"JONES MEETS HAGEN TODAY AT WHITFIELD," blared the eight-column headline atop the front sports page of the Sarasota Herald on February 28, 1926.
Bobby Jones versus Walter Hagen was the equivalent of a heavyweight world championship bout in boxing. It would take a full week to determine the outcome -- 36 holes in Sarasota and seven days later an additional 36 holes in St. Petersburg. During that week many of the major daily newspapers and most golf fans around the country were focused on the events in Florida because they believed that the results of the match would determine who indeed was the best golfer on the planet.
For some, though, it was a match made in golf heaven. "The golfing world is not so much interested in the probable winner as it is having the chance to see the greatest professional golfer of the day -- if not in the history of American golf -- in direct competition with the greatest amateur and the most interesting golfer this country has ever produced," wrote Norman E. Brown, sports editor of the Sarasota Herald, four days before the contest.
Two players more different could not have been put into the golf ring together. Jones, from Georgia, was the newly minted challenger on the national and international golf circuits, the upstart who on St. Patrick's Day would turn only twenty-four. He had been born into a family of well-heeled Southern gentlemen and genteel ladies, and from an early age he'd had access to fine golf facilities for year-round play.
He was the boy next door with all-American good looks on a 5'8", 165-pound frame and impeccable manners (if you didn't count the incessant smoking and, offstage, the enjoyment of bourbon and salty talk). In 1923 he had won the U.S. Open, won the U.S. Amateur title in '24, lost the Open in a play-off in '25, then that same summer won a second consecutive Amateur Championship.
A modest and private man, Jones wasn't comfortable with crowds, though he always seemed to find the right thing to say when pressed in front of an audience. He was the poster boy for the honesty and integrity of golf thanks to a recent, well-publicized incident. In the previous year's U.S. Open in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had called a one-stroke penalty on himself. A poor iron shot on the 11th hole left his ball in tall grass. As Jones addressed the ball, it moved slightly. No one but him had seen the ball move, and even though U.S. Golf Association officials protested the penalty, Jones insisted on taking it. The National Championship ended in a tie, and Jones lost by one stroke in a play-off.
In very sharp contrast to Hagen, Jones's mode of dress was understated, his voice soft and even, and he was already married to the woman with whom he would share the rest of his life and raise three children.
Jones was the finest and most famous amateur in the world. Many golf purists hoped he would crush his opponent to demonstrate that playing for love, instead of money, made for a more worthy champion.
But there was more than love of golf to being an amateur at the time. All amateur players of note in the 1920s came from the upper class, were white, were of Anglo-Saxon descent, and belonged to private clubs. At these clubs and at tournaments amateurs were addressed as "Mister" to show the proper respect. Conveniently overlooked in media coverage of the 1926 match was that while, yes, Jones did love the game, he also represented a class of golfer that offered the best opportunity to keep golf the sport of blue-blooded gentlemen.
Hagen hailed from Rochester, New York, but in 1926 wherever he hung his hat was home. He was not only a professional, he also represented the new breed of golfer. He competed for money and was viewed by purists who favored the amateur ranks as being willing to play only if there was coin to be collected. (As will be seen later, this perception ignores the many charity events pros played for free, especially during World Wars I and II.) The upper crust was both fascinated and appalled by Hagen -- fascinated because of his dramatic flair, competitive drive, and winning ways, yet appalled because he was a dangerous man: Hagen was at the head of the barbarians approaching the gates of Rome.
The occupation of full-time professional golfer was less than seven years old; Hagen himself had invented it after winning the U.S. Open in 1919. He was the first champion player to emerge from the ranks of the caddies, he was a second-generation German American, and he came from a blue-collar family. He was not called "Mister" Hagen by private-club members and officials.
The Florida match was a classic American clash that this time was being played out in a golf arena: The college-educated Jones had inherited his money and social status; the seventh-grade dropout Hagen had earned his. Aristocracy was being challenged by the expanding working class.
At thirty-three, Hagen was at the peak of his abilities. He stood almost six feet and weighed a robust 180 pounds. He wore silk shirts and a red kerchief, and everything else on him was of the finest quality, down to his $100 custom-made shoes. Because of years of never wearing a hat, his oval face was tanned and weathered. His jet-black hair was slicked back perfectly and when he grinned, which was frequently, sunlight gleamed on his teeth. He smoked cigarettes not with casual or grinding abandon but with sensuous pleasure.
After golf, Hagen loved nothing more than to be out on the town most of the night with one hand on a beautiful woman and the other hand hoisting a full glass of what he liked to call "hypsonica," usually a scotch and water. Women were attracted to this famous, confident man, and he had developed an easy way with them which included calling them all "My dear" or "Sugar" because he had difficulty remembering names. (Men were all called "Junior," "Kid," or "Buddy.")
He could be, however, an awkward or even crude Lothario. Once, at a large party in New York in the 1920s, Hagen was introduced to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a buxom contralto with the Metropolitan Opera. She wore a low-cut gown; Hagen looked her over and queried, "Madam, do you know what a lovely bunker you would make?"
Hagen was at the top of his game in the late winter of 1926. He had two U.S. Opens to his credit (both won before Jones became a factor) to go with his two British Opens, and he had collected the last two PGA Championships, which were grueling match-play events, to go with a PGA victory back in '21.
The two competitors were opposites, all right, and would never be found traveling in the same circles away from the golf course, but they were united by mutual respect. They had battled each other in several tournaments, including the U.S. and British Opens, and had participated in team exhibition matches, especially in Florida during the winters.
Jones might have appeared to be a stick-in-the-mud compared to his glamorous rival, but he really wasn't dour at all. He liked to laugh with friends, just not on the course, though it seems that being on a course with Hagen did loosen him up a bit in public. One time Jones and Hagen, with partners, were staging an exhibition match. After Hagen's ball landed in a bunker, Jones secretly gave his caddie a twenty-dollar bill and instructed him to crumple it up and toss it into the bunker next to Hagen's ball.
When Sir Walter got ready for the sand shot, he spied the bill and, pretending this was all part of his pre-shot routine, he bent over, scooped up the bill, and smoothly slipped it into his pocket. Then Hagen and his partner lost the hole because of the infraction of removing a loose impediment in a hazard. Flustered for once, Hagen tried to explain, and Jones and the crowd exploded with laughter.
The time had come to pit them -- the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and the reigning Professional Golfers Association champion -- together just mano e mano over 72 holes on two separate days, and beyond that if necessary, to determine who would be left standing as the best in the world. Did the two golf gladiators object to all the hype in the national and especially the Florida press? Not at all. For Hagen, the more attention the better. Even Jones said, "I can't wait to step onto the course with Walter."
Bob Harlow had first suggested the idea of matching up Jones and Hagen. He had started out as a sports reporter and then skirted the line of being a publicist, similar to the role Atlanta sportswriter O. B. Keeler played with Jones. Finally Hagen, once more doing what no golfer had done before, hired Harlow to be his full-time PR rep and manager.
During the 1920s, Harlow had no trouble collecting and feeding good material about the Haig to newspapers and magazines such as the American Golfer and the Saturday Evening Post. Harlow's efforts, combined with Hagen's dashing appearance and personality, and his winning exploits in golf, which emerged during the decade as a major sport in America, placed Hagen in the upper stratosphere of sports stars, the one which also included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Johnny Weissmuller.
Then Harlow had the ultimate brainstorm: With golf writers and fans routinely mentioning Hagen and Jones in the same sentence and debating which one was the better player, why not let the two players settle it and generate a lot of ink and revenue along the way?
It was like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan playing one-on-one, a Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa home-run contest, Alydar racing against Affirmed, and Ali versus Frazier all rolled into the same week. Hagen immediately embraced the idea because of the potential for a very bright spotlight, the resentment he felt that Jones was sharing too much of the spotlight that he, Hagen, already had, and the money at stake. Jones was at first reluctant, then found a good reason to pick up the gauntlet.
An exhibition match featuring the two was a brilliant PR coup for golf. Good publicity helped the sport and its major figures carve out attention during a decade in which sports and individuals were followed with unprecedented enthusiasm. The 1920s were called the "Golden Age of Sport," and 1926 was the height of that Golden Age.
Babe Ruth was rewriting the baseball record book and Lou Gehrig was playing his first full season. Red Grange was helping the Chicago Bears dominate football after a brilliant college career. In tennis, Bill Tilden and Helen Wills were taking trophies away from the Europeans. Jack Dempsey was still the king of boxing, in the seventh year of his reign. That August, eighteen-year-old Gertrude Ederle from New York City became the first woman to swim the English Channel, and Johnny Weissmuller was muscling through water like no swimmer had done before. And in golf, it was time for Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones to play the ultimate exhibition match.
At the time, exhibition matches in golf were not unusual. In 1926 there was no official PGA Tour, just a loose affiliation of ten to twelve PGA-sanctioned tourneys with modest purses, not enough for a pro to make a living. While Hagen did not invent exhibition matches as a method of supplementing a pro golfer's income, with his popularity and showmanship he made them a profitable gate attraction. A player could make the same or more participating in an exhibition match as he could winning a tournament -- much the way today's players can collect huge fees for less work by doing corporate outings and made-for-TV exhibitions such as "The Skins Game."
The numerous exhibition matches played among the better-known golfers in the 1920s also offered fans in different parts of the United States (and in Hagen's case, the world) opportunities to see top-notch golf being played. Today, of course, there is enough radio, TV, and Internet coverage of golf events that the sport is available almost around the clock. In addition, with the combination of sanctioned events on the PGA, Champions, and LPGA tours and unofficial events, at least one tournament takes place in most of the fifty states.
Eighty years ago, however, there was only print coverage of golf, and the reportage routinely was given less space than baseball, boxing, or college football. For live action, the golfers had to bring the events to the audiences, and exhibition matches -- played in the South and West in the winter, the Midwest and East in the spring and fall -- were a bit like a traveling theater show.
By the time he hung up his spikes for good, Hagen would play more than two thousand exhibition matches just about everywhere but on the polar caps, at a time of relatively primitive transportation. From approximately 1915 to 1945, for literally millions of people around the world, the only live golf they witnessed featuring a top professional involved Walter Hagen.
Jones, however, played sparingly outside of tournaments, or as golf writer and editor Charles Price put it, "about as much as your average dentist." Unlike Hagen, his life did not revolve around golf, social events, and foreign adventure. He played some exhibition matches to try to keep his game sharp between "regular" events, and even though married with a child in '26, he was still a young man and exhibitions offered some travel. Florida in winter was more accommodating than Jones's Georgia home.
But this matchup was for money, and wasn't Jones an amateur? Was he risking his status? No, Jones thought at the time. In accepting the invitation to play Hagen, Jones stated right away that if he won, he would not accept the prize money, which of course added fuel to the fire of those who viewed Jones as playing purely for the love and glory of the game. Yet Jones was not being completely altruistic here.
In addition to being a brilliant golfer, Jones was a brilliant student who had ambitions that went beyond the fairway. In the fall of 1926 he intended to enter Emory University Law School, and since he wasn't making a penny from golf no matter how high he placed in tournaments, a non-golf source of income to pay tuition and support his family was a good idea.
Jones had been hired by Adair Realty Company in Atlanta as a salesman. One could do a lot worse than being in real estate in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Adair Realty owned land near the just-built Whitfield Estates Country Club in Sarasota. The course had been designed by Donald Ross, a Scottish transplant who was one of the top two or three golf architects in the country. It was a no-brainer that well-publicized and well-attended golf events at Whitfield would spur the sale of nearby lots and provide plenty of commissions for those on the sales team.
Actually, it was in the interests of both Hagen and Jones to stage this match and make sure it received a great deal of attention. While Hagen had several sources of golf-related income, he was affiliated with the St. Petersburg course and anything good for the course, such as a surge in membership and surrounding development, would be good for Hagen's income. Win or lose, staging half of the match at the Pasadena Golf Club put money in Sir Walter's deep and well-worn pocket.
In more general terms, though, there was a boom in golf in Florida. Given the economic frenzy of the Roaring Twenties, any golf activity attracting attention from other parts of the United States and even Europe meant that more people were visiting and moving to Florida. This created a lively climate for residential and golf-course development, bringing more jobs for golf pros and more venues for high-stakes exhibition matches.
It was a win-win situation for both golfers. But someone had to lose the match, and in the end some fans would exult and some would be disappointed. Even with just the print media available, word spread fast among sports fans, especially pleasing those who were suffering through a winter athletic drought and had yet to receive news on spring training. By the time the Haig and Bobby teed off, millions of sports aficionados would be hanging on the outcome.
Hagen versus Jones would be a great contest, but there could be only one winner. Everyone expected that it would come down to the final putt.
After all the preparation and hype for the match, and with fans in Florida fighting over tickets, Walter Hagen almost didn't make it to the first tee.
He had always taken pride in conducting himself as a professional as an example to others, which included showing up where colleagues, officials, and fans expected him to show up (though not always on time). The Haig couldn't wait to go head-to-head with Jones, for whom he felt both admiration and rivalry. Jones had just recently emerged as an international figure while Sir Walter was in his fourteenth year of competition. And while having won two PGA Championships in '24 and '25 (which Jones, as an amateur, could not enter) was impressive, those feats had been at least equaled by Jones's recent accomplishments in the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. A head-to-head win would put the brakes on the threat of Hagen being eclipsed.
But then Hagen's health, usually indefatigable, faltered. A week before the major matchup, Hagen became violently ill and was confined to bed.
A case of nerves? Not Hagen -- there wasn't anyone he was afraid to take on, even Jones. He was diagnosed as having ptomaine poisoning, and Hagen was so weakened by it, and with a fever that soared to 102 degrees, that he couldn't stand for several days. (That he had a fever implies a virus or flu rather than poisoning.) There was a real danger that the celebrated match would have to be called off.
Though the ailment was physical, many people wouldn't have blamed Hagen if he had withdrawn for any plausible reason. First of all, a loss to Bobby Jones would be a chink in his armor. Second, Jones was on a hot streak. He had committed to a series of exhibition matches in Florida, partnered with Tommy Armour, the Scottish-born American pro who would establish an equipment and player dynasty. The duo had won six matches in a row, including a 4-and-3 thrashing of Hagen and Gil Nicholls on February 21 on the Haig's home course, the Pasadena Country Club in St. Petersburg.
"It was merciless golf that the amateur champion and his partner hurled at the Pasadena pair this afternoon," reported the Sarasota Herald.
To be fair, Hagen played well, but his partner was not even near the level of Jones and Armour, who had played several winters as a team. Still, such a sudden reversal of fortune had to be discouraging to Hagen. Just two days earlier he had played a practice round at Jones's home course, Whitfield Estates. He had come to Sarasota that day already sharp from competition, having just played 36 holes at a course in Jacksonville, several exhibitions at other Florida courses, and a round at a new course he had opened at Brooksville.
At Whitfield, Hagen was greeted by Jones and Armour along with local dignitaries. The weather was wet and windy, and Hagen, playing the course with the club's assistant instructor, shot a 76, not the best harbinger of future success. After the match Hagen and the ever-present Bob Harlow returned to St. Petersburg. From there Harlow issued a statement full of typical hyperbole, that "there has never been such a height of interest attained in any sport event as is being shown in the Hagen-Jones match."
Just as tickets went on sale, Hagen fell ill. His wife joined him in St. Petersburg, though the last role the socialite and party girl Edna Straus Hagen was suited for was nurse. Hagen's temperature shot up. He canceled practice rounds and a couple of minor exhibition matches because he simply was too weak to dress himself, let alone swing a club with any authority. Ever the gentleman, Jones sent a message offering to postpone the match.
But ever the showman, Hagen began to recover. On February 23 Harlow reported: "Walter Hagen got out of bed about 11 o'clock this morning and started to do some Charleston steps in his pajamas. Hagen is good at the Charleston and just got going when Mrs. Hagen called a halt on the dance."
Many years later, in assessing Hagen's career most sportswriters would credit him with being the first and among the best at using psychological ploys on opponents to disarm or intimidate them. One example is the statement the Haig issued through Harlow the following day: "I want the golfing world to know that I appreciate what Jones is doing for me in giving me this opportunity, not only to make some money, but more important, to meet him at match play. I believe that Jones is the toughest golfer in the world today to beat, and that this match is even more important than any open championship I have played in on either side of the Atlantic Ocean."
Though Hagen was being a bit tongue-in-cheek casting himself as quite the lowly underdog, his statement wasn't total exaggeration. As both the local and national golf scribes pointed out in their pre-match commentary, Jones and Hagen had competed six times in the same field in the U.S. Open, which with the PGA Championship and (at the time) Western Open was considered the ultimate test of golf in America. Jones had won once, in 1923, and Hagen not at all (his two National Championships had been in 1914 and 1919). Worse still, in those six U.S. Opens, Jones had finished higher than Hagen five times and in total had played 20 strokes better.
There was some consolation, as Norman E. Brown pointed out: "Jones is without a doubt a great medal player. Hagen is, however, best fitted temperamentally for match play. He is the most superbly confident human being I have ever met."
Despite his match-play track record, which by 1926 included three PGA Championships in total, and the fact that this duel was match play -- meaning holes won, not strokes made, are counted -- in a few ways Hagen did have the deck stacked against him. He was weakened by a nasty illness; as the veteran professional he may have had more to lose than to gain; he had just lost to Jones and Armour on his own course; the first 36 holes of the confrontation would be played on Jones's course. Also, Jones had some high-pressure match-play experience through U.S. Amateur Championship competition, and there was the distracting irritation that he had rarely finished ahead of the youngster who in some circles had already been placed on a higher pedestal in golf.
It didn't help either that this would be one of the very few events where the majority of the crowd's devotion might be to his opponent. "Jones Passes Up Thousands: Great Golfer Makes Big Monetary Sacrifice as an Amateur," announced the February 26 issue of the Sarasota Herald. It went on to offer, "Probably no one figure in the whole realm of sports is sacrificing more in dollars and cents by maintaining his amateur standing than Bobby Jones, national amateur golf champion." There is no mention, obviously, of the sweetheart Adair Realty connection.
The daily went on to emphasize that "the entire gate receipts for the Whitfield Estates play goes to Hagen, or figuring that one match will attract as many as the other, Hagen's total income from both appearances will run something like $10,000," an enormous sum in 1926, looking even larger when your opponent is receiving nothing but applause. The article concluded that Jones "has placed his name among the immortals of American sports as one of the finest, cleanest and most attractive figures that the country ever produced."
Perhaps Hagen realized that a Jones win would be devastating, and even a close loss would be viewed as a moral victory. To truly win, Sir Walter had to win big and prove who was still king of the hill whether amateur or professional, whether playing for love or money. There could be no doubt left as to who was the best in the game.
Two days before the big match Hagen arrived in Sarasota in a speedboat. He began a practice round but quit at noon, heightening concerns that he was not up to the confrontation. A Philadelphia newspaper wired Hagen that they wanted a five-hundred-word story on how he felt. He replied, "Never mind five hundred, I can tell you in two: 'I am okay.'"
The morning of the first 36 holes, Sunday, February 28, below the eight-column Herald headline was "Great Golfers Will Begin Their Titanic 72 Hole Engagement," followed by:
"With both actors on the scene, with the stage in readiness and with an audience that gives every indication of surpassing any that ever attended a match on the West Coast, the curtain is about to be raised on the greatest golfing drama of the century." (This made Harlow appear demure by comparison.) "For at 10 o'clock this morning on the Whitfield Estates course," the story continued, "Bobby Jones, American amateur golfer and considered the greatest medalist on the globe, will tee off against Walter Hagen, present holder of the American professional golfers title and looked upon as one of the most brilliant and colorful match players in the game."
On page 2 there was an article about Bobby Cruickshank and Johnny Farrell in a tie for first place in the Florida Open Golf Championship, but the front page was dominated by large photos of Jones and Hagen swinging clubs. Jones was dubbed "The Par Assassin" above his photo and Hagen was awarded the more pedestrian "A Great Match Player."
Writing in his "Sportscope" column in the Sarasota Herald, Whitner Cary declared, "Hagen is probably the only golfer in this country that the experts would say has the right to challenge the ability of the Par Assassin. Sir Walter is not the steadiest golfer that wanders over the fairway, but he is one of if not the most spectacular golfer that ever shot out of trouble or rammed home a 20-foot putt from the edge of the green. Whether Walter can be able to bring enough of the spectacular into his game to offset the steady hammering the Par Assassin will unlimber in the 72-hole jaunt, time alone will answer."
The New York papers also were beating the drum. The New York World, for example, insisted to its readers that the arrival of Babe Ruth and the World Champion Yankees in St. Petersburg for spring training greatly paled in comparison to this world championship of golf.
As it turned out, after all the reportage, speculation, breathless anticipation, and arguments, the result of the match would turn out to be much different than anyone expected.
Though there were 71 more holes to play, interrupted by a week to recover and reestablish the competitors' focus, the very first hole was a preview of what was to come.
By virtue of winning the coin toss that determined whose home course would host the first 36 holes, Hagen had the honor of teeing off first at Jones's course. He believed that from a psychological point of view, if he could play well or at least break even in Bobby's backyard, he'd be in good shape going to the last 36 holes at his own course. Both players stood at the tee wearing knickers, ties, and pullover sweaters. Hagen's hair was, as usual, slicked straight back and the oil in it glistened in the morning sunlight. Jones's light-brown hair was hidden beneath a fedora.
The Haig addressed the ball and, nothing new for him, his drive hooked into the rough along the left side. And nothing new for him, Jones parked his drive in the middle of the fairway. Advantage the amateur. Perhaps the Haig really wasn't ready for this confrontation.
In a small way he wasn't, and not just because of lingering illness. To celebrate the match in advance, Henry Topping, the father of Dan, who would co-own the New York Yankees, had given Hagen a new set of woods with laminated shafts. Hagen hadn't used them until a practice round the day before, and they still felt strange in his hands. However, Topping was a close friend and Hagen wouldn't risk a report getting back to New York that he had not used the generous gift. In any case, thanks to his extensive world traveling, Hagen was a veteran at getting accustomed to unfamiliar courses and equipment quickly, so he went ahead with the clubs.
Hagen's second shot on the par 4 was okay, not reassuring but not dismal either. He left the ball short of the green. Jones, wanting to get off to a fast start, went for the flag -- and overshot, his ball going through the green and down a slope behind it.
Jones's recovery shot rolled 20 feet past the cup. Hagen dropped his ball on the green. Jones's par putt didn't make it to the hole; he managed bogey. Hagen, after beginning by flirting with disaster, sank his putt for par.
Slowly, Hagen compiled a lead, though not an insurmountable one. He and Jones halved the second, third, and fourth holes. On the fifth hole, Jones outdrove Hagen and both were in the fairway. The Haig's second shot landed at the edge of the green, he chipped to within 4 feet of the cup, and sank the putt for par. Jones's second shot landed in a creek, and the lost stroke hurt because he missed a long putt for par. Hagen 2-up.
They matched pars on the sixth hole, then on the seventh Jones rallied. He outdrove Hagen by 10 yards; they both were on the green in two, but Jones sank his 15-footer for birdie while Hagen missed a similar-length putt. Once more, there was only a one-hole difference between the two.
They kept going back and forth, Hagen inching further out front, Jones drawing close. The Haig was still only 1-up after 12 holes. But beginning with 13, the match changed. Hagen birdied the par-3 to go 2-up. After a halve, he birdied the long par-4 15th to go 3-up. On the par-3 16th, Jones found the bunker while Sir Walter birdied; 4-up. Jones recovered to take the par-5 17th, then he and Hagen halved the par-5 18th. The back-nine charge by Hagen had done its damage.
However, being down by three holes wasn't close to disaster for Jones. With 54 holes yet to go and with his recent track record, with his twenty-three years to Hagen's well-trod thirty-three, and Hagen's stamina questionable because of the recent illness, it was easy to believe that Bobby would forge ahead by the finish line.
The rivals had lunch (separately), then in the afternoon round Jones indicated that he had stopped the bleeding by matching Hagen for the first five holes. Then came the sixth hole. Off the tee at the short par-4, Jones hit a perfect drive. Stumbling, Hagen knocked his drive behind a tree. Time for Jones to eat into the lead, and if indeed his opponent was faltering as the afternoon dragged on, this could be an opportunity to stagger Hagen and leave him with somber thoughts for the next 36 holes.
It was not to be. Using a "mashie-niblick" -- which would now be akin to a 6-iron or 7-iron -- Hagen sliced around the tree with a swift-moving grounder. He had actually mis-hit the ball, yet it sped right through a bunker and up onto the green, coming to rest three feet from the hole. Rattled, Jones left his second shot 10 feet from the cup, missed the putt, and settled for a par. The Haig, of course, sank his 3-footer for birdie and went 4-up.
"Hagen had to play the odd and he hit as wretched a shot as can be imagined -- he topped the ball so that it fairly rolled along the turf," wryly reported the American Golfer.
It got much, much worse for the amateur. On another par-4, Jones launched a 250-yard drive down the middle of the fairway; Hagen's tee shot wound up stuck in thick brush. Jones hit an iron to the edge of the green; Hagen missed the green completely, with his ball settling in a swamp. Jones chipped to a foot of the cup; Hagen blasted out, and his ball came to rest inside Jones's. Jones had played the hole perfectly, Hagen hadn't been near the fairway, yet they halved.
At the finish of the afternoon's back nine, Hagen had shot 32 and Jones, the wheels coming off, was down 8. On the 36th hole of the day, Hagen sent his drive right into a tree; of course, the ball bounced onto the fairway, and he ended up with a birdie to end the day, leaving a bewildered Jones shaking his head and gritting his teeth.
Adding insult to injury, Jones was a fine putter and had used a respectable 31 putts in the 36-hole first round. Sir Walter, though, needed only 27, meaning that more often than not, once he found the green he was most likely to find the bottom of the cup with his next stroke.
The March 1 issue of the New York Times reported that over the 36 holes Hagen had shot 141 to Jones's 151, and in that regard the amateur should be glad this wasn't a stroke-play contest. The last such debacle for Jones, the Times offered, was when Jess Sweetser beat him 8 and 7 at Brookline, when Jones was all of twenty.
"Walter Hagen, yesterday over the Whitfield Estates course, partly opened the door of the golfing hall of fame and took one step through the portals of athletic immortality when he finished eight up on Bobby Jones at the conclusion of 36 history-making holes of their scheduled 72-hole engagement," declared the Sarasota Herald.
It went on to say that Hagen "convinced a colorful and enthusiastic gallery of some 2,500 golf fans that this appellation [of greatest money player] was well merited; for it is doubtful if any follower of the Ancient and Royal pastime ever flashed a more sensational brand than did Sir Walter."
Being down 8 is surely a pretty tough position to be in, but Jones had a week to regroup. If he could get off to a good start on the Pasadena course and with 36 holes to play, a comeback was possible. He practiced with dedication during the week, and the ever-encouraging Herald offered on March 6, "Miracles can happen, and the Par Assassin is still far from a beaten golfer."
What also helped the following day, when Act II began, was that busloads of supporters had made the trip from Sarasota to cheer the "local" on.
Jones parred the first hole, and the second. Hagen managed par on the first, and on the second his ball was on the green but 50 feet from the pin; conceivably, he could three-putt from there and Jones would get a hole back early. Hagen briefly studied the green, stood over the ball, took his putter back, then gave the ball a good whack. It went in for birdie. Jones and his fans stared at the Haig in disbelief.
Alas, this day wasn't going to be any different for the young Georgian. After 5 holes of the afternoon round, he was 12 down. The Haig could do no wrong. On a par-3 hole, Hagen was on the green 20 feet from the cup while Jones was barely on the green, 60 feet away. Jones putted first, and incredibly the ball went in for a birdie. After the crowd quieted, Hagen laughed and said, "What do you think of that? Bob gets a half after all." Without hesitating, Hagen stroked his ball and earned his own birdie.
The rout was irreversible. Jones tried to stem it anyway, chipping in for birdie on the 24th hole of the day to extend the match. But when Hagen won the next hole, it was all over. The final result was a devastating 12-and-11 defeat for Jones and a huge triumph for Hagen.
The New York Times reported on March 8 that when the second 18 holes began "it was only a question of minutes before Hagen would vanquish his opponent." The report added: "Hagen put on his fighting mask. He was determined and sure of himself every step of the way. He never faltered and his putter was sure as a rifle."
"That answers any question as to the class of shooting that took place over the home links of Sir Walter," Whitner Cary wrote in the Saratoga Herald about how even Jones's best shots weren't good enough.
After the abbreviated match, a frustrated Jones said, "I would rather play a man who is straight down the fairway with his drive, on the green with his second, and down in two putts for his par. I can play a man like that at his own game, which is par golf. If one of us can get close to the pin with his approach, or hole a good putt, all right. He has earned something that I can understand. But when a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie -- it gets my goat!"
Though his goat was gotten, Jones never made excuses for being dusted by Hagen. In his memoir Down the Fairway, published the next year (when he was only twenty-five), Jones referred to the match as "that beautiful lacing in Florida." Elsewhere in the book he wrote, "The biggest golfing year in my life, 1926, began with the most impressive trouncing I ever got -- and it was by a professional, Walter Hagen." Jones also conceded, "Walter was simply too good for me." Some consolation was, "I have plenty of distinguished company among the victims of Walter's rampages."
For his part, Hagen for the rest of his life would call his one-on-one demolition of Jones "my greatest thrill in golf."
Dozens of daily newspapers on March 8 reported the outcome of the unofficial "world championship" of golf. Hagen fans were overjoyed; Jones fans were incredulous. One reporter offered about the third round of 18 holes that "Walter had gone around in 69 strokes and Bobby in 69 cigarettes."
The British writer A. C. Croome explained, "[Hagen] makes more bad shots in a single season than Harry Vardon did from 1890 to 1914, but he beats more immaculate golfers because as he has said, 'Three of those and one of them counts four.'"
In its report on the 1926 match, the American Golfer magazine stated that one reason why Hagen was almost impossible to beat in match play "is his superb showmanship; his histrionic talent; his gift for 'acting,' and for making of some special shot a ceremony on which the gallery hangs with an hypnotic attention -- and which his hapless opponent regards with a distinctly disadvantageous concern, not to say exasperation."
Probably because of the especially satisfying victory, Hagen was extra gracious about the win over Jones. It didn't hurt that he was handed $11,800 in total gate receipts for the two-day competition, the largest paycheck he had ever received and more than the top prize he would ever win in tournament play, including the three majors of the day -- British and U.S. Opens and the PGA Championship.
In a brief speech after the match, Hagen thanked Jones, "an amateur, for playing me, a professional, for nothing...it's a tribute to golf and American sportsmanship."
The party the Haig threw that night came after he had taken care of two other things to express his appreciation...and, no doubt, relief: He took $5,000 of his winnings and donated it to the St. Petersburg Hospital, and with part of the $6,800 left over he bought and presented Bobby Jones a set of diamond cufflinks, telling Gene Sarazen, "I bought the kid a little something."
After looking the cufflinks over, Jones, recovering his sense of humor, said, "Walter, you have now ruined me twice! First, there was this licking, and now I'll be busted the rest of my life trying to buy shirts to fit this jewelry." (Not to worry -- according to several accounts, Jones kept but never wore the cufflinks.)
No matter who won, there would have been calls for a rematch. Especially with the lopsided result, many golf fans and writers exhorted the two to go at it again. Jones, of course, was willing. After such a sinking on the golf course, he could only do better.
But the U.S. Golf Association, which hadn't sanctioned but had allowed the contest, raised an eyebrow about Jones's indirect profit from the event and stated that if he took Hagen on again, his amateur status would be revoked.
Jones sided in favor of remaining an amateur. And he received plenty of consolation during the rest of that year when he won the U.S. Open again and the first of his three British Opens, becoming the first golfer to win both opens in the same year.
This adherence to the amateur "purity" of golf is one reason why to this day Bobby Jones is such a revered figure in the history of U.S. sports. In golf rankings he is always listed with Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Walter Hagen as one of the finest competitors who ever walked a fairway.
He was on even his old rival Hagen's best list. When told in 1950 that Jones had been elected the best golfer of the first half of the twentieth century, Hagen responded, "I would've voted for Jones myself. He was marvelous."
So was Sir Walter, and not just because of the forty-four official tournaments won and more than $1 million earned. Hagen was the player most responsible for creating the occupation of professional golfer during the 1920s. Crucial to the explosive growth of golf in America during that decade, from 1923 to 1929 the Haig played in eighteen major professional tournaments, winning seven (he had won four majors between 1914 and 1922). Jones's winning the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateur Championships during the same period was a great accomplishment, yet he competed on average in only three to four tournaments a year and could not compete in the PGA Championship.
During the rapid rise of golf in the Roaring Twenties, it was Hagen who carried the golf torch week after week and year after year, especially in the high-profile events.
According to Grantland Rice, the dean of American sportswriters at the time, "Hagen, by his tact, deportment, style, and overall color, did for the professional golfer what Babe Ruth did for the professional ballplayer."
"Hagen was historically important," declared Herbert Warren Wind, dean of American golf writers, in a long essay he wrote for the New Yorker sixty-one years after the Florida match. "More than any other individual, he opened the way for young men who wanted to make their living not as golf professionals but as professional golfers.
"He was called 'The Haig' with a respectful chuckle tinged with awe the way Arnold Palmer would be called 'The King' two golf generations later. Hagen was the first great golfer I had ever seen, and both his ability and presence surpassed anything I had expected," Wind wrote in the same 1987 essay. "Not until Arnold Palmer came along did another golfer establish a relationship with his galleries that was as strong and dramatic as Hagen's."
As great as Jones was, without him there would still have been golf. As we'll see in the following pages, without Walter Hagen, there might not be professional golf as we know it today.
Copyright © 2005 by Tom Clavin