Walter Hagen, All-Time Great Golfer

American golfer Walter Hagen, 1928
Walter Hagen during the Open Golf Campionships at Sandwich in 1928. E. Bacon/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walter Hagen was one of the biggest stars in golf in the 1920s, although his career stretched from the 19-teens into the 1940s. He helped popularize professional golf and is still among the golfers with the most major championships.

Fast Facts: Walter Hagen

  • Occupation: Professional golfer
  • Nicknames: The Haig, Sir Walter
  • Born: December 21, 1892 in Rochester, New York
  • Died: October 6, 1969 in Traverse City, Michigan
  • Key Accomplishments: Winner of five PGA Championship titles, four British Opens and two U.S. Opens. Winner of 45 PGA Tour titles.
  • Famous Quote: "I never wanted to be a millionaire. I just wanted to live like one."
  • Fun Fact: In the 2000s, Hagen was portrayed in two movies, first by actor Bruce McGill in The Legend of Bagger Vance, then by actor Jeremy Northam in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.

Wins by Hagen

Hagen won 45 times in tournaments that are today recognized by the PGA Tour as official wins. That was easily the most at the time Hagen's career ended; today, it still ranks in the Top 10 on the career PGA Tour wins list.

Eleven of those wins happened in major championships, which is third on the career wins in majors list behind only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Hagen won the U.S. Open twice (1914, 1919), the British Open four times (1922, 1924, 1928, 1929) and the PGA Championship five times (1921, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927).

Awards and Honors

  • Member, World Golf Hall of Fame
  • Member, U.S. Ryder Cup team, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935
  • Captain, U.S. Ryder Cup team, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935, 1937

Walter Hagen Biography

Walter Hagen won 11 professional majors, more than any golfer not named Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. But more than the victories, Hagen's impact is felt in his almost single-handed legitimizing of the PGA Tour, and of the standing of professional athletes around the world.

Early in Hagen's career, it was not uncommon for golf clubs to refuse entry to their clubhouses to pro golfers. Hagen fought to raise standards for pro golfers. Once at a tournament in England, he rented a limousine, parked it in front of the clubhouse and used it as a changing room after the club refused him entry to its locker room.

Hagen's presence at a tournament guaranteed great crowds, and he commanded huge appearance fees for exhibition matches. He was among the first golfers to capitalize on product endorsements, and he is believed to be the first athlete to earn $1 million in a career.

Golfer Walter Hagen pictured in 1928.
E. Bacon/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Hagen grew up just a few miles from the famed Oak Hill Country Club. As a youth, he caddied at Rochester (N.Y.) Country Club, where later he served as head pro.

His first win in a major was the 1914 U.S. Open, at age 22, but his greatest success came in the early to mid-1920s. In all, he won 11 majors, including five PGA Championships, four of them consecutively. In addition, he won the Western Open five times, which at that time was equivalent to a major.

Hagen's career spanned the first great explosion of talent on the American golf scene, and he enjoyed rivalries with Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. Hagen never beat Jones in a major in which they both played, but did crush Jones in a heavily promoted 72-hole exhibition match play event in 1926.

After that exhibition win against Jones, Jones paid a backhanded compliment to Hagen's legendary scrambling ability, saying:

"When a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie, it gets my goat."

Hagen's 11th and final win in a major was at the 1929 British Open. His last victory that is credited as a PGA Tour win was at the 1936 Inverness Invitational Four-Ball. He played in a major for the final time in 1942.

Hagen also played a pivotal role in the early history of the Ryder Cup, captaining the United States team in the first six Cups played.

Hagen brought color and glamour to golf, playing in plus-fours and two-toned shoes (he was the first athlete ever named to the list of Best Dressed Americans). His swing was inconsistent and he probably hit more bad drives and approaches than any of the all-time greats, but his recovery game was so good he usually got away with his mistakes.

He was equally exciting and flamboyant off the course, earning and spending money lavishly. Hagen often stayed at the best hotels, threw the best parties, and hired limousines to take him to tournaments (sometimes pulling the limo right up to the first tee).

"All the professionals ... should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers," Sarazen once said about Hagen. "It was Walter who made professional golf what it is."

Walter Hagen was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

Quote, Unquote

A few notable quotations by Hagen:

  • "I never wanted to be a millionaire. I just wanted to live like one."
  • "No one remembers who came in second."
  • "Give me a man with big hands, big feet and no brains, and I will make a golfer out of him."
  • "You don't have the game you played last year or last week. You only have today's game. It may be far from your best, but it's all you've got. Harden your heart and make the best of it."