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100 years ago, Hagen raises toast to Open

U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka (right) and caddie Ricky Elliott survey their 2nd shot at the par-5 18th hole on Sunday. Koepka made par, signed for a 68 and stood 4 strokes behind in his bid for a 3rd consecutive U.S. Open.

Think the Koepka vs. Chamblee kerfuffle is entertaining? Imagine if social media had been around when Walter Hagen was in his prime

Think the Koepka vs. Chamblee kerfuffle is entertaining? Imagine if social media had been around when Walter Hagen was in his prime.

One hundred years ago, when phones weren’t so smart and TV was a sci-fi concept, Hagen won the U.S. Open in a playoff against Mike Brady. The night before the showdown at Brae Burn Country Club, Hagen partied until dawn with his pal Al Jolson, the legendary entertainer who’d been performing in nearby Boston all week.

It’s not hard to conjure images of the photos that the flamboyant Hagen, then 26, might have posted, hoisting champagne flutes with Jolson or cuddling with floozies. There’s no question that Hagen’s advice to Brady the next morning would have gone viral in a matter of minutes.

More on that later. First, to set the scene for those who might know Hagen’s name but aren’t familiar with his exploits, here’s a “Sir Walter” primer:

+ As did most professionals in the pre-World War II era, Hagen learned the game as a caddie, at the Country Club of Rochester, N.Y. He turned professional in 1912, at age 19. Within two years, he notched his first national championship, the 1914 U.S. Open.

+ Hagen's flirtation with professional baseball nearly changed the course of golf history. While playing the winter tournament circuit in 1913, Hagen also informally worked out with the Philadelphia Phillies. He performed well enough as an outfielder and pitcher that he was invited to join the team for a serious tryout during the next winter. Hagen's plan was to focus solely on baseball in 1914, and he had no intention of entering the U.S. Open – even though he had tied for fourth place in '13. When Ernest Willard, the retired editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper and a Country Club of Rochester member, learned that Hagen intended to skip the Open, at Midlothian (Ill.) Country Club, he asked the prodigy to reconsider. Hagen resisted until Willard offered to bankroll the trip, which Hagen couldn't refuse.

+ The notion of “majors” did not exist when Hagen played, but his career tally of victories in the era’s most prestigious tournaments that were open to professionals is 16 (five PGA Championships, five Western Opens, four British Opens and two U.S. Opens). The PGA Tour, which didn’t exist during Hagen’s prime, credits him with 45 career victories, ranking eighth all-time. Records are sketchy, but it’s safe to say that Hagen cashed at least 20 additional winner’s checks worldwide, including lucrative exhibition matches.

+ Hagen’s most enduring contribution to golf was his successful crusade to elevate the status of professionals. From the game’s inception, a pro golfer’s job was to serve the needs of club members: give lessons, make clubs, tend the links. Those who played for money were looked upon as low-brow hustlers, not worthy of even crossing the thresholds of clubhouses that sheltered golf’s ruling class of amateurs.

Hagen wasn’t content with trophies. He also wanted respect.

After he won the 1919 Open, Hagen quit his plum job as head professional at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, becoming the first player to venture into tournament golf full time, without the support (or “yoke,” in his view) of a private-club membership.

When Hagen decided to freelance, it also marked the beginning of his public protest against golf’s elitism, which gained recognition in 1920 during the British Open at Royal Cinque Ports (commonly known as Deal). Hagen sought to make a splash during his first trip to the United Kingdom, so he rented a limo for the week, complete with chauffer and footman. When he was informed that the Deal clubhouse was off-limits to professionals, he made sure that his Austro-Daimler was conspicuously parked each day near the front door, where it served as his personal changing room.

Such restrictions began to ease in America that year, especially after Hagen engaged other pros in the field of the U.S. Open to pitch in for a grandfather clock that was presented to the host Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, in appreciation for the club’s granting the pros clubhouse access. Change came more slowly to the U.K. After the 1923 British Open at Royal Troon, where Hagen was runner-up, he declined the club’s special invitation to the awards ceremony in the clubhouse, instead inviting spectators to celebrate with him at a nearby pub.

The golf establishment had written off Hagen’s 1914 Open victory as a fluke. He finished among the top 10 in the next two Opens, but his quest to prove his doubters wrong was stymied by World War I, when tournament golf in America went on two-year hiatus. He arrived at Brae Burn determined to win.

After three rounds, Hagen was tied for second place, trailing Brady by five shots. But the leader posted a 9-over par 80 in Round 4. Brady had to wait nearly two hours for Hagen to finish. (From 1898 through 1964, the final two rounds of the U.S. Open were played on the same day, in the same order.)

Hagen arrived at the last hole tied for the lead. Brady was not among the reported 10,000 spectators at the 18th, instead awaiting his fate elsewhere on the grounds. He did not witness Hagen’s approach shot that left him with an 8-foot birdie putt for the win.

“Where’s Mike?” Hagen called out to the crowd. “He ought to see this.”

Someone was dispatched to find Brady while Hagen lingered on the green. Brady showed up in time to witness his reprieve; Hagen’s putt hit the back of the cup but didn’t fall. The stage was set for an 18-hole playoff on Sunday.

Nevertheless, Hagen wasn’t about to beg off from Jolson’s party invitation. When he got back to his hotel Sunday morning, he had just enough time to shower, shave and change clothes before wheeling his snazzy Pierce-Arrow to Brae Burn for the playoff.

Hardly surprising, Hagen bogeyed the first hole. Brady made par.

On the second tee, Hagen was heard to offer the following advice: “Mike, if I were you, I’d roll down my sleeves.”

“Why?” Brady asked.

“So the gallery won’t see your muscles quivering,” Hagen replied.

Brady hooked his drive and double bogeyed the second. He shot a rollercoaster 78; Hagen, with 12 pars to Brady’s seven, was marginally more consistent and posted 77.

But wait. There was more of what today would light up Twitter than Hagen’s gamesmanship.

Rules of the day prohibited a player from touching any object near his ball when it lay within 20 yards of the green. During the playoff, facing a pitch shot at the 10th hole, Hagen tossed aside a matchbox that was a few feet from his ball. After hearing complaints from the gallery, officials informed The Haig of a two-stroke penalty, reducing his lead from three shots to one.

Shortly thereafter, another professional who was in the gallery pulled Hagen aside and told him that Brady had committed a similar violation on the ninth hole. Hagen didn’t pass that nugget along to officials until Brady pulled even with a birdie at the 11th.

Brady confirmed that he had moved something, but he wasn’t sure of his ball’s proximity to the green. While Hagen waited at the 12th tee, Brady and rules officials returned to the spot at No. 9 where Brady reckoned his ball had laid. After measurements were taken, Brady was penalized.

Either way, it was a wash, but when the pair reunited at the 12th tee, they agreed, in a show of sportsmanship, to waive the penalties.

Just another twist in a week worthy of a Hagen meme.

Dave Seanor has been a sports journalist since 1975, including a 13-year stint as editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered golf in 25 countries, including the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Email: daveseanor@gmail.com