The Ryder and Walker Cups have been played between the US and UK golfers for decades, but the origin of the US - UK golf rivalry in both the amateur and professional ranks dates back to Walter Travis and Walter Hagen.
While Johnny McDermott was well received, and placed fifth in his first British Open, the highest for any American up to that time, McDermott also started the bitter rivalry in his locker room speech at Shawnee in 1913, making golf a national as well as personal sport.
By the time McDermott made it to Europe, Walter Travis had preceeded him. After winning the British Amateur, Travis refused to go back to defend his title after his center-shafted putter was banned by St. Andrews. And it took someone of the caliber of Walter Hagen, the first true touring professional, to come along and teach the English some manners when it comes to welcoming foreign guests.
With the Ryder Cup back in the news, I thought it appropriate to post two chapters from Birth of the Birdie on Travis and Hagen that cuts to the roots of the US - UK golf rivalry.
Walter J. Travis
Walter J. Travis took up the game of golf late in life – at the age of 35, but he took to the game quickly and became one of the first great champions, winning the 1900 U.S. Amateur Championship and successfully defending his title at the Atlantic City Country Club.
Born in Australia, Travis came to America where he was introduced to the game of golf. He was considered a "deadly" putter and was often referred to as "the Old Man," because of his age, but continually defeated players much younger than he was. A colorful character with a beard and wide brimmed hat, he was often seen chomping on a cigar as he hit the ball. Travis had only been playing golf for three years when he won the 1900 U.S. Amateur Championship.
One of the most significant things about the 1901 Amateur Championship was the introduction of the new Haskell, a rubber center ball known as the "Bounding Billy" because it took off in different directions until it was hit enough times. Travis was the first player to use the Haskell to win a major tournament, and he did it at the Atlantic City Country Club.
In 1904 Travis became the first American to win the British Amateur Championship. As with the Haskell ball in Atlantic City, Travis won the British event with an unconventional instrument 0 the Schenectady putter.
According to Joseph W. Walker, "It was the answer to all of his needs. His short game returned and exceeded his game in the United States. On the greens, in front of them, in traps around the greens, Travis was uncanny. He mystified his opponents. Not expected to figure in the tournament, he won match after match and reached the thirty-six hole final. There he met Edward Blackwell, one of the longest hitters in the British Isles. Even his teammates didn’t give Travis a chance against such a powerful opponent. But Travis, black cigar between his lips, was four-up after the first 18 holes. And Blackwell was unable to cut his lead down, so the match went to the American."
"Travis resented the shabby treatment he received in England," wrote Walker, "and so he refused to defend his title the following year." After Travis’ victory, the center shafted "Schenectady" putter was summarily banned by the rules committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, but has since been reinstated.
Walter Travis also designed golf courses, one of which was the Garden City Golf Club, where James J. Fraser worked when he first came to America.
[Chapter 8, of Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club, 1997, By William E. Kelly]
Walter Hagen first heard of the Atlantic City Country Club when he tried to take off from his Country Club golf and tennis instruction duties in order to play in the 1912 U.S. Open in Buffalo, New York. His employer laughed and told the 20 year old assistant he was too young.
Hagen caught the final round as a spectator, just in time to see 20 year old John McDermott, of Atlantic City Country Club defend his Championship title.
The following year Hagen showed up at the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts after he heard of McDermott’s boisterous boast that the foreigners wouldn’t take the Open trophy home with them, despite the entrance of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers of all time.
Hagen entered the locker room and this time got a laugh out of McDermott when he said, "I’m here to help you keep the title from going overseas."
While that task was left for Francis Ouimet to accomplish, Walter Hagen came back to win the 1914 Open and then went on to become the first prolific touring professional and, as Leo Fraser dubbed him – "The Great Emancipator," who changed the game of golf forever.
It’s not exactly clear when Walter Hagen first came to Atlantic City, although it is known that he was a close friend of Seaview pro James "Jolly Jim" Fraser, and frequent visitor to the Fraser home on the first fairway. While other distinguished personages have also been golfing and dinner guests at the Fraser home, few dignitaries were as frequent as Walter Hagen.
While their association stemmed from the game of golf, Hagen and "Jolly Jim" also shared the love of another sport – hunting. They were frequent hunting partners, going off into the woods behind Seaview with shotguns at their sides and pack dogs at their heels.
They also played golf, and as a team they did what few other men were capable of doing – defeating the great Harry Vardon and Ted Ray during their 1920 visit to America.
As a close friend of the Fraser family, Walter Hagen, like Geist, assumed a father-figure role to the young Frasers after the accidental death of Jolly Jim, particularly Leo Fraser, who moved to Hagen’s home state of Michigan to work as a golf pro when he was only sixteen. Hagen’s positive influence was demonstrated at a Michigan Open, held at Saginaw Country Club, where Leo was the club professional. While Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Tommy Armour were paid appearance money, it was Leo who won the tournament.
It was while working in Michigan that Leo began working for Hagen, selling golf equipment out of the back of a truck and "barnstorming" on the road. When there were no tournaments scheduled they put on exhibitions, selling tickets for $1 and $2 a person. While Hagen was the first golf professional to make a million dollars in a career, he also lived extravagantly and spent much of the money as he went along.
Hagen raised the social level of golf professionals and rekindled American interest in the British Open, which he won fir the first time in 1922, signing his winner’s check over to his caddy, and again in 1946 when he convinced Sam Snead to go over and win it.
Golf professionals in the early part of the century were regarded as second class citizens. It took something of a golf pro right’s movement, expounded by Hagen, to win such basic things as permission to change clothes and eat meals in the clubhouse, rather than the caddyshack.
Once when he was refused entrance into the clubhouse, which was for members and guests only, no professional allowed, Hagen threw a lavish dinner party for the pros at a local pub. Another time he parked his limousine at the front door of the clubhouse where he ate caviar and drank champagne until he was invited in.
This was Leo Fraser’s teenage mentor.
When Leo arrived in Scotland in 1960 for the Centennial British Open he wrote to his sister Elizabeth. "Dear Sis, Well darling, your little brother is really in the R & A Clubhouse, where not so many years ago a golf pro would not dare enter. Walter Hagen, our Great Emancipator, changed all that…."
"Leo used to talk about Walter Hagen all the time," Elizabeth recalls. "He used to say how pickled he’d get, and still be able to play great golf."
Nor did Hagen like to practice, which he considered, "A great shot wasted."
When he traveled Walter Hagen spread his philosophy of life: "Never hurry and don’t worry. You’re here for just a short visit, so don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers along the way."
Leo On The Haig – "The Great Emancipator."
To Walter Hagen:
Who gave to so many A Happy Christmas.
The Haig wouldn’t have cared especially for flowers in a wreath. He preferred them growing wild where he could pause and smell them as he rambled through life. Neither would he have cared for a garland of rhetoric. Like money, he figured words were meant to be scattered around casually, not woven into wreaths of tribute.
So, this is not meant to be a flowery tribute to The Haig. It is intended only as a simple and sincere thank-you note from one golf professional, on behalf of all golf professionals, to the memory of the one man who, more than any other single individual in the game, gave us a special sense of dignity and pride.
Walter Hagen was there when it all began in 1916 and through the years, his loyalty and affection for his fellow professionals in the PGA of America never wavered or became diluted. From the beginning to the very end, The Haig considered himself no more, no less, than a staunch member of our Association, committed to its principles and sharing a common destiny with the youngest shop assistant in the game. This is what was so wonderful about The Haig. He was the professional’s professional. – Leo Fraser