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On & Off the Course

April 26, 2009

The Haig changed golf off the course

To watch a professional golf tournament today, you’d think that the spectators were just ordinary folks and the players were royalty. They are admired and paid very well for having a spectacular grasp of the game, while mere mortals watch, clap and appreciate their skills.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time, about a century ago and before, when those with great golfing skills, the ones who won tournaments, were admired for their skills on the course but treated like second-class citizens off it. It took a change of thinking, and probably some princely intervention, to change all of that.

The popularity of golf boomed in the roaring ’20s, thanks mostly to a booming economy that allowed a larger middle class to have more leisure time. Adding to the excitement for the game, and therefore golf’s popularity in America, was a trio of golfers known as the Three Musketeers — Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen.

Bobby Jones was the dominant golfer from 1923 to 1930, but he was an amateur, and was regarded as a gentleman as such.

Gene Sarazen, who had changed his name from Eugene Saraceni because he thought it sounded like a violinist, was the best “little man” playing golf in the ’20s. He won the 1922 U.S. Open when he was only 22. He turned professional after that and won the PGA title that year. He then brashly challenged and defeated Hagen, who had won the 1922 British Open, to a one-on-one match for the unofficial championship of the world.

That event had to be great publicity for the sport of golf. Sarazen became the first golfer to win all four major professional titles: the U.S. Open (1922), The British Open (1932), the American PGA (1922, ’23, and ’33) and the Masters (1935). Hagen was the third member of the Three Musketeers and its most flamboyant. He won the British Open four times, the U.S. Open twice and the PGA five times.

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