Walter Hagen clearly understood the importance of image. He began his career as a professional golfer in the days when pros were not even allowed to set foot in the clubhouse. Unimpressed by the dismal accommodations made available to the pros and tired of being treated like a second class citizen, he decided to demonstrate his dissatisfaction publicly.
He started showing up for tournaments in a huge, chauffeur-driven limousine. He had his lunch served, complete with appropriate fine wines, in his car, which was conspicuously parked were everyone could see him. After lunch, he would change from his formal clothes into impeccable golfing attire and go to work. He waltzed around every course he played as if he owned the club, and the galleries loved him for it.
Many people credit Hagen with raising the golf pro from the rank of common laborer to that of the professional, on equal terms with doctors, attorneys and businessmen. It was shortly after he achieved the status of a champion that country clubs gradually opened their doors to professional golfers, allowing them to use the locker facilities and other areas of the clubhouse previously reserved exclusively for members.
By the mid 1920s Hagen was making more money than home-run king Babe Ruth, most of it in payment for the 100 or so exhibition matches he played each year. He liked to say, "I don’t want to be a millionaire, just live like one," and he was as good as his word. After winning a tournament in Canada and receiving the unheard of amount of $3,000, Hagen threw an all night party at his hotel, running up a tab up of $3,400. A notorious partygoer and playboy, it was not unusual for him to appear on the tee dressed in the tuxedo he had presumably worn at the previous night’s festivities, and change into his golfing attire as he prepared to play the first hole. Sometimes his ruffled tux suggested he had come straight from a wild party when he had actually slept soundly in his room all night.
While it is certainly true that he enjoyed life, many of his antics were pure showmanship. Hagen often poured his drink into a nearby plant, maintaining his public persona as a party animal without actually having much to drink. It was all part of his image.Hagen’s wonderful showmanship was not confined to his off-course activities. On the final hole of the 1919 US Open, played at the Brae Burn Club in Newton, Massachusetts, Hagen needed to hole an eight-foot putt to force an 18-hole playoff the next day with Mike Brady. Upon reaching the green, Hagen held up play while he sent a marshal into the clubhouse to fetch Brady, so he could watch the putt go in. He made it, of course!
That night, Hagen held a huge, and somewhat premature victory party at his hotel. As the party continued past midnight and into the early hours, one of Hagen’s guests sensibly pointed out that his opponent for the next day’s playoff had been in bed for several hours. "Yes," said Hagen, "but you can bet he isn’t sleeping!" The next day Hagen won the head-to-head contest by one shot.
Hagen counted among his friends many sporting giants of the era like Babe Ruth, with whom he had much in common. He was just as comfortable in the company of Presidents and Kings as he was among the fans and his fellow players. He developed a huge circle of friends in high places, including the Prince of Wales and President Harding.
Habitually late for appointments, Hagen complained to President Harding that he was always getting speeding tickets trying to make up for lost time on the road. Harding solved Sir Walter’s problem by appointing him to be a secret service agent, complete with official badge, in case anyone ever asked to see it.
By being part showman, part actor and part athlete, and by living life on his own terms and treating everyone he met with the same warmth, Hagen was the original colorful player on tour. He blazed a trail for others, like Jimmy Demaret, Tony Lema, Doug Sanders and Payne Stewart, to assume the mantle in their turn.
The winner of 11 "majors" in his career, Hagen was surpassed in this respect only by Nicklaus and Bobby Jones.