News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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.

“The Haig,” as Hagen was known, was recognized for his stylish attire on the links and his boldness on and off the course. He was vocal about allowing all professionals to play in all of the major tournaments; he hated the time-honored tradition that gentlemen only played for the love of sport rather than pay.

Pros who played golf for money were looked down upon in those days. They were considered servants; craftsmen who crafted golf clubs in the pro shops, gave lessons, and were gamblers on the course (for the most part). They did not mix with the gentry — that is, until Walter Hagen changed all that.

The three British Opens made all the difference. In one, Hagen was told he had to eat his meals in the pro shop with the other hired hands. The next day, in typical flamboyant style, The Haig rented a chauffeured limousine to drive him to the front of the pro shop, where he sat in regal splendor in the back of the car while a footman served him an elaborate luncheon with the appropriate wine for each course.

At another Open, when he was made to dress in the pro shop instead of the club locker room, he again hired a chauffeured limo, where he changed into his tailored clothes in the back of the car while parked in front of the pro shop.

These were attention getters, but would not have done anything if it had not been for the Prince of Wales. The prince, who later became King Edward VIII, invited Walter Hagen to have lunch in the clubhouse at an English course. Some club attendants whispered to the prince that Hagen, as a golf pro, was not allowed in the clubhouse. The prince loudly replied that if Hagen left, he would too. And that was how the social distinction between pros and amateurs was erased.

• Quote of the Day: “Hagen was indisputably a genius. He must have been to have hit so many bad shots while winning so much and so often … He made golf look difficult, and because most golfers find the game difficult they were able to identify with Hagen.” — Golf historian Mark H. McCormack.

THWGA events

The Terre Haute Women’s Golf Association has announced their schedule of events for the summer of 2009:

• May 30: Two-person Combo Tournament, Rea Park with THWGA organizational meeting to follow.

• June 27-28: Two-person Ringer Tournament, Hulman Links

• July 24-27: 70th Annual City Match Play Tournament, Hulman Links

• August 22: Partner Scramble, Rea Park

Jennifer Myers can be reached by e-mail at