As the 2010 PGA Tour gets underway, the news media are constantly reminding golf fans of Tiger Woods' absence and how that void influences tournament gate receipts, advertising revenues and TV ratings. Yet professional golf's gazillion dollar traveling road show and circus doesn't wholly owe its success to Woods, or even Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan. It all started in the 1920s with Walter Hagen, a dapper, party-loving man whose penchant for chasing skirts as eagerly as birdies evokes another similarity with Woods.
Between 1914 and 1932, Hagen won two U.S. Opens, four British Opens, four PGA Championships and five Western Opens, then considered a "major" in those pre-Masters days. He captained the first six American Ryder Cup teams, winning all of them, and won more than 70 tournaments worldwide.
The following is an excerpt from "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports" by Michael K. Bohn, Courtesy of Potomac Books, Inc.:
Walter Hagen became the first professional golfer in 1919 and distinguished himself from a "golf professional," a person who gives lessons, fixes clubs and sells golf shirts. While they occasionally played in tournaments on days off, the golf professionals worked at clubs and public courses to make a living. Hagen broke the model and created the parallel universes of club and touring pros.
Although Hagen's amateur rival Bobby Jones shared the public's attention, most sports historians and veteran golf writers consider Walter as golf's Johnny Appleseed. He planted golf in Americans' minds and spirits by playing thousands of exhibition matches throughout the country. He showcased the game from swank northeastern clubs to dusty nine-hole tracks in the heartland. Often paired with another pro, Hagen played against local golfers for stakes raised by the host course or a promoter. Hagen sweetened the pot with side bets, a common practice throughout the sport's history. The exhibitions gave hundreds of thousands of nascent golfers the chance to see a pro in action.
A 1920 exhibition match with Jim Barnes provides a good example. Barnes, an English immigrant, later won the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship. "The long-awaited and important Hagen-Barnes match will be played at New Orleans this morning and afternoon, at thirty-six holes for a fifteen hundred dollar side bet," announced the New York Times. That a northeastern newspaper dedicated eight column inches of type to an exhibition match 1,300 miles away reflected the growing interest in these events. Hagen won on the 37th hole.
Hagen joined 34 other pros and founded the PGA in 1916. The fledging organization held its first championship that year, but the PGA had yet to sponsor an organized tour in the 1920s. A few clubs or hotels sponsored a sprinkling of tournaments during the winter in Florida and across the Sun Belt to California. Northern pros, with their home courses shut down for the winter, traveled south in hopes of winning $100 to pay for gas or train fare. Hagen proved to be a major draw in what the pros called the "winter circuit" because of his unprecedented success in major tournaments in the first half of the 1920s. Walter's press coverage, coupled with his high-profile challenge matches and exhibitions, drew ballyhoo almost equal to that showered on Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Bill Tilden.
Hagen promoted professional golf through more than excellent play. He became the sport's first celebrity. Hagen garnered widespread attention through his engaging personality, a flair for drama, showmanship on the golf course and a gambling, go-for-broke style when the situation allowed. Walter was a show horse leading a pack of draft animals. "Walter was not quite six feet tall," said golf writer Charles Price, "but he always looked taller because he walked around a course as if he owned it. Walter was supremely confident, and he knew the virtue of a grand gesture."
By his second U.S. Open victory in 1919, Hagen dressed like a movie star. He favored fine wool or gabardine plus fours, silk shirts, dapper ties, and cashmere sweaters. On all but the rainiest days, Walter wore two-tone, patent leather golf shoes. He never wore a hat and slicked his black hair back with whatever brilliantine he endorsed at the time. Hagen's perpetual tan set off his friendly smile and green eyes. His regal demeanor on the golf course prompted the press to nickname him "the Haig" and "Sir Walter."
Hagen frequently arrived late for matches. In some cases he actually had been partying all night and teed off in black tie, but Walter staged many of his entrances for dramatic effect. He later confessed to rumpling one of his tuxedos, donning it just before arriving at the course, and splashing whiskey and perfume on the lapels. Hagen then had his driver deposit him on the first tee, where he astonished the gallery with a smooth opening drive. Showtime!
Although married twice, Hagen had a roving eye before, during, and after those marriages. Lusty as a back alley tomcat, Hagen enjoyed reporters' propensity to overlook his marital failures, just as they did for Babe Ruth. Hagen's first wife, Margaret Johnson, left him after four years because of his repeated absences while on exhibition tours. He married his second, Edna Straus, in 1923.
Hagen's old friend, Henry W. Clune, a columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, described Walter's disposition toward married life. "Marriage was definitely not his forte; he was as ill-suited for the restraints and ordinances of the conjugal state as a pirate." Clune also told a story about Hagen returning at an unseemly hour to a Florida hotel where he and his second wife were staying. Mrs. Hagen discovered that Walter had no underwear under his suit.
"My God," Walter cried, when the deficiency was remarked by his outraged lady, clapping a hand sharply against his naked thigh, "I've been robbed!"
The esteemed sportswriter Grantland Rice followed Hagen closely and wrote often about "the Haig" in his column. Concerning Hagen's contribution to golf, Rice wrote, "It remained for Hagen to supply the human interest, to put the throbbing kick into the game. Color, no matter how it's spelled out, means gold for the newspapers. Hagen had more color than a lawn full of peacocks."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is an author, most recently of "Heroes and Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports," released in 2009. Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.
This book excerpt is courtesy of http://www.potomacbooksinc.com at 1-800-775-2518.