Walter Hagen (front and centre) looking good with the USA Ryder cup team. PA Archive
“I never wanted to be a millionaire. I just wanted to live like one.”
This quote sums up Walter Hagen. While his dress sense and push for equality among professional players hints at someone after the good life, it was never about the money, just about being treated equally.
Helping golf go pro
Before Hagen came along, golfing pros were actually looked down upon by amateur members of elite golf clubs. There was a huge division between the two worlds, especially in the UK. At a time when pro golfers were seen as scruffy, sweaty sportsman, Hagen was showing that you could still be a great athlete while dressing well.
Around this time, professional golfers weren’t actually allowed into clubhouses by the front door and once inside couldn’t use the facilities. As the world’s first full-time touring golf professional, Hagen wasn’t going to stand for this.
It’s said that at the 1920 British Open in Deal, Kent, he hired a Rolls Royce – along with a chauffeur – to serve as his private dressing room, which he parked up on the front drive after being refused entry to the clubhouse dressing room. When he was later denied entry to another clubhouse, he refused to enter to collect his prize.
This reached a turning point when The Haig, as he was known, used his charm and business acumen to convince other pro golfers to buy a large clock and donate it to the Inverness Club, which was hosting the 1920 US Open. In return for this generous donation, the players asked only that they would be given full access to the clubhouse. The club agreed and changed the face of golf forever.
Doing it in style
The style and panache New York-born Hagen brought to the game can’t be underestimated, in terms of its impact on the modern game. He wore perfectly tailored and eye-catching outfits that were more likely to be seen on Lords at the time, not common golfers.
His style led to him becoming the first sportsman to ever make it onto the Best Dressed American list.
It wasn’t just the way he dressed, but the way he carried himself and represented the game of golf worldwide. He was very much a walking, talking advert for golf, playing hundreds of exhibition matches around the world to raise the profile of professional golfers.
By raising the profile and popularity of the game, he also helped make it more profitable - which benefited his fellow players in the form of better pay and prizes.
As the quote at the introduction of this article shows, Hagen knew the value of a dollar. It was this commercial eye that saw him introduce sponsorship deals into the sport. He made huge sums of money endorsing golf equipment and even charged manufacturers thousands of dollars to put one of their clubs in his bag. Being someone with an eye for a deal, Hagen would often carry 22 clubs in his bag instead of the standard 14, to help rake in a bit more cash.
His work with sports equipment firm Wilson led to the first matched sets of irons. This standard kit helped bring more golfers into the game by providing what was once specialist kit to the masses at an affordable price.
He might have been the first sportsman to earn a million dollars in his career, but he also knew that it could all go so fast. As if predicting modern sport’s obsession with current form, Hagen wrote: "As a business it demanded constant playing in the championship bracket, for a current title was my selling commodity."