x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hagen was golf's showman

An unofficial count of 16 Majors is testimony to the talent of a man who worked harder at having fun than on his game.

Hagen liked to glorify his image as a flamboyant playboy but he also stood by his convictions, taking on the establishment to improve the status of professionals, celebrating his victories with the public and taking the game to the world.
Hagen liked to glorify his image as a flamboyant playboy but he also stood by his convictions, taking on the establishment to improve the status of professionals, celebrating his victories with the public and taking the game to the world.

When asked to put together an identikit of the "perfect golfer" before the time of Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros opted for Jack Nicklaus's driving, Nick Faldo's long irons, Lee Trevino's chipping, Ben Hogan's putting, Arnold Palmer's charisma and Walter Hagen's ability to play with a drink in one hand "and a cigarette in the other..."

On the 40th anniversary of his death from throat cancer at the age of 76 on October 6, 1969, let us celebrate the memory of Hagen, who won 11 "Majors" (four British Opens, five US PGA titles and two US Opens) while living life like no other and, in the words of his great friend and rival, Gene Sarazan, "doing more for golf than any player before or since. "Haig took the game all over the world and popularised it everywhere he went."

If the American had not worked so hard at having fun he might have been remembered as the greatest of them all. "Don't hurry, don't worry, you're only here for a short visit so be sure to smell the flowers along the way..." became his mantra. But the time spent on the practice ground was time away from the company of like-minded cronies such as the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII of England whom he delighted in calling "Eddie"), Douglas Fairbanks Sr, and Babe Ruth, as he gained prominence as the first professional golfer to earn a million dollars "and spend two million".

Hagen, who played with the abandon of Palmer, the quick-witted humour of Trevino and the dress-sense of Ian Poulter, gloried in his image as a flamboyant playboy, and was frequently spotted changing out of his dinner suit and into his plus fours behind a bush by the first tee. On the rare occasions he allowed his body an early night, he maintained the illusion of dissipation by having Spec Hammond - who filled the various roles of caddie/chauffeur/valet/buddy - roll his neatly-pressed tuxedo into a crumpled heap so that Hagen shuffled into the clubhouse as though straight from a seedy nightclub.

But most mornings he had no need for such shenanigans, once losing a 72-hole challenge against the British Ryder Cup golfer Archie Compston in 1928 by an embarrassing 18 and 17 while fighting the effects of "the most monumental" headache'. As the legend grew, so Hagen turned his attention to the "stuffed shirts" who ran golf with the intention of improving professional golfers' status as third-class citizens.

Almost nine decades on, it is hard to accept Hagen, Sarazan, Tommy Armour and their professional colleagues from the 1920s were barred from most clubhouses in Britain at the peak of their fame. On one celebrated occasion, Hagen and Sarazan were invited to lunch at Royal St George's by the Prince of Wales. The trio were browsing through the menu when they were approached by an elderly member bearing a reminder of the club rules to the heir to the throne.

"If you don't stop this nonsense," replied Hagen in a bellow which could be heard on the ninth green, "I'll take the Royal out of St George's." At the 1920 British Open at Deal, Hagen responded to a clubhouse ban by booking into a suite at the Ritz hotel and commuting between London and the Kent coast in a Daimler limousine complete with a liveried footman. The car was then parked in front of the clubhouse window through which the crusty members were able to see the millionaire golfer ("I never wanted to be a millionaire, I just wanted to live like one") being ostentatiously served a five-course lunch on the most delicate bone china.

After finishing runner-up to Arthur Havers at Royal Troon in 1923, the members graciously invited Hagen inside the clubhouse for the presentation ceremony; his refusal was equally gracious, inviting the crowd milling around the 18th green to join him in a local hotel. Hagen never bothered to take himself or his sport too seriously; in the 1919 US Open at the Brae Burn Country Club in Massachusetts, Hagen made up five strokes on third-round leader Mike Brady and had an eight-foot putt on the 72nd green to force a play-off.

Ever the showman, Hagen insisted Brady be summoned from the shower to witness his beaming tormentor rattle the putt into the middle of the hole. To hammer home his psychological advantage, on the night prior to his 18-hole shoot-out with Brady, Hagen threw a "victory party" which continued well into the following morning. When Hammond offered the quiet observation that it might be time to halt proceedings as Brady had now been in bed '"six hours or more", Hagen replied: "He may be in bed, but knowing he has me to face later today, he sure as hell ain't asleep." The subsequent play-off was over before it had begun.

When the throat cancer that was to kill him was diagnosed in 1965, Hagen lost his voice when his larynx was removed. He did not, however, lose his spirit. Accompanied by his only son, Walter Jr, Hagen had insisted on stopping off at several of his favourite haunts on his way to hospital for the operation. "And I'll be damned if he didn't make a pass at the nurse," recalled the younger Hagen In his final public appearance before his death, Hagen attended a dinner at a posh country club, given in his honour by Palmer, who would later serve as one of his pall-bearers.

"But for you, Walter," Palmer told his idol, "our celebration of your life tonight would have been held in the pro shop outside..." PS: There are some who claim Hagen should be credited with 16 "Majors" having won the Western Open (then the fourth most- important championship) in an era before the Masters. rphilip@thenational.ae