In a local newspaper poll conducted in the early 1990s, readers selected Jeff Sluman as the greatest golfer in Rochester history.
Walter Hagen finished a distant second.
The random voting reflected the popularity of Sluman, who at the time was still in his golfing prime, and a lack of historical knowledge on the part of Rochesterians, a golf-mad lot who clearly should have known better.
Yes, it had been more than two decades since The Haig's death and six decades since the last of his 75 professional wins, but his golfing legacy clearly dwarfed Sluman's lofty career (six tour wins, including the 1988 PGA Championship) and the careers of virtually every other person who ever swung a club.
"I appreciate their sentiments, but they really need to do their homework," Sluman said, years later when reminded of the voting. "When you study it, you find that Walter Hagen was in a whole 'nother league. He was in that class of the elite of the elite that included the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer."
With 11 major tournament victories, Hagen ranks third all-time, trailing only Nicklaus (18) and Woods (14). Five of those majors were in the PGA Championship, tying him with the Golden Bear for most victories in that event. Hagen also won the Western Open five times, which some golf historians regarded as a major back in the 1920s and '30s. Hagen also was a six-time Ryder Cup captain.
But the numbers, though impressive, tell only part of the story of the man regarded as "golf's greatest showman." Sir Walter was a larger-than-life figure whose persona transcended his sport. This was a man who strolled the fairways with Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, Dwight Eisenhower and the kings of England (Edward VIII) and the jungle (Johnny "Tarzan" Weismuller). This was a man who lifted spirits, whether he was joking with galleries before crucial shots or bellying up to the bar on the 19th hole. And this was a man who hobnobbed with royalty while never forgetting his working-class roots. That was underscored when, following one of his four British Open victories, Hagen turned over all of his winnings to his caddie.
Hagen was credited with legitimizing the concept of a professional golf tour and helping make golf a global game by playing exhibitions in more than 100 countries.
"He was a flamboyant character, Babe Ruth in golf spikes," said late Rochester newspaper columnist Henry Clune, who was a close friend of Hagen. "There were many sides to him. You'd need a book to sum him up."
Hagen's work as a golf ambassador was not lost on a young Arnold Palmer, who received many encouraging words from Hagen throughout his career. Palmer was as impressed with Hagen's interaction with fans as he was with his ball-striking skills.
"I would like to think I took a page or two from his book in that regard," Palmer said several years ago. "I read an awful lot about Walter's golf prowess and his influence on the public. He sort of laid the foundation for me."
The son of a Rochester blacksmith, Hagen was born Dec. 21, 1892. He grew up near Corbett's Glen and earned 10 cents a round caddying for the Flower City's movers and shakers at the Country Club of Rochester. George Eastman, a CCR member and founder of the Eastman Kodak Co. photography empire, took a liking to Hagen and arranged for the precocious lad to be named an assistant club professional at age 14.
"Even then, there was a certain charm and charisma about Hagen, even though he was basically just a naïve, unsophisticated kid," Clune said. "He was an enormously gifted athlete, and he did not lack for confidence in his abilities."
In 1913, Hagen finished fourth at the U.S. Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Despite the impressive performance (it was only the second tournament of his career), Hagen continued to be smitten with another sport-baseball. When he wasn't performing his assistant pro chores at CCR, Hagen usually could be found on the local baseball diamonds, making $1.50 a game pitching for the semi-pro Rochester Ramblers, which he led to three consecutive city championships. When the Philadelphia Phillies invited Hagen to spring training in 1914, he decided to give up golf to pursue baseball full-time.
But he wound up having a change of heart after a conversation with Ernest Willard, a retired Rochester newspaper editor who was a CCR member. Willard believed Hagen's future was in striking golf balls rather than striking out batters and offered to pay the young man's way to the 1914 U.S. Open in Chicago. Hagen took him up on his offer and wound up shooting a course-record 68 on his way to winning the tournament by a stroke. His baseball career was officially over. His golf legend was just beginning.
Hagen was at his best in PGA Championships, which he won an unprecedented four consecutive times, beginning in 1924. Back then, the PGA used match play, which meant golfers were paired against each other rather than the entire field. Head-to-head competition was ideally suited to Hagen's game because of his domineering course presence, steely nerves and masterful use of gamesmanship. He won 22 consecutive matches in those tournaments-a record that can't be broken because the PGA switched to medal play in 1958.
The Brits came to love him, as much for his dashing presence as for his extraordinary golf skills. In addition to the four Open titles he won there, he also guided the U.S. Ryder Cup team to its first victory on English soil in 1937. Through the years, he played more than 100 exhibitions in England and Scotland.
Inspired by Eastman, Hagen embarked upon a global golfing safari in the late 1930s. During the highly publicized trip, he rode camels near the pyramids in Egypt, photographed kangaroos in the Australian Outback, fished for salmon in Scotland and hunted lions in Nairobi. Shortly after visiting the Taj Mahal, he contracted malaria, but he recovered after being bedridden for a week and resumed his trip with stops in Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Hong Kong.
"I've always had a knack for recovering from bad shots," he said after his 105-degree fever broke. "But this qualifies as my best comeback ever."
His trip around the world took more than two years to complete and did much to popularize the game outside the United States and the British Isles. It also made him an international sports figure.
Purses for tournament victories were not nearly as big back then, but Hagen was a shrewd businessman and became wealthy by introducing his own line of golfing equipment and clothing. Other golfers would soon follow suit.
His last individual tournament victory was at the 1935 Gasparilla Open. After serving as captain of the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1937 and '39, he retired from competitive golf but remained one of the sport's great ambassadors, playing in numerous exhibitions throughout the world.
Many years later, the chain-smoking Hagen developed throat cancer and died at age 76 on Oct. 5, 1969, in Traverse City, Mich. In a tribute to Hagen at the 1980 PGA at Oak Hill Country Club, former Rochester Times-Union city editor Howard Hosmer wrote: "He did more than anyone else to make golf popular because he made it seem like fun."
In 1974, Hagen was a member of the charter class of inductees at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Golf Digest ranked Hagen the seventh greatest golfer of all time, while Sports Illustrated ranked him eighth. All these years later, he remains, as Sluman said, among the elite of the elite.
8/2/13 95th PGA Championship special supplement (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.