Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Walter Hagen - First American to Win British Open
The Local Links to the British Open
Walter Hagen – the Great Emancipator
We call it the British Open, they just call it The Open, and they know what they are talking about.
As one of the four major golf tournaments, along with the US Open, the Masters and the PGA Championship, the British Open has many local South Jersey Shore golf connections, beginning with Willie Park, Jr., the Scotsman who won the British Open twice, and whose father won it a number of times. Park came to America in the 1920s and became a prolific golf course designer, rerouting the Atlantic City Country Club course and while he was here, laid out the Ocean City-Somers Point course, now Greate Bay.
Then there’s Walter Hagen, the first American to win the Open, not counting Jock Hutchison, a naturalized American who won the year before.
Walter Hagen was a young twenty year old assist pro in Rochester, New York when he left his job for a day to watch an equally young twenty year old John McDermott, the Atlantic City Country Club pro, defend his title at the 1912 U.S. Open championship in Buffalo.
Hagen decided he could do that too, and quit his job and started traveling around the country, beginning at the Jersey Shore, where he met James “Jolly” Jim Fraser, the Scottish golf professional at the Seaview Country Club in Absecon. Besides playing golf, Jolly Jim and Hagen liked to hunt and often went into the woods behind Seaview with the dogs to hunt deer and other game.
Hagen traveled around the country in his car full of golf equipment and “barnstormed,” putting on golf exhibitions and taking bets on whether he could beat the local pros or best amateurs at the game. When he was old enough, Jolly Jim’s son Leo Fraser tagged along, making and selling golf clubs as they traveled.
While John McDermott was the first native born American to win the US Open national championship, after sixteen UK professionals took home the trophy, Hagen won the US Open first, and then went to England and became the first native born American to win the British Open.
And like amateur champion Walter Travis and McDermott ahead of him, Hagen felt like he was treated pretty shabbily by the British. Travis, who won the US Amateur at the Atlantic City Country Club (1901) and then won the British Amateur, he refused to go back to England to defend his title because the Honourable Company of Edinburg Golfers threatened to ban his center shafted Schenectady putter, among other insults. McDermott liked Murifield, though the wind there kept him out of competition, and when he returned, he missed a train and his tee time and didn’t play. When he did make it, McDermott came in fifth, the highest any American had finished until Hagen came along.
Walter Hagen had given up the life of the typical golf professional, working the clubhouse, making and fixing golf clubs, giving lessons and setting tee times, and instead became the first touring professional, who spent most of his time on the road going from tournament to tournament.
Hagen took exception to the rules of most golf and country clubs that prevented golf professionals from entering the club house, which was for members and guests only and not golf professionals, who were treated like other club employees and not considered gentlemen.
Hagen made a lot of money playing golf, and when the golf pros at one English club weren’t permitted into the clubhouse after a tournament, Hagen took them all into town to a local pub and treated them to dinner.
Once again in England, when not permitted to enter a clubhouse dining room to eat, Hagen had his limo park at the front door and set up a table and ate dinner at the front door of the club.
Eventually, after tournaments began to give him money just to show up and play, Hagen made it a part of his contact that he had to be permitted into the clubhouse, and once he was in, he demanded that all golf pros be given the same courtesy.
Today golf pros make good money and are well respected, and for that they have Walter Hagen to thank, and those in the know often do.
Most of the money in golf is made by the touring pros, like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. Woods made $75 million last year and didn’t win one tournament.
After Arnold Palmer won the US Amateur tournament he decided to get married and to support his family he also turned pro, and like Hagen, went on the road as a touring pro, complete with trailer to live in.
Years later, when Palmer and the other touring professionals threatened to break away from the PGA and start their own tour, Palmer and Leo Fraser and others locked themselves into a Florida hotel room for a few days and didn’t leave until they had hashed out a deal that was fair to everyone, and kept the PGA together.
By 1960 Leo Fraser had become a PGA official and was invited to play in the Open, and took Arnold Palmer and local golf pro Stan Dudas along with him. They also played in the French Open a few days before, but young Palmer would make his mark by winning the British Open twice, back-to-back, what Walter Hagen said was the sign of a true champion.
As one of the first golf touring pros, Walter Hagen made his mark on the game of golf, but often said to anybody who listened, “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.”
[Bill Kelly is the author of 300 Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, NJ and Birth of the Birdie – the First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ]