Pro Golf Takes Off
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. More than 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 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.
SPECIAL OLYMPICS August 11, 2009 Eunice Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics, dies the age of 88. Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for founding a sports organization dedicated to persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics today serves 5 million athletes around the world.
SOCCER August 3, 1999 French striker Thierry Henry joins Arsenal FC after a brief stint with Juventus. Henry became Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer with 218 goals and two FA Cups. He was a member of France’s 1998 World Cup winning team and the 2006 runner-up squad that lost to Italy in a penalty shoot-out. One of the greatest attackers in the game, Henry also played for Barcelona and NY Red Bulls.
MOTOR RACING August 3, 1989 Formula One racer, Jules Bianchi, is born in Nice, France. Making his debut in 2013 as a driver for Marussia, he finished 15th in his opening race at the Australian Grand Prix. Only a year later, the young driver would crash at the Japanese Grand Prix and remain comatose until his death in July, 2015. His F1 fatality was the first since Ayrton Senna perished 21 years earlier.
GOLF August 3, 1979 Sam Snead becomes the oldest player at 67 to make the cut at the PGA Championship. The three-time champion who had won in 1942, 1949 and 1951 finished 42nd with a score of 288 (+8). Australian David Graham claimed the event, firing 272 (-8). Snead continued playing until 1987 when he retired with 82 PGA Tour victories, including seven majors: 3 Masters, 3 PGA’s and 1 Open.