He had such a jaunty manner, such a regal air, such insouciance that he was called Sir Walter or the Haig. Gene Sarazen, a contemporary and a great golf champion himself, recalls what it was like seeing him for the first time: "It was at the U.S. Open in 1920. I was just a kid of 18, and two heroes of mine, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, had already come into the locker room. And then in he marched, head held high, looking like he was the Sultan of someplace or other. But that was Walter Hagen for you. He acted like he was the whole show all the time. I remember once, a few days before the 1921 Open in Chevy Chase, Md., Walter was in the locker room calmly shaving while President Harding waited for him on the first tee. There was Walter, without a care in the world, keeping the president of the United States waiting!"
Actually, Hagen had something of a fetish about tardiness. He was notorious for appearing on the first tee at the last second, sometimes changing on the run from evening clothes to plus fours. On a pre-World War II tour of the Far East, Hagen was two hours late for a date with Prince Fumitaka Konoye of Japan. When advised by a nervous functionary of this possibly irreparable breach of international etiquette, Hagen blithely replied, "Well, the prince wasn't going anywhere, was he?" No, he wasn't. And the two played a convivial round together.
"Walter always had the guts of a burglar," says Henry W. Clune, novelist and newspaperman, now a lively 99. He's an old Hagen friend from the early days in Rochester. N.Y., where Hagen grew up and where this year's U.S. Open will be played from June 15 to 18 at Oak Hill Country Club. "For all of his truncated schooling and catch-as-catch-can upbringing, he was never a bumpkin," adds Clune.
"Walter was not quite six feet tall, but he always looked taller because he walked around a course as if he owned it," says Charles Price, the golf writer and historian. "He was supremely confident, and he knew the virtue of the grand gesture."
But he did not, as was so often reported, instruct the then prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, to "pull the pin, Eddie," during an exhibition match. What he actually said, according to Price, was, "Pull the pin, caddie," but the prince got there first and did the job himself.
Besides, as Price points out, the prince was known to his friends and family as David, not Eddie, a fact that might well have eluded Hagen who, for all of his vaunted intimacy with the royal family, was constitutionally incapable of remembering anyone's name. Chances are, if Sir Walter had truly wanted his titled pal to do some caddying for him, he would have addressed him as he did most men of his acquaintance and called out, "Pull the pin, junior."
Sarazen, now 87, is saddened that his old friend and foe, once the most famous of golfers, should now be mostly forgotten, along with so many other flamboyant figures of the Roaring '20s. "I think Walter Hagen contributed more to golf than any player today or ever," Sarazen said from his Marco Island, Fla., home. "He took the game all over the world. He popularized it here and everywhere. Walter was at the head of the class. But they'd probably even forget about Bobby Jones if it weren't for the Masters. It's the sad part about getting old, I suppose. Everybody you know is gone. But Walter should not be forgotten. What golf ought to do is build a monument to that man."
If Hagen is remembered much at all now, it is for apocrypha like the prince of Wales story. It was perhaps inevitable that his outsized personality would overwhelm his considerable achievements. So many golfers have had their moments since he, so many years ago, changed the game from a rich man's pastime to a national craze. But make no mistake, the Haig could play golf, play it better than anyone of his time, with the notable exception of Jones, his only serious rival for public affection. And on one all-but-forgotten occasion, Hagen took even that lordly shotmaker to the cleaners.
Hagen won his first major championship, the U.S. Open, in 1914, when he was 21. He won the Open again in 1919. He won four British Opens, in 1922, '24, '28 and '29, an achievement not surpassed by an American until Tom Watson won his fifth in 1983. Hagen won the PGA Championship (which was decided by match play rather than medal until 1958) five times, including a record four in succession, from 1924 through '27. He was captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team six times. When the Western Open was still considered major, he won it five times: in 1916, '21, '26, '27 and '32.
Between 1916 and 1928, he won 32 of 34 matches, including 22 in a row, in the PGA. It was his boast that in nearly 30 years of championship competition, he never three-putted an 18th green. Altogether, it is estimated that he won some 75 tournaments and played more than 3,000 exhibitions from the start of his professional career in 1912 until he retired in 1939. He was the first golfer to win a million dollars and the first, as the story goes, to spend two million. At the peak of his career he was paid as much as $1,000 per exhibition round, and in those years he might play as many as nine exhibitions a week. On one tour of western Canada, he earned $3,000, good money in the '20s, and then celebrated his good fortune by tossing a party in a Winnipeg hotel that cost him $3,400.
But he never won a British or U.S. Open in which Jones played, and the younger man's mounting popularity in the mid-'20s rankled Hagen mightily.
Price rather cruelly suggests that "Jones was center ring, while Walter was the sideshow." But the spotlight was on both of them early in 1926, when Hagen, then 33, challenged Jones, 23, to a 72-hole, head-to-head match in Florida, 36 holes to be played on a course Jones favored in Sarasota and 36 at a Hagen stronghold in St. Petersburg. It was a mismatch from the start, because, as Price suggests, Jones, the amateur, played between major tournaments about as often as "your average dentist," and Hagen, the pro, played constantly. But Jones, whose ego was much less threatened by this rivalry than Hagen's, agreed to play, primarily because the match would bring publicity to Florida at a time when he was financially involved in the real estate boom there.
Jones must have suspected he was in trouble early, when on one hole he hit a 250-yard drive down the middle of the fairway and Hagen hooked his tee shot into some brush. Jones hit an iron to the edge of the green and Hagen overshot the green entirely, landing the ball in a swamp. Jones chipped to within inches of the cup, and Hagen blasted out of the bog even closer. They halved the hole, and Hagen hadn't even been on the fairway. It was a typical Hagen performance.
He easily won the challenge match, 12 and 11, and earned $7,800, one of the largest purses ever paid a professional at the time, but spent $1,000 of it buying Jones a pair of platinum-and-diamond cuff links. "I bought the kid a little something," he told Sarazen afterward. This victory soothed some of the sting from subsequent losses to Jones.
Hagen was erratic off the tee, but he had few equals when it came to iron play and putting. And in the days before the sand wedge, which Sarazen invented in 1932, Hagen was the very best at playing out of bunkers with a niblick (nine-iron), a useful talent for one so often in difficulty. "He was an attractive player to watch," says Sarazen. "He was never monotonous, as Vardon and even Jones sometimes could be. Arnold Palmer would be the closest to him in modern times. Walter was a great scrambler. He was always exciting."
Hagen always had an unfailing instinct for the dramatic. In Sarazen's 1950 autobiography, Thirty Years of Championship Golf, Sarazen described the finishing charge that Hagen made against Jones in the 1926 British Open: "On the 72nd, a good par 4, he was told that he needed an eagle 2 to equal Jones' total. Hagen had no use for second place. It was first or nothing. He slapped out a long tee-shot. Before playing his second, he walked the rest of the way to the green—about 155 yards—theatrically surveyed the position of the cup, and asked the referee to have the pin removed from the hole. He walked calmly back to the approach he had to hole to tie, and played a really lovely shot that hit the green only two feet from the flagless hole. Had anyone but Hagen requested the flag to be removed in such a spot, it would have been laughable. Coming from Walter, it was Hagen."
He played swiftly, striding with his confident air directly to the ball and, without undue fuss, hitting it with his peculiar lurching stroke. If he wasted any time at all, it was in pondering the easy shots, a ploy designed to disarm or irritate his opponents. The hard shots he just hit. He played shamelessly to the gallery, joking, teasing, even flirting with spectators. In his first U.S. Open win, he arranged a date with a pretty young woman watching him on the 16th fairway, this when the tournament was still in doubt and his nearest competitor, the fine amateur Chick Evans, was still on the course. When he was advised of the threat Evans yet posed, Hagen replied cavalierly, "So what? I've got my score for the day." He wasn't talking about golf.
Hagen had his crude side, and he would certainly never measure up to the spotless moral standards we seem to demand of our public figures today. "Walter broke 11 of the 10 Commandments," the late PGA director Fred Corcoran was fond of saying about him. One of Hagen's favorite drinking and wenching buddies was Babe Ruth, whose appetites were similarly voracious. Once, in 1932, the two were stopped for driving recklessly on the newly opened George Washington Bridge by a policeman who was so startled to find himself in the company of these legendary athletes—as well as a couple of chorus girls—that he sent them on their way without a citation. Hagen made no secret of his fondness for the bottle and the ladies; if anything, he embellished his own reputation. He was fond of boasting that he neither smoked nor drank until he was 26, but made up for those viceless years with a vengeance thereafter. In the early '20s, though, Hagen didn't drink nearly as much as he claimed he did. Sarazen sometimes caught him knocking back "Scotches and water" that were actually iced tea, and it was not uncommon for Hagen, after conspicuously ordering round after round, to dump his own drinks into handy flowerpots. He reveled in his bad-boy image. Price says Hagen sometimes had his valet-chauffeur-caddie, Spec Hammond, roll his tuxedo into a ball in the morning so that Hagen could appear at the course dressed as if he had come directly from an all-night party, when, in fact, he had had a perfectly good night's sleep. Hagen might even play the first hole in his dancing pumps, then switch shoes with Hammond on the second tee. "That man ruined my feet," said Hammond, who was often obliged to walk 17 holes in tight-fitting patent leathers.
But from 1926 on, Hagen no longer needed to fake his carousing. By then he had the money to live in the grand manner, and he did. In 1928 he played a 72-hole challenge match with British golfer Archie Compston before the British Open. Hagen, afflicted with a cosmic hangover, lost by the amazing score of 18 and 17. Afterward, on the drive home, Hagen told his manager, Bob Harlow, "I can beat that sumbitch on his best day." A week later, he did, defeating Compston for the Open title by three strokes.
The British Open generally brought out the best in him, and not only in terms of golf, for it was in this event more than any other that he liberated the lowly professional golfer from a kind of social bondage. When Hagen first started playing the game, golf was dominated on both sides of the Atlantic by gifted amateurs—in England by aristocrats, in the U.S. by the socially prominent. Clubhouses were sanctuaries for the members and strictly off-limits to the club professionals. The pro in those days was little more than a servant, an instructor to the rich, a craftsman who fashioned clubs in the quiet of his own quarters, far removed from the social whirl of the clubhouse.
And then along came Sir Walter. "Bumptious," as Price has written, "sparkling with wisecracks, dressed in bandbox clothes, Hagen played the game with the aplomb of a man who held the mortgage on the club." Such a man bristled at the ridiculous notion that he wasn't good enough to be seen inside a clubhouse. He met snobbery head-on at his very first British Open, in 1920, at Deal, England. He arrived with 12 color-coordinated golf outfits. He set up headquarters at the Ritz in London and hired an Austro-Daimler limousine and a footman. Disdaining the makeshift accommodations provided for the players. Hagen repaired to his limo and had the footman ostentatiously serve him lunch, with appropriate wines, inside the great machine. At another Open, he grandly hired an airplane and had himself flown 40 miles away to a fashionable inn where, he noisily proclaimed, the strawberries were infinitely superior to those served in the clubhouse. These adventures in one-upmanship were duly reported back home in the U.S. press.
Hagen's boldness, bolstered by his mastery of the British Open, eventually carried the day. An incorrigible social climber, he somehow succeeded in charming the British upper crust, most notably the glamorous young prince of Wales himself. In the '20s, the prince had become something of a golf groupie, and Hagen was his personal favorite. On one golf outing the prince invited Hagen and Sarazen in for lunch at the Royal St. George's clubhouse. They were ready to order when an embarrassed steward begged his Highness's attention. The rules of the club, he whispered, prohibit golf professionals from invading the dining area, even those in the company of such a distinguished guest. The future king of England glared indignantly at the steward and said, in a voice that could be heard clearly by everyone inside, "You stop this nonsense or I'll take the Royal out of St. George's." Hagen and Sarazen were royally entertained.
Hagen was not in any way intimidated by the aristocracy. Fresh from the course and still wearing plus fours and a flashy plaid jacket, he once crashed a high tea at Trent Park, Sir Philip Sassoon's 1,000-acre estate outside London, where the women guests wore long dresses and the men cutaway coats. Introduced there to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the acclaimed Wagnerian contralto, he stared unashamedly at the diva's mountainous bosom and confided to her, "My dear, did you ever stop to think what a lovely bunker you would make?"
American country clubs had long taken their social cues from the British, and because Hagen seemed to be such a hit abroad, clubhouse doors here were finally opened to the golf pros. His colleagues had only to ride his gaudy coattails to respectability. "He lit a flame that transformed the world of professional golf," said none other than Donald Smith, an officer of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. "When we look back on it, Walter Hagen did more for professional golf than anyone else."
Hagen himself was made an honorary member of the Royal & Ancient, but not until 1968, a year before his death. And it wasn't until 1960 that he finally became a member—the only non-dues-paying lifetime member—of the Country Club of Rochester, where he had started as a caddie nearly 60 years earlier. Actually, Hagen's reputation as a social liberator may have been exaggerated. It was years after his star descended before some of the fancier clubs accepted pros into their inner sanctuaries.
And now, in an era when professionals are the true aristocrats of golf, Hagen's triumph—if that is what it was—seems far less significant. In fact, he made a much more important contribution to the game: He made it popular with the general public. He brought golf into the mainstream of the Golden Age of Sports. He was as colorful and popular as many of the other legends of the time—Ruth, Grange, Dempsey, Tilden. It is no accident that with his emergence—and a bit later with Jones's—golf became not merely a rich man's game but everyman's game. And on his world tours Hagen took it to people who didn't know a mashie from a machete. "You get 200 people together anywhere," says Price, "and Walter would play."
And he had a helluva time doing it.
Walter Hagen was born on Dec. 21, 1892, in Rochester, the second of five children of William and Louise Hagen. His father was a blacksmith who worked, for $18 a week, in various auto body shops in East Rochester. Hagen grew up in the Corbett's Glen neighborhood of suburban Brighton, half a mile from the Country Club of Rochester, which had been organized in 1895 by members of the posh Genesee Valley Club in town. He began caddying at the club when he was not quite 10 years old, earning the princely sum of 10 cents a round with an occasional nickel tip. A natural athlete, he learned the game by watching such expert club players as Irving Robeson, Walter Powers, Gurney T. Curtis and J.C. Bonbright and from the club professionals, Al Ricketts and Andy Christie. He learned more than golf from these proper gentlemen, for he studied their mannerisms, their speech and their bearing. Years later Hagen would write: "Whatever sportsmanship through the years I have acquired definitely belongs to these great men." Hagen reasoned that the country club was giving him all the education he would require, so he quit school at 12 to devote more time to it, supplementing his sparse income with part-time jobs as a piano finisher, a taxidermist, an apprentice to a mandolin maker and as a garage mechanic. At the club he advanced from caddie to Christie's assistant. Then, in 1913, he became the club professional, succeeding Christie, who had moved on to another job in Vermont. Hagen's responsibilities also included teaching ice skating and tennis, two sports where charm more than skill carried him over the rough spots.
In 1912 Hagen entered his first tournament, the Canadian Open, and finished 11th. It was with some embarrassment then that he beseeched the Green Committee, chaired by Powers and Beekman C. Little, for four days off so that he might compete in the 1913 U.S. Open in Brookline, Mass. His request was granted only grudgingly. But he finished tied for fourth behind Brookline's own Francis Ouimet and the famous British players Vardon and Ray.
By then, though barely out of his teens, Hagen was building a reputation as a golf fashion plate. His sartorial model was an older player named Tom Anderson Jr., who affected a red bandanna, silk shirts, white flannel trousers and white shoes. In 1914 Hagen entered his second U.S. Open, this time under the sponsorship of a wealthy Rochester gentleman, E.R. Willard, who paid for his trip to the Midlothian Country Club outside Chicago. The night before the opening round Hagen, already honing a taste for high living, dined on lobster at a Chicago restaurant. He was violently ill the next morning and would have dropped out of the tournament before it started had he not felt an obligation to the generous Mr. Willard. So, green-faced and red-bandannaed, he bravely teed off on schedule. He shot a 68 (to Ouimet's 69), one of the few rounds under 70 to that point in U.S. Open history. Those were the days of hickory shafts, carelessly mowed fairways and infrequently watered greens, so a 68 then would be more like a 62 now. Hagen led from the first round to the last and bought himself a car with the $300 prize money.
He returned home a champion, but "he was hardly canonized by the Country Club of Rochester members," as his friend Clune recalls. "It was a pretty stuffy place then. There was a very strict social hierarchy there, and Walter was still thought of as just a glorified servant, a kid to fetch and carry." In his memoirs, Clune wrote, "Hagen returned to Rochester with little more panache than a factory hand punching a time clock."
The young Hagen was a handsome devil, black-haired and green-eyed, sturdily built and, at 5'11", tall for the time. He was a clean liver in those days but already a terror with the ladies. Not long after his Open victory, he met a lively and attractive young Rochester woman named Margaret Johnson, whose father, George W. Johnson, owned the Clinton Hotel on South Avenue. Margaret and her brother, George, had finished third in a dance contest staged by Vernon and Irene Castle, the premier popular dancers of the time. "Margaret was a thin, graceful girl then," says Clune. "She dressed like Irene Castle, and she was far wittier and more sophisticated than Walter. Margaret regarded him as a country boy. She wanted him to be a Fancy Dan, a gentleman sportsman. She would have preferred him to be an amateur golfer with a classy job as a stockbroker. She wanted him to take advantage of his new fame."
Hagen wasn't even certain that he wanted to continue with golf. In 1914, he had a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had been an ambidextrous pitcher in semipro ball in Rochester, so when Phillies manager-to-be Pat Moran asked him to throw a few, Hagen inquired of a dumbfounded Moran, "With which arm?" Moran was impressed, but he told Hagen he would have a better future as an outfielder and advised him to come back the next season for another tryout. Hagen decided golf was his game.
He and Margaret were married in 1917, and the country club set them up in a cottage on the premises. It irritated the socially ambitious Mrs. Hagen, however, that neither she nor Walter had clubhouse privileges. And Walter himself had begun to think with some trepidation of horizons beyond the place where he had spent his youth. In January of 1918, Margaret gave birth to Hagen's only child, Walter Jr., and soon after Hagen asked Clune to join him at the Pompeian Room of the Seneca, then Rochester's most popular hotel.
"Henry, they want me out in Detroit to work at a new millionaire's club there, Oakland Hills. They say I'll be just like a member. What do you think?"
"Well, you're going, aren't you?"
"Jeez, I don't know. I was born here. I've always lived in Rochester. You know how it is. When I walk down the street, everybody knows me. Out there...I don't know...."
But Margaret would have none of these doubts. Hagen took the job. And his life changed. By coincidence Clune himself got a job as a newspaperman in Detroit a few months later, and he observed firsthand what he calls the metamorphosis of his friend. "In Detroit any aspect of the yokel disappeared," Clune says. "Margaret may have aspired to the high life, but Walter far surpassed her in living it." The golf course at Oakland Hills was not yet complete, so Hagen had ample time to knock back a few with the millionaire automobile crowd downtown at the Detroit Athletic Club. He began coming home later and later in the evening. One night, when he showed up two hours late for dinner and still had the cheek to complain about the menu, Margaret snapped at him, "Shut up, you. I can remember when, if you had ham on the table, you'd have thought it was your birthday."
"I'm afraid," wrote Clune, "Walter was as ill-suited for the restraints and ordinances of the conjugal state as a pirate."
In 1919 Hagen represented Oakland Hills at the U.S. Open at Brae Burn Country Club, in West Newton, Mass., the first Open after a two-year interruption caused by World War I. He shot a 78 in the opening round and was five strokes behind the leader, Mike Brady, entering the final 18. But he nibbled away at that lead, and he needed only to sink an eight-foot putt on the last green to tie Brady and force a playoff. Hagen insisted that Brady be brought out from the locker room to witness this dramatic event. Reluctantly Brady showed up, and Hagen, grinning broadly, knocked the ball in the hole.
That night, with the playoff to begin the next day, Hagen threw himself a "victory" party at the hotel. When one of the guests suggested long past midnight that maybe Walter should think about getting some sleep, Brady having already been in bed for hours, Hagen replied, "He may be in bed, but he ain't asleep." Hagen beat Brady by a stroke in the playoff. And when he returned to Detroit for a banquet in his honor at Oakland Hills, Brady, unaccountably, was with him. At the banquet Hagen rose to accept the club's congratulations, and then he shocked the members by announcing that he was resigning on the spot to become golf's first unattached, full-time touring professional. "But," he said, "I've got just the fellow to replace me. He's here tonight—Mike Brady."
Hagen never turned back. The Scotch and champagne flowed and there were women everywhere. His marriage collapsed. In April 1923 he married again, but as the second Mrs. Hagen, Edna, complained in her divorce action, Hagen deserted her as early as 1926. She was, she said, a "golf widow. The only place I can find him is on the sports pages." He did make some token appearances, though. Once, as he prepared for bed in the hotel room where they were staying, Edna observed that her husband was not wearing the underwear he began the day with. When she remarked on this phenomenon, Hagen glanced down, slapped his naked buttocks and cried out, "My god, I've been robbed!"
He was the ultimate good-time Charlie, the big spender who bought drinks for the house, the storyteller who kept everybody in the speakeasy or bar up till closing time. Somehow in all the excitement, he did remain close to his son, Walter Jr. He took the boy on some of his trips, and he played with him in exhibition matches. In time Walter Jr. became a fine amateur golfer, but he was no match for his father either on or off the course. When someone would be insensitive enough to ask the younger Hagen, "How come you can't play golf like your father?" he would reply coldly, "Now, you tell me who in hell can."
For all of the affection Hagen lavished on the boy, he was still an absentee and often hilariously absentminded father. He probably never did know exactly how old his son was. On Walter Jr.'s 14th birthday, Hagen proudly gave him an Auburn sedan, unaware apparently that the boy was too young to drive in most places. And when Walter Jr. was a student at Notre Dame University he received a six-foot-long cablegram sent by his father from Rangoon, wishing him a happy 21st birthday, with a heartfelt fatherly message about the responsibilities of manhood. The message was not lost on Walter Jr., but the birthday was only his 20th.
Hagen was having a wonderful time taking his show on the road, often in the company of the trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood. "Never hurry and don't worry," Hagen was fond of saying. "You're here for just a short visit, so don't forget to stop and smell the flowers." The money he won in major tournaments represented only a small portion—perhaps 15%—of an income that was swelled by exhibitions and occasional stints as a pro in residence to more than $100,000 a year, an astronomical figure for the '20s and certainly for the Depression years. Ruth's highest annual salary, by comparison, was only $80,000. But Hagen spent it as fast as he made it, or at least spent what he could find, because his manager, Harlow, was clever enough to deposit much of Hagen's earnings in banks the golfer didn't know about.
The Haig was no longer a phony drinker, but a prodigious one, and he was smoking 2½ packs of cigarettes a day. Still he remained faithful, for the most part, to the lessons on deportment he learned from the swells at the Country Club of Rochester. He never swore, while Jones, the Harvard-educated Southern gentleman, could cuss like a sailor. And Hagen never revealed any of the details of his amatory adventures. "He was a womanizer who put women on a pedestal," says Price. "He treated them all the same, with courtliness, whether they were movie stars or cocktail waitresses."
His skills, though, were fast eroding. He won the British Open in 1929 and the Western Open in '32, and at age 42 he finished third in the U.S. Open in 1935, but he was no longer much of a threat. "If I win another big one," he told San Francisco Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan in the late '30s, "it will be dumb luck."
And yet he still had his moments, some of them vicarious. He was playing with Sarazen in the final round of the 1935 Masters when golfing history was made on the par-5, 485-yard 15th hole. Sarazen and Hagen were the last two out that day, and Hagen was growing impatient. The leader, Craig Wood, was in the clubhouse, and Sarazen, three strokes back, was struggling to catch him. Sarazen's drive was 265 yards down the middle of the fairway. As Sarazen debated what club to use for the second shot, Hagen, noting the late hour, called out to him, "Hurry it up, will you, Gene. I've got a big date tonight." Sarazen obliged him, hitting a spoon (three-wood) shot 220 yards into the hole for the most famous double eagle ever. He tied Wood and beat him the next day in a 36-hole playoff for the championship.
But there were also sad times by then. Hagen had just shot back-to-back 72s in the first two rounds of the St. Paul Open in July of 1934 when, returning from the course to his hotel, his car struck a six-year-old boy, Laurence Johnson, who had darted out onto the street. The boy was then run over by an oncoming streetcar. Hagen leapt from his car and ran to the fallen youngster. "Don't tell me you're dead, sonny," he cried out. "Come on, speak to me." But the boy had been killed. The police determined that the accident was "unavoidable," but Hagen was badly shaken, and from then on the onetime lover of fast cars rarely drove. "He hated driving," says Price, who tried unsuccessfully in the early 1950s to collaborate with Hagen on an autobiography. "I'd drive for him, but if I ever went faster than 45, he'd have a fit. 'What's your hurry?' he'd say, as cars whizzed by all around us. I never knew about the incident."
As the years passed, Hagen retreated more and more to the Michigan backwoods he had grown to love since his days as the Oakland Hills pro. Price spent a year with him at Lake Cadillac trying to get him to concentrate on his autobiography, but it was no use. "He was content to just horse around. He'd get up in the morning at six and have a beer in his hands at seven. Then maybe he'd give me a lesson. I learned a lot about golf, but after a year I realized nothing was going to happen with the book." The autobiography, now long out of print, was completed with another writer several years later.
Hagen would still show up at his old haunt, the Detroit Athletic Club, but beyond that his public appearances were few. He refused to appear on a television show, Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, that Sarazen hosted in the 1960s. "I think he was worried he'd look too fat on TV," Sarazen says now. And he moved farther north still, to a cottage overlooking Long Lake outside Traverse City. Mich. In the mid-1960s he was staggered by yet another tragedy, the death of his grandson in a shooting accident. His social life was confined mostly to bumper pool sessions at the Little Bohemia bar downtown. When he turned 69 he quipped, "That's the easiest 69 I ever made."
In 1964 he was diagnosed as having throat cancer. In July 1965, Price, then living in New York, was asked by Walter Jr. to help get his father checked into St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where he was to have his larynx removed. One of the world's great talkers was about to lose his voice. But getting him into the hospital was no easy chore. "We must've gone to 10 bars on the way to St. Vincent's," says Price. "He was fairly loaded by the time we got him inside, but I'll be damned if he didn't make a pass at a nurse on the way.
"I was with him the night before the operation, and he wasn't the least bit concerned," says Price. "And after the operation he had virtually no voice, but you still couldn't shut him up. He'd just get mad when you couldn't understand him."
His friends in the PGA held a testimonial in Traverse City a couple of years later, and Arnold Palmer said, "If it were not for you, Walter, this dinner would be downstairs in the pro shop and not in the ballroom."
Walter Hagen died of cancer on Oct. 6, 1969. He was 76, an age he had not had the slightest intention of reaching. At his funeral, Edwin A. Schroeder, the pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church in Lake Orion, Mich., reaching for the appropriate metaphor, said, "His biggest game is over. He putted out."
It's difficult to say if the Haig would have appreciated that kind of 19th-hole eulogy. It seems more likely he would have liked a couple of the items on exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame in Pinehurst, N.C., better. One is a Willard Mullin cartoon showing a young and vigorous Hagen striding down a fairway in white tie and tails, holding aloft a glass of champagne, trailed by a smiling caddie towing a fresh supply of bubbly. That is Sir Walter as he would have liked to be remembered, the real "Lochinvar of the Links."
The other item is a scroll from the Michigan section of the PGA, which reads: "He drew the attention of the common man to golf...wrote new pages in the record books in all lands...while folks of all races marvelled at his game, they remember him best as a jolly good fellow."
Golf has yet to build a monument to Walter Hagen. But that'll do.