Koepka's Dream - Hagen's Reality

Golf's consummate professional pioneer

This week’s Senior PGA Championship is being played at Oak Hill in Rochester, NY — the birthplace of one of golf’s all-time greats — Walter Hagen. The Haig — as he was affectionately called — claimed 11 majors during his playing time. The reality is that his total should have included five Western Opens considered a premier event during his time and before the Masters took root in 1934. If that were so — it would be Hagen at 16 majors — two behind Jack Nicklaus and one ahead of Tiger Woods. Think about that.

Before the start of last week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage, eventual winner Brooks Koepka didn’t see any reason why he could not reach double digit totals for majors won. No doubt a bold statement. However, when one considers what the 29-year-old has done in winning four of the last eight majors it’s Koepka’s resolute belief in himself that would have found a real bond with Hagen who was equally candid in his assessment of himself.

The road Hagen travelled to stardom featured a number of imposing obstacles, commencing from a working class family and connecting with golf initially through his start as a caddie. Through it all The Haig was never deterred and actually relished the opportunity in showing everyone the kind of talent he possessed.

Born on December 21, 1892 — Hagen came to the spotlight in an event which heralded the arrival of American golf on the world stage. At the US Open in 1913 held at The Country Club in Brookline, MA, it was amateur Francis Ouimet winning in a spectacular fashion against the English heavyweights Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. That triumph forever changed the golf landscape with America at the forefront.

Hagen, a mere 20 years old at the time, and a complete unknown, tied for fourth. The very next year Hagen claimed the US Open trophy with his win at Chicago’s Midlothian CC. By 1919, Hagen would win his second US Open and it was at that point he severed all club affiliations — opting to make his living entirely from playing golf. When viewed from today’s perspective the concept of someone looking to make a living by playing competitive golf is not seen as far fetched — albeit a challenging path. But viewed in the terms of the time Hagen played it was a monumental leap of faith in oneself.

Amazingly, Koepka chose a pathway to stardom that few thought possible. The three-time All-American from Florida State chose to go to Europe and compete on the Challenge Tour without any exemptions. Koepka worked his way up the ladder with early wins and eventually moving upwards to the European Tour where he also found success before returning to America with clear momentum on his side. Koepka will freely admit his path was one few would likely have chosen but he relishes those moments and clearly it has helped sharpen his approach to the game now at the highest of levels.

Hagen’s early promise with two US Open titles created a platform in which he would fundamentally change the nature of professional golf and the men playing it. During Hagen’s time it was not uncommon for golf professionals to be viewed as beneath the social station of the higher income people who were members of the elite clubs — both in America and the United Kingdom.

At the 1920 Open Championship Hagen and other fellow professionals were prohibited from entering the clubhouse given the keen class distinctions in effect at that time in the UK. Hagen’s response was vintage showmanship. The Haig opted to eat and change his shoes in his rented Austin-Daimler, which the driver parked right in front of the Royal Cinque Ports clubhouse. Classic move.

Hagen would go on to win four Open Championships — with only fellow-American Tom Watson exceeding that total with five. 

But, it was Hagen’s near invincible record in the PGA Championship which was a pure match play event at that time that is forever etched in golf’s history. The Haig would claim the title four consecutive years from 1924-1927 — winning a record tying five championships. In match play, Hagen was famous for sometimes wild play off the tee but being ever resourceful in battling back through a superior short game and trusting putting stroke.

While the headlines of the day often featured the exploits of his chief rival, Bobby Jones, it was Hagen through extensive exhibition global matches and his penchant for promotion through the endorsement of golf equipment with his name prominently displayed that changed the face of golf. Hagen took professional golf out of the shadows and made it more noted than the amateur game which had long been viewed as the superior side of the sport. Successful professional golfers, through Hagen’s efforts, could forever eclipse the pejorative gypsy label that much of upper crust society had long viewed their participation.

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Hagen served as playing captain the first six American Ryder Cup teams — the final one coming in 1937 in a non-playing capacity and finishing with a 4-2 winning record with him at the helm. Hagen’s record of 7-1-1 in matches played merely reinforced his stature as the consummate match player.

In the years to come the growth of golf would accelerate through the emergence of Arnold Palmer and the increasing role of television.  In Hagen’s time the accounts of his exploits were only carried through the major newspapers of the day. Interestingly, Palmer and Hagen developed a deep friendship and it was Palmer who would serve as one of the pallbearers at Hagen’s funeral in early October of 1969.

Quite rightly, Hagen was selected in the charter class in 1974 for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Those playing Oak Hill this week will pass through the long par-5 13th hole on the famed East Course. As one approaches the putting surface there are names on the trees encircling the green — The Hill of Fame. Hagen was the 3rd person so honored after President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert T. Jones, Jr.

As the years go by in any sport it is hard for those living now to remember the exploits of those no longer with us. The memories are forgotten as the chroniclers and fans slowly pass away. Hagen changed the course of history for the professional golfer. To the credit of the PGA of America the connection of professional golf and Rochester is maintained at the highest level with Oak Hill serving as splendid host. In 2023 the PGA Championship will once again return to the storied grounds.

Hagen was a pioneer — a meaningful trailblazer — setting a new direction where none previously existed. He demonstrably showed professional golfers should not merely be tolerated but rightly celebrated. 

Brooks Koepka poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the US PGA Championship (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Can he become one of golf's all-time greats?
Brooks Koepka poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the US PGA Championship (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Brooks Koepka believes he can get to double digit wins in majors and if he should come near that monumental achievement it will be Hagen and his 11 wins watching with pleasure. The Haig’s memories are clearly in the past but his impact lives on today. It is Koepka’s belief in not being limited by what others believe that truly encapsulates the Hagen fingerprints for professional golf.

All hail The Haig.

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