My father and Walter Hagen didn't really look that much alike when you saw them side by side, but there was a certain resemblance. Because they were both beefy and wore their hair slicked down, a lot of people on the fringes of golf mistook them for each other. This occasional mistaken identity brought about a small bond between them.
The 1934 PGA Championship was held at Park Country Club near Buffalo, only about 100 miles from Auburn, where I grew up. Dad took advantage of the opportunity. He'd been helping organize the Central New York section of the PGA, because as a golf-equipment salesman he found this a good way of helping himself by helping his customers. But the fledgling organization needed money. To raise funds, Dad contacted "The Haig" and asked him if he would play an exhibition. Though Hagen was noted for demanding—and getting—high prices for appearances, he agreed to bring four pros, including himself, to the Auburn course for only $200, because all the profits would go to the struggling new PGA section. If $50 each for four top touring pros seems very little, you have to remember that Paul Runyan was the leading money-winner that year with a grand total of $6,767 in prize money.
My father was elated when he returned from Buffalo late the night before the exhibition. Craig Wood, one of those who agreed to play at Auburn, had just finished second in the PGA, losing to Runyan on the second extra hole. While Runyan wasn't coming, Horton Smith was. Smith, only 26 at the time, had won Bobby Jones' first Masters tournament earlier that year and was a member of the PGA tournament committee. Hagen hadn't won a major tournament in four or five years but was still the most colorful and popular figure in golf. I've forgotten who the fourth pro was.
Auburn Country Club's front nine was as flat and open as a paper plate. You could slice across three fairways and recover with a mashie to any green. Dad was chairman of the greens committee, so early on the morning of the exhibition we went out on the course to "toughen up" Auburn for the visiting stars. The only way you could make that course more difficult was to set the pins in preposterous places—six inches from the apron on the steepest slope, for instance, or back in a hidden corner to force every putt to take a right-angle turn.
June 24, 1979
Dad and I worked all morning resetting those pins. Because I was only 10 and scrawny, I couldn't do much. The hole-maker was a heavy, cylindrical pipe with wings on its top, attached to a handle like a spade. You centered the pipe, then stepped on the wings, cutting down six or eight inches into the turf. With a couple of grunts and a twisting motion, you pulled up the sod inside the cylinder, leaving a hole for the cup.
While Dad cut the new holes, I stamped new sod into the old holes. Eighteen times we did it, setting those new holes in the most unlikely places pins have ever been stuck. We finished just in time to run back around the course and rig ropes at each tee to keep back the anticipated crowds.
People showed up from all the towns around, attracted by some kind of jungle telegraph. In his wildest dreams, Dad had never expected so large a crowd. The visiting pros arrived about noon in Hagen's big, white, chauffeur-driven Cord. They had a couple of drinks and a chicken sandwich, and teed off at about one.
Craig Wood boomed out drives that left the locals gasping. Hagen played his usual game of two wild bangs, followed by a miraculous recovery. Smith was meticulous, right down the middle, bang-bang, putt-putt. Except that on the first few holes, all the pros went bang-bang, putt-putt, putt-putt. Because of the fiendish pin placements, scores were high.
I was in my glory, allowed inside the ropes at every tee, close to my idols, especially Craig Wood, the only human being I'd ever met who shared my odd first name. I was able to gloat at the other kids, all of them several years older, who also caddied at Auburn.
By the 4th tee, I knew something was wrong. After three-putting the par-3 4th, Hagen took my father aside and said, "Frank, the locals are here to see us take this cow pasture apart. They want to see us score, not take five putts on every green because some idiot set the pins wrong. Get the rest of the pins set easy, or this show is going to be an awful flop."
Dad turned an unhealthy red, looking less like Hagen than usual. He chomped his big cigar almost in half. It had taken us almost three hours to set those pins. Now they all had to be reset, and fast. He recovered his usual aplomb. Spotting me, he draped a fatherly arm about my shoulders and said casually, "Craig, go reset the pins—in the middle of the greens." Then he stepped back into the limelight to announce the next hitter.
Fortunately, as I stumbled under the ropes, I fell against one of the older caddies, one who knew how to drive the greenskeeper's tractor. We raced away, found the pin-setting tools, the tractor and a couple of helpers, and headed for the 7th green.
We respotted the 7th on one side of the clubhouse, the 9th on the other side, and the 18th out front. Then, hearing a great roar of applause as Hagen plastered one of his fantastic recoveries within six inches of the relocated 7th pin, we knew we didn't have time to do the 8th, so we dashed off to the 10th.
We managed to stay about three holes ahead of the golfers, hearing shouts, screams and applause, and wondering what was happening. As we finished the elevated 16th green, we took a moment to watch Hagen tee off on the 14th. He walloped a drive up the middle, then casually picked up his tee and tucked it behind his ear before swaggering down the fairway. For years after, I tried to carry my tee behind my ear. With my crew cut and stick-out ears, I never could do it and so lost a lot of tees.
We hid the tractor in the woods behind the 17th green and rushed back to the 15th in time to watch Smith stroke a 30-footer into our relocated cup. I slipped under the ropes at the 16th, bringing my friends with me, all of us panting hard and sweating. Dad's big scoring standard showed all four pros safely under par, and Wood, the poorest putter of the group, was burning up little old Auburn. Everybody was smiling. The great Hagen spotted me, threw an arm around my shoulders, just like Dad, and said, "Attaboy, Craig."
But the biggest pleasure came when it was all over. One of the big caddies, all of 15 years old, came up to me enviously and asked, "Which is your father, Craig Wood or Walter Hagen?"