Walter Hagen’s Majors

imageI recently finished a couple of biographies of golf great Walter Hagen. Hagen is one of the pivotal figures in the history of golf, and is rightly credited with creating the concept of the “playing” (as opposed to the “club” or “teaching”) professional. He is probably the first professional athlete to have reached the $1 million mark in career earnings (approximately $12 million in 2007 dollars).

Hagen currently is credited with eleven major victories: the 1914 and 1919 US Open, the 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929 British Open Championship and the 1921, 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1927 PGA Championships.

Hagen played in just three Masters tournaments, and these were when he was well beyond his prime. In those, he finished T13, T15 and T11.

But after reading the biographies, I believe that Hagen has been short changed. For while the fourth modern major—the Masters—did not exist during most of his playing career, there was a tournament that could (and was in its time) rightly be considered a major: The Western Open.

The Western Open at that time was clearly the second most important tournament in the United States. It attracted the leading talent—both professional and amateur (at a time when amateurs like Bobby Jones, Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet and George Von Elm really counted). And like the US Open, it was played on some of the best courses of the day: Oakland Hills, Olympia Fields, Interlachen, Medinah, and Indianwood.

Against top competition on the best courses in the second most prestigious US tournament of the day, Walter Hagen won five Western Opens: in 1916, 1921, 1926, 1927 and 1932.

The Western clearly lost its major status as soon as the Masters was established, for the prestige of Jones carried so much weight. Today, the Western Open has been eliminated entirely by the money hungry, historically impoverished PGA Tour.

Bobby Jones is credited with Major wins for his victories in the Amateurs of the day. But he wasn’t facing the best players in those, because the professionals were (obviously) excluded. The Western Open, however, featured the best of both worlds.

Jones also gets credit for the Amateurs, I think, because be was ineligible for the PGA. But Hagen was ineligible for the Amateurs.

So if we credit Jones with “majors”, I think we have to credit Hagen (and the other pre-1934 Western Open winners) with victories in a professional major. And given that, Hagen stands just behind Nicklaus with 16.

As currently credited, here are the golfers with the most professional majors tournament victories (those with 3 or more – I think I have this right; readers may correct me if not):

Jack Nicklaus – 18
Tiger Woods – 12
Walter Hagen – 11
Ben Hogan – 9
Gary Player – 9
Tom Watson – 8
Bobby Jones – 7
Arnold Palmer – 7
Gene Sarazen – 7
Sam Snead – 7
Harry Vardon – 7
Nick Faldo – 6
Lee Trevino – 6
Seve Ballesteros – 5
James Braid – 5
Byron Nelson – 5
J.H. Taylor – 5
Peter Thomson – 5
Willie Anderson Jr. – 4
Jim Barnes – 4
Raymond Floyd – 4
Bobby Locke – 4
Tom Morris Jr. – 4
Tom Morris Sr. – 4
Willie Park Sr. – 4
Jamie Anderson – 3
Tommy Armour – 3
Julius Boros – 3
Billy Casper – 3
Henry Cotton – 3
Jimmy Demaret – 3
Ernie Els – 3
Bob Ferguson – 3
Ralph Guldahl – 3
Hale Irwin – 3
Phil Mickelson – 3
Cary Middlecoff – 3
Larry Nelson – 3
Nick Price – 3
Denny Shute – 3
Vijay Singh – 3
Payne Stewart – 3

The new GolfBlogger majors count would read as follows. Changes are noted in bold:

Jack Nicklaus – 18
Walter Hagen – 11 + 5 Western Opens = 16
Tiger Woods – 12
Ben Hogan – 9
Gary Player – 9
Willie Anderson Jr. – 4 + 4 = 8
Gene Sarazen – 7 + 1 = 8
Tom Watson – 8
Bobby Jones – 7
Arnold Palmer – 7
Sam Snead – 7
Harry Vardon – 7
Nick Faldo – 6
Lee Trevino – 6
Seve Ballesteros – 5
James Braid – 5
Byron Nelson – 5
J.H. Taylor – 5
Peter Thomson – 5
Tommy Armour – 3 + 1 = 4
Jim Barnes – 4
Raymond Floyd – 4
Jock Hutchinson – 2 + 2 = 4
Bobby Locke – 4
Tom Morris Jr. – 4
Tom Morris Sr. – 4
Willie Park Sr. – 4
Jamie Anderson – 3
Julius Boros – 3
Billy Casper – 3
Henry Cotton – 3
Jimmy Demaret – 3
Ernie Els – 3
Bob Ferguson – 3
Ralph Guldahl – 3
Hale Irwin – 3
Phil Mickelson – 3
Cary Middlecoff – 3
Larry Nelson – 3
Nick Price – 3
Denny Shute – 3
Vijay Singh – 3
Payne Stewart – 3

The reordering here is relatively minor (although Anderson and Jock Hutchinson jump significantly.) And it will not affect Tiger’s inevitable place atop the list.

But I do think it more realistically reflects the world of golf prior to the modern majors.

 

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