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The Missing Wanamaker Trophy

Originally Posted: August 16, 2006

Tom Clavin

Rodman Wanamaker
Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

The PGA Championship begins this week at the Medina No. 3 course outside Chicago. It should be a great tournament, for several reasons: It is the fourth and final major of the 2006 season. This year is the 90th anniversary of the Professional Golfers Association. Medinah is a veteran championship course that has been lengthened to 7561 yards, the longest course in major championship history.

Another reason is it is going to have the best field of the year. Yes, better than the Master and U.S. and British Opens. The PGA Championship doesn't have some of the regulations, restrictions, and qualifying systems as those other majors, and as a result the PGA of America simply invites the best 100 or so players in the world to tee it up. Number 62 in the world rankings is not going to be sitting in front of the television because a lumberjack from Wisconsin had the best day of his life and qualified instead. Tiger Woods and the other top players have a better chance of being challenged by very good competitors.

One more reason is the players will be vying for what is the most impressive trophy in major championship golf. Named for department store magnate and PGA co-founder Rodman Wanamaker, it is 28 inches tall, weighs 27 pounds, and is handsomely designed. It carries the engraved names of winners going back to 1916.

However, it is not the original Wanamaker trophy. The story of why it isn't begins also in the Chicago area, 81 years ago. The Olympia Fields Country Club was the site of the '25 PGA Championship. The defending champion was Walter Hagen. The day before the tournament began, Hagen arrived on the practice range to hear Al Watrous, Mike Brady, Tommy Armour, and a few other players talking about him: "Let me take Hagen this year," said one. "No, this is my year," said another. And, "I'll get him -- he's mine!"

Hagen grinned at them as he stepped up to the practice tee, then nonchalantly said, "I wonder which one of you is going to be second."

Wanamaker Trophy/PGA Championship Trophy
Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

Watrous fell first. He and Hagen finished dead even after 36 holes -- with Hagen having been behind the whole time until the 32nd hole -- then the Haig took the marathon match on the 39th hole. (Only now can we fully appreciate what part this match played in the still-unrivaled PGA Championship record that Hagen owns winning the tournament four years in a row.) Through 1957, the PGA Championship was match play.

Next up was defeating Mike Brady, his 1919 U.S. Open playoff competitor, which Hagen did without much trouble. Then came his friend Leo Diegel, who ignored that friendship by being 5-up at the 18-hole break. But there was a strategy in play. Throughout the match Hagen had smilingly been conceding six and eight-foot putts, which had the effect of making Diegel, who had a reputation of being high-strung, increasingly nervous. Hagen calmly performed better as the afternoon lengthened, and by the 33rd tee he was down three. He won three of the last four holes to tie, most dramatically with a long putt on 36.

The next three holes, each one sudden death, were halved. Then came the 40th hole. With the match once more on the line and Diegel having a putt to halve within the range that Hagen had previously conceded, the challenger glanced at his opponent, expecting another smile and nod. This time Hagen just stared at him, his face grim. The putt has to be tougher than it looks, Diegel thought. He examined it this way and that, glanced again at the stone-faced Hagen, and struck the ball. He missed. Hagen advanced.

Then it was another tough fight, this time with the up-and-coming Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper, with Hagen winning 3 and 1. The final match was against the emerging pro Bill Mehlhorn, who already had a Western Open win to his credit. To get to the final, Mehlhorn had defeated Emmet French, Al Espinosa, Tommy Kerrigan, and Olin Dutra by a crushing 8 and 6. And Mehlhorn played a very good final round.

Unfortunately for the youngster, Hagen had one of the best 36-hole rounds of his life, and even when he was in trouble, he pulled a rabbit out of his hat. An example was the third hole during the afternoon's round. The Haig's comfortable lead had been trimmed to two when Mehlhorn eagled the day's 20th hole. On the par-3 21st, Mehlhorn was on the green off the tee. Hagen's tee shot came to rest on the edge of a bunker, and his chip barely made the far end of the green. No problem: Hagen sank the 70-foot putt. A shaken Mehlhorn two-putted for par, remaining two down.

Bill Mehlhorn, Ralph Edling, driving.
Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

Hagen pulled away from there, winning the match 6 and 5 and the championship.

The New York Times gushed, "For all the things that combine to make a really great golfer -- skill, power, endurance, nerve, will-to-win, sportsmanship in defeat or victory -- the golf world has never produced a man like Walter Hagen."

Hagen's win in the '25 PGA Championship is recognized as his seventh professional major, tying him at the time with Harry Vardon. "Walter Hagen has won more championships and open tournaments than any other American," The Times felt it necessary to point out in its September 27, 1925 issue.

One might assume that the aftermath of the PGA win in 1925 was partying until dawn for the champion, and Hagen did his best but ended up taking a detour, if his and other accounts are to be believed. Predictably, there had been a huge, floating party after the victory. Hagen had done his part socially, and at 3 a.m. weaved his way to a guest cottage he believed was his. However, when he opened the door and switched on the light, he found a frightened lady in her 70s clutching the covers to her chest.

Hagen hurriedly identified himself and explained that he wasn't at his best because of the exertions of the final match and partying since late the previous afternoon. The woman recognized him. "You poor boy," she said, and got out of bed.

Walter Hagen, 1924 PGA Championship
Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

She put two glasses on the table, filled them with milk, and put out a tray of cookies. The woman had attended the final match of the PGA Championship. "Let's sit here and talk about all the fine shots you played yesterday," she said. Hagen did as he was told, finally leaving at sunrise.

What he didn't realize until later was that night he'd lost the championship trophy. When the Haig had gone out on the town, he was holding the trophy. Heading back to his cottage, he spotted some acquaintances just going into a nightclub. Hagen got out of the taxi, and gave the driver $5 to bring the trophy on to the resort. That was the last he saw of it.

Hagen told no one of the loss, and he didn't have it with him for the 1926 PGA Championship. It was held at the Salisbury Golf Club on Long Island, New York. As wonderful a triumph as two consecutive PGA Championships was, Gene Sarazen had already done it in '22 and '23. (The Squire was not only the youngest winner of this event, at 20 in '22, but ended up the oldest participant when he played in the 1972 PGA Championship at 70.) What was Hagen going to do if he lost and a new champion was crowned?

Once more defying the odds, Hagen won his first four matches, giving him 14 straight in the last three PGA Championships. In the final he was up against Diegel, who keenly wanted to unseat the master and make up for the previous year's humiliation. The night before the championship was to be decided, Sir Walter was holding court in the hotel bar. Someone there cautioned Hagen that Diegel had already been in bed for hours. "Yes," said the Haig, "but he's not asleep."

Rested or not, the two adversaries ended in a dead heat after the next morning's 18 holes, and Hagen invited his opponent to lunch. Diegel should have remembered that he was facing one of the original sports psychologists.

Chris Dimarco during the three hole play-off at the 2004 PGA Championship
held at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

For lunch Sir Walter had the waiter bring him vichyssoise, roast duck, and Champagne. Diegel had a simple sandwich, which he had trouble getting down as he watched Hagen drop food into his mouth, lick his fingers, drink with a smile, and then sit back to enjoy a cigarette. Feeling ill, Diegel jumped up and ran away from the table to find a bathroom, not realizing that between him and the one in the clubhouse was a glass door -- Diegel ran right into it, but was more embarrassed than hurt by the splintering glass.

According to The New York Times account, Diegel, "his nervousness indicating plainly that he was unable to rid his mind of the knowledge that he was playing Hagen, was never in front . . ." By the end of the day, Hagen had broken Diegel, 5 and 3.

No American had won the same major three years in a row, and no one has since. Three consecutive PGA Championships, it would seem, were as much as a golfer could ever hope for.

What about the missing Wanamaker trophy? At the '26 PGA Championship award ceremonies, he didn't have the trophy with him and claimed that was because he had no intention of losing it to anyone. Everyone had a big laugh, and apparently believed him.

The PGA Championship trophy was eventually found in the 1930s, packed in a dust-covered crate and forgotten in the back of a Detroit warehouse. By that time, Hagen had confessed and a new trophy had been created.

My prediction for this year's winner: Vijay Singh has been too quiet this year, so he wouldn't surprise me. Obviously, Tiger is playing his best golf of the year coming off victories in the British Open and the Buick two weeks ago. But I'm going to go with Chris DiMarco. He's been knocking on the door of a major championship for a few years now, and I'd like to think his time has come.

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