Pro Golf Breaks Out
On a winter day in 1916, a group of golfers met in New York City to hear what Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, heir to the Wanamaker department store fortune, had to say about golf.
The retail tycoon proposed to establish an association of professional golfers and an annual tournament, setting the foundation for one of the world’s largest sports organizations and its premier event, the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Championship.
The business magnate imported golf equipment from Great Britain and sold them in his stores to the public and wholesale to the pros. His company was also locked in a retail battle with A.G. Spalding & Bros. for the sale of golf balls.
Inheriting his father’s acumen for marketing and merchandising, Lewis Rodman banked on the idea that an association of professional golfers would draw more recreational players to the game and hence, increase traffic at his stores.
Amateur championships had already been in play in the U.S. for over twenty years. Rhode Island’s Newport Country Club and New York’s St. Andrews Golf Club hosted the two most prestigious events.
But the pros, who at the time were held in low esteem by wealthy and privileged amateurs, weren’t organized and didn’t have their own national tournament.
Wanamaker put up $2,580 in prize money and a silver trophy to get the inaugural competition teed-off.
The first PGA Championship took place on October 16, 1916 at the Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, N.Y. Jim Barnes emerged victorious in a field of 32 competitors, winning $500 in cash, a diamond studded gold medal, and the Wanamaker Trophy.
A century on, the field would grow to 156 pros dueling for a $10.5 million purse.
Colorful, dashing, and exceptionally skilled at the game, Walter Hagen (photo above) was the world’s first full-time tournament professional and arguably the first millionaire sportsman.
Born to a working-class family in upstate New York, Hagen was unabashed about his run-ins with elite private clubs. At the 1920 British Open, the American hired a chauffeured car, parked it in the driveway, and used it as his private dressing room and eating space since he was denied entry into the clubhouse.
Hagen went on to win 11 majors, including 4 consecutive PGA’s from 1924-27. Similar to Tiger Woods’ legacy, Hagen raised the game’s profile, helped increase players’ earnings, and cracked open the social class barriers.
Golf legend Arnold Palmer, himself of humble beginnings, remarked at a dinner once in honor of Hagen, “If not for you, Walter, this dinner tonight would be downstairs in the pro-shop, not in the ballroom”.
An admirer and competitor of Hagen, Gene Sarazen hailed from a family of poor Sicilian immigrants and would claim 7 majors, including 3 PGA’s. He worked the bags at the age of 10, becoming a self-taught pro and later on invented the modern sand wedge.
Commenting on Hagen, Sarazen said, “All the professionals…should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers…It was Hagen who made professional golf what it is.”
If Hagen and Sarazen dominated professional golf in the 1920’s, then Bobby Jones kept the flame lit for amateurs. A gifted athlete who co-founded the Masters, Jones won the U.S. Open 4 times, the British Open 3 times, but never played the PGA since he earned a living outside the sport.
Jones was the last great amateur to play the game, but Johnny Goodman was the last amateur to claim a major, winning the U.S. Open in 1933.
By tradition, the PGA is still closed to amateur players and the Masters still reserves slots for non-pro champions. Both are a sign that golf has democratized from the early days, but has also kept its history.
BOXING July 11, 2009 Boxer Arturo Gatti is found dead at his hotel while vacationing in Brazil with his wife. She is initially charged with homicide, but then released for lack of evidence. However, a 2nd autopsy performed later in Canada where the Italian-born pugilist was living, determined he died by strangulation. Gatti was a world champion in 2 lightweight classes, retiring in 2007 with a 40-9 record.
FOOTBALL July 18, 1999 Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson marries long-time girlfriend, Rhonda Rookmaaker, in the Florida Keys; he has two sons from a previous marriage. The illustrious football figure started coaching college in 1965 before moving to the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys (1989) and Miami Dolphins (1996). He won two consecutive Super Bowls with the former (XXVII, XXVIII).
GOLF July 16, 1989 Betsy King claims the 44th annual U.S. Women’s Open Championship, firing 278 (-6) at the Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Orion Lake, Michigan. Winning by 4 strokes ahead of runner-up Nancy Lopez, it was the first of her two consecutive victories at the event and the second of her six major career titles. The Pennsylvania native turned pro in 1977 and retired in 2005 with 39 LPGA Tour wins.
BASEBALL July 12, 1979 The Chicago White Sox hold a “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park during a double header with the Detroit Tigers. The event turns into a promotional fiasco as fans pelt debris and destroy the field while a box full of vinyl disco records is blown up by local radio disc jockey, Steve Dahl. The White Sox end up forfeiting the second game after the field is made unplayable.