PGA Special: Rochester native Walter Hagen is known as the father of professional golf

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The greatest golfer to hail from Rochester, New York is undoubtedly the man they called Sir Walter: Walter Hagen. He won the PGA Championship five times, four of those in consecutive years.

In total, he won 11 majors, third only to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, and he is known as the father of professional golf. In the early part of the 20th century, there was no better professional golfer than Walter Hagen, and none had a bigger personality.

“He was a dominant figure in professional golf,” said author Tom Clavin.

Born in 1892 to a working-class family, Hagen grew up in Corbett’s Glen in Brighton. He took a liking to golf at a very young age, caddying at the Country Club of Rochester at age seven. By his mid teens he was giving lessons and working in the pro shop.  

He made his professional debut in 1912 at the age of 19. Within two years, he won the U.S. Open.

“Hagen was the one that came along with enough confidence, came out of Rochester, with enough confidence to say, I can take on these guys,” Clavin said.

Tom Clavin is the author, who wrote, “Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the invention of professional golf.”

“One of the things about Hagen is he was one of the few players who could boast about something and then follow up on it. He’d say, I’m going to beat you, and he’d beat the guy,” said Clavin.

Hagen won 45 times on the tour. He had 11 major titles, including a record tying five PGA Championships, four open championships, and two U.S. opens.

He was a founding member of the PGA and a six-time captain of the Ryder Cup.

“So it’s almost like, what isn’t on Walter Hagen’s resume,” said Clavin.

He’s also credited with making professional golf what it is today. At a time when amateurs were the revered class, Hagen raised the stature of playing golf for a living. And he took advantage of his success through endorsement deals and paid exhibitions.      

He was the first athlete to become a millionaire and enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. Although he famously said, he never wanted to be a millionaire, he just wanted to live like one.

“A word that’s been connected to him is flamboyant, in that he liked to interact with the crowd. He liked the grand gesture. He liked the surprise golf shot,” said Clavin. “He liked to sometimes dress up in a fancy way to play tournament. There’s one tournament he played that he was on the first tee with his partner, and he had a martini served to him on the first tee.”

The stories about Hagen are legendary. Like the time in 1925 when he jumped in a taxi to meet up with friends to celebrate after winning his second PGA championship in a row. He took the Wanamaker trophy with him.

“He got out of the taxi and at some point, he went to bed that morning, He realized he no longer had the Wanamaker trophy. He had lost it somewhere during the night. And, he didn’t tell anybody, because he said I won’t tell anybody now, I’ll wait until I lose the PGA tournament and then I’ll have to confess, said Clavin.”

He won it the next two years before losing in 1928, and only then was he forced to confess he no longer had the trophy.

He’s confident, charismatic, and one of the greats of all time. 

“He put golf on the back pages of newspapers,” Clavin said.