament and the money. But I guess some endings are still too amazing even for Hollywood to believe.