The Great Sir Walter
Charles was born into a modest home in Rochester, NY on December 21, 1892. He was the only boy in a family of five children. His father was a blacksmith by trade, who labored long hours at the local railyard.
At age twelve, Charles saw no need to stay in school when he could caddie at the local golf course and make money to help out the family. And besides, he hated school. So this future hall of famer started his journey down the long road to golf immortality, but he almost took a detour to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies.
At age nineteen, Charles made his professional debut not in baseball, but at the Canadian Open and finished a respectable eleventh place. Two years later, in 1914, he cancelled a tryout with the Phillies to pitch and play shortstop to play in a golf tournament. It was not just any tournament, but the U.S. Open and when Charles won the tournament by one stroke over Chick Evans, the Phillies lost a potentially great player.
Playing professional golf in the 1920s was not like it is today. Amateurs held a status much higher than professionals and Charles and other pros of the day were treated like second-class citizens. When Charles and other touring pros played in a tournament, he often wasn’t allowed to use the clubhouse to dress, shower or use the bathroom facilities.
In 1922, Charles became the first American-born golfer to win the British Open, but not without controversy. Since he wasn’t allowed inside the clubhouse, he hired a driver and rented a limousine, which he parked in front of the Royal St. George’s Clubhouse. He used it as his locker room, dined in the car and even had champagne delivered to him when he won the tournament.
Who was this Hall of Famer?
Walter Charles Hagen, also known as “Sir Walter” and “The Haig”, was not only a great golfer, but great showman. He was one of the first, if not the first, to dress in expensive style on and off the course; traveled with his own entourage and threw lavish parties during and after tournaments.
He was the first golfer to sign an endorsement fee, getting as much as $500 per year for every club he carried in his bag. He also charged a hefty fee for appearing in exhibition golf matches, but he is best known for his style of play that made him a crowd favorite.
His tee shots were often wild and erratic, but he could scramble with the best of them to recover and make par or birdies. His bunker play and putting stats ranked him near the top of all other professionals his career.
Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of that time, said after an exhibition match with Hagen, “When a man misses his drive and then misses his second shot and then wins the hole with a birdie, it really gets my goat.”
Hagen is believed to be the first player in any sport to have made a million dollars in his career and is credited with “putting the green into golf.” Today’s players owe their huge paydays to his groundbreaking style of making golf a popular, well-paying sport.
Walter Hagen ranks third behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods with eleven major wins in his career. He had a total of forty-five tour wins, including the PGA five times, the Western Open five times, the U.S. Open twice, the British Open four times and the French and Belgium Open one time each.
He also captained the Ryder Cup six times and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the charter class of 1974.
19th Hole Trivia
Hagen’s character was played by Bruce McGill in the 2001 movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
Hagen’s best finish in the Masters was a tie for eleventh place in 1936 at age 44. The Masters was founded in 1934 and he played in 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1939.
Hagen was paid $500 per club in endorsement fees and often carried 22 clubs in his bag instead of the norm of 14.
His most favorite quote is: “I don’t want to be a millionaire—I just want to live like one.”
The Great “Sir Walter Hagen” died in 1965 from throat cancer. Among his pallbearers was the Great Arnold Palmer. He is buried in Travers City, Michigan, next to his grandson.