The golden '20s in America were the time of golfs greatest professional matches. Golf played by holes rather than strokes is almost extinct now, and only the Piccadilly Match in London still provides the public with a taste of the old excitement. While the '20s were not an era of big purses, there was no shortage of personalities. Players had reputations to make and uphold—without help from television—and they did all they could to enhance the drama of the game. Match play is intrinsically dramatic, and the pros who competed—Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, MacDonald Smith, Tommy Armour and the rest—were a most colorful company.
The finest individual match probably was the 1923 PGA final at Pelham, N.Y.—the first time Hagen, 30, and Sarazen, a mere 21, met with a major championship at stake. These two were the best match-play golfers of their time. Hagen, in fact, is considered by many to be the master match player of American golf. He won the PGA Championship five times in the '20s, four in succession, which required 22 consecutive victories. It is a match-play record no one has approached. But what made Hagen truly legendary was that in almost half of those 22 matches, he was behind with nine holes to play—as many as four down—yet each time he pulled it out.
The hex Hagen had on his contemporaries is difficult to explain. Aside from Arnold Palmer, who now epitomizes the television era, Hagen was the greatest showman golf has known. He was a dominating personality who walked each course as if it were his plantation, and he commanded such attention that his opponents often faded into the background. Before each shot Hagen playacted in the exaggerated style of the silent movie stars of that day—wiping off imaginary perspiration, striking an attitude to contemplate the distance to a green, changing clubs three times before a shot. It would all have been ridiculous if he didn't have the shots to back up his histrionics, but of course Hagen had them.
To be sure, he was the most idiosyncratic of the great shotmakers. Hagen had considerable body sway on the longer shots, and his driving involved a certain element of Russian roulette. Every six or seven holes the Haig would mistime his lunge and wallop the ball 40 yards off line. No matter, his expression implied. He walked off with the crowd at his heels and recovered, usually magnificently. Around 160 yards from the flag Hagen's sway disappeared and his hands took over, as he deftly ushered the ball into the hole.
October 27, 1980
It was a time of whippy hickory shafts and superb "hands" players, and, says Sarazen today, "Next to Armour, Hagen had the best hands in golf, and they really worked in his short game. He was the best chipper I've ever seen, the best putter I've ever seen, the best within 150 yards I've ever seen. And these were unwatered greens where you couldn't just whack it at the hole. He used every type of finesse shot to get it in there—never used the same shot twice." The result was devastating. Not even Bobby Jones demoralized an opponent with the short game as Hagen did. The only time Hagen met Jones at match, over 72 holes in 1926, the two played almost evenly up to the greens. But again Hagen hit a short-game streak when he needed it, averaged under 27 putts a round and beat Bobby 12 and 11.
Only one pro of the '20s had the moxie to cope successfully with Hagen at match play. That was Eugene Saraceni, who renamed himself Gene Sarazen, he once explained, so that he wouldn't be mistaken for a violinist. A grade-school dropout who worked as a caddie to help support his family, Sarazen rose from nowhere to the very top in 1922, winning both the Open and the PGA—which Hagen had skipped that year. And if you didn't know that Sarazen, a low-ball hitter and aggressive shotmaker, was the hottest thing in golf, he was quick to inform you. His cockiness annoyed a lot of older pros, but there was no denying his talent. There was even talk in some quarters that Hagen had ducked Sarazen in the PGA. That fall and winter the two were brought together in Florida for a pair of unofficial "world championship" matches, which they split. The official match playoff would be the next year's PGA, but down South the two got a chance to size each other up.
Hagen found the little man rather different from his usual opponents. For one thing, Sarazen plainly relished a good fight just as much as Hagen did. Sarazen was a tough competitor and an exceedingly thick-skinned individual. The Haig tried every variety of psych he could think of: flowery compliments, warnings about the hazards coming up, questions about the details of Sarazen's swing—all to no avail.
And Sarazen was capable of the ultimate in insolence—upstaging Haig. Sarazen was an arresting player to watch. His golf was more an expression of emotion than technique. It was as if he was carrying on a personal vendetta with the golf course and his opponent. Approaching each shot as if freshly insulted, he tore at the ball with venom. If the ball hooked, he might gallop to the right, trying to bring it back, occasionally stumbling into the gallery. Watching Sarazen could almost be dangerous, but crowds found him fascinating—and so Hagen was forced to settle for half the attention of the audience.
The '23 PGA developed very much as the officials had hoped, the two favorites racing through their halves of the draw and meeting for the championship. But it was a more bitter final than had been bargained for. Hagen had lost his British Open crown to Arthur Havers in a close match at Troon, Scotland, and Sarazen's U.S. Open title was taken by Bobby Jones at the Inwood Country Club in Inwood, N.Y. So, the PGA was the last chance for either man to win a major tournament that year. The crowd was loud and unruly, the atmosphere strained, and an incident on the 6th hole set an unpleasant tone. Sarazen's approach wound up on a leaf-strewn patch between two ill-defined bunkers. After getting word from an official that he was in neither hazard, Sarazen moved leaves from around the ball and tapped the sand to test it. In an instant Hagen was charging across the green.
"Say, what's going on here?" he said loudly. "You know that's illegal, moving leaves in a hazard and grounding your club. How about playing by the rules?" Warren Wood, the referee, stepped in to explain, but the buzzing gallery never lost its first impression: that Sarazen was trying to get away with something. Still fuming at Hagen's remarks, Sarazen stubbed his chip far short of the hole, and missed the putt. "I'm glad you won that hole, Walter," he said, going to the next tee. "I don't want to hear any squawking from you tonight."
After this, the match was a terrific tug-of-war played in a very disagreeable atmosphere. Neither golfer spoke to the other from the 7th hole on, and neither gained more than a one-up advantage all morning. The first four holes in the afternoon were halved, and then Sarazen pulled in front by doing the improbable: outputting Hagen. He birdied from 30 feet on 5, from 12 feet on 6. The Haig looked unaffected as always, but he three-putted the 7th, from no great distance. Rarely had Hagen started a war of nerves and lost it, but now it looked as if that would be the case.
On 11 Hagen was superb, flying an approach to within six feet and birdieing. Now he was two holes down, with seven left. The two were clearing hazards and hitting greens so uniformly that it was like watching a pair of hurdlers, but Hagen's putting was bolder and better. Four holes were halved in par-birdie-par-par, with two rimmed putts by The Haig. The par-3 16th featured a tiny green, heavily guarded, which Hagen hit with an iron shot. Sarazen couldn't match it, hooking and bogeying. Hagen was one down with two to play.
Sarazen had some butterflies by now, but the long 17th promised to reward his length off the tee. He hit a lovely drive, only to see Hagen, who was not known for his distance, reach back and hit one longer. Gene's brassie approach from 260 yards out bounced into the trap at green-side. Too nervous to await The Haig's deliberations, Sarazen walked up the right-hand rough, looking backward over his shoulder. Hagen's shot started out strong but then suddenly, bizarrely, veered sharply to the left and out of bounds—a classic Hagen mishap.
Hagen's supporters were stunned, and there was a sense of numbness as he dropped a second ball and rode into it. The shot flew straight toward the green, threaded the bunkers and ended 20 feet from the hole.
Then Sarazen decided to be a bit cautious. There being no sand wedge in those days (Sarazen is credited with inventing the wedge around 1930 after considerable experimentation in his garage), and with out of bounds looming beyond the green, he blasted very carefully but came up 30 feet short. As Hagen watched, Sarazen gave his putt a little too much and watched it trickle four feet past the cup. Hagen surveyed his own putt long and majestically—characteristically not seeming to understand who was on the ropes here—then stepped up and rolled it in for a five. It was precisely the nightmare sequence Hagen was always producing for his opponents, and Sarazen completed it himself by missing his short putt. Match even with one to play.
Sarazen had lost a hole he had seemed certain to win, and the one that would have given him the match, but he was one of those rare golfers who play well in adversity. Both men parred the 18th and birdied the first hole of sudden death. On that par-5 Hagen chipped his third shot a foot from the hole. Sarazen chipped four feet away, and this time he didn't miss.
The 2nd at Pelham was a short dogleg to the left, a birdie hole but guarded by woods at the corner, bunkering around the green, and out of bounds on the left side. Hagen drove safely up the right side for a short pitch and putt, and Sarazen at last lost his patience. He decided to settle it then and there by driving directly to the green. Only a high hook would do, 260 yards of carry plus some roll. Unfortunately, Sarazen not only was a low-ball hitter, but he also risked going out of bounds to the left. Perhaps the stupidity of the shot crossed his mind during the backswing. At any rate, the shot started hooking right off the club head, more than was called for, and flew toward some nearby dwellings. There was a loud bop of balata on wood. "The last I heard of that one," wrote Hagen later, "it was rattling between the houses." With the location of Sarazen's drive still unknown, the players walked forward from the tee. But then came a call from a marshal and the discovery of Sarazen's ball, safely in bounds. The shot had ricocheted back onto the course. Sarazen was, naturally, thrilled at his good fortune, and Hagen simply couldn't believe it. In later years The Haig attributed the ball's return to some fans of Italian descent living near the corner of the dogleg.
Now Sarazen slashed at the ball with his niblick. He caught it flush and the ball bounced to within two feet of the hole. The gallery turned toward Hagen and, for the first and last time, saw that he was shaken.
It was quite a sight. The urbane Haig stood gaping like a rube, first at Sarazen, then at Sarazen's ball. Hagen had been so sure that Sarazen's drive had cost him the match that his own composure was shot. He hit at his ball without taking time to settle down, without preparation and fluffed it into a bunker in front of his nose. He recovered gamely—to within a foot of the hole—but Sarazen made sure of his tap-in and, with it, the PGA Championship.
Sadly, these two never competed again in the PGA, though each year officials tried to get them together for another Pelham. Sarazen went into a slump after 1923 and developed a problem of slippage in his grip that wasn't worked out until 1930, by which time The Haig was past his crest. Hagen, of course, went on to win each PGA from 1924 through '27 in his unprecedented streak. When the streak was broken by Leo Diegel in the 1928 PGA, Hagen finally began to absorb some match defeats, but nothing of his later career packed quite the punch of Pelham in 1923.