Tuesday, March 8

Slaying the Dragon of Golf Snobbery

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

LAST YEAR THE ROYAL AND ANCIENT Golf Club of St. Andrews allowed women to join for the first time in its 262-year history. Not only that, but since 2012 women are accepted as members of Augusta National, even African-Americans!

Yes, times are changin' in clubs.

The Midlothian Incident

There are, however, other key moments of social progress in the long history of the  game. One early historic moment came in 1914 and has forever been known as the "Midlothian Incident." It involved the famous and flamboyant Walter Hagen and the country club where I caddied as a kid.

Hagan was then a 21-year-old professional at the Country Club of Rochester. He had played his first Open at Brookline the year before and flamed out on the final hole where amateur, and former caddie Francis Ouimet, went onto win the 1913 U.S. Open in a playoff.

The stately Midlothian clubhouse
In July of 1914, a month before the U.S. Open was scheduled at Midlothian Country Club on the South Side of Chicago, one of the Rochester members, Ernest Willard, who owned the Democrat and Chronicle newspapers, offered to underwrite Walter's trip to  Chicago, based on how well Hagen had played the year before at Brookline and over the winter months down in Florida.

Hagen had gone south that winter -- yes, to play golf -- but also to have a tryout with the Philadelphia Nationals (later renamed the Phillies). Hagen loved baseball more than golf, and playing professional baseball at that time was more lucrative than golf. While he wasn't signed by the Nationals, he was invited back, especially because Hagen was a rarity in that he could pitch and hit from both sides of the plate. And, at the time, he was unsure if his future was with golf. 

Why he finally decided against baseball was the fact that he would be playing on a team. "To be perfect frank," he wrote in his life story, "I wanted to play my own game in my own way, and take my drubbings or win my victories all by myself…..while I was a better ballplayer than I was a golfer. It was individualism got me, I suppose."

In the summer of '14, still undecided about a professional career, he decided to go to the Midwest for the first time in his young life. He and a friend, also being paid for by Ernest Willard, took the train to Chicago, and stayed at the Great Northern Hotel. They then took the old South Shore Railroad out to Blue Island, the closest railway stop to Midlothian Country Club.

At the time Midlothian Country Club, as was the rule with most private clubs, did not allow golf professionals inside the clubhouse. Pros were generally perceived as "crude, unsophisticated, and subservient," as Stephen R. Lowe writes in his book, Sir Walter and Mr. Jones.

When Hagen arrived at Midlothian, he found the pros "grumbling about their accommodations." There were only a few pegs to hang their clothes on in another building. Such conditions were not unusual for most professionals. Home pros were used to comfortable, if still second-class, treatment at their clubs. But "unkempt restrooms and pegs on the wall at Midlothian," seemed degrading for a U.S. Open.

Faced with that situation, and having packed his best golf outfit, Hagen walked directly into the clubhouse locker room and changed there, not caring about any restrictions.

By doing so, writes Lowe, "it violated the USGA's ruling….In later years the whole episode -- the treatment of the professionals, Hagen's entry into the locker room, and the debate that followed -- became known as the 'Midlothian Incident.'"

The reaction and press following the Midlothian Incident resulted in the equal accommodations for professional players from then on.

Yes, the times were a changin' for golf. But not everywhere, and not for Walter Hagen.

The British Open and Class Snobbery

In 1920 when Walter Hagen went to play at Deal in his first British Open, the club secretary directed him, as well as the other pros, to the pro shop where there were "a few nails allotted" to use to hang their clothes. While the other players condescended to the offer, Hagen would not. 

Charles Bartlett in Professional Golfer writes how Hagen, who had rented an Austin-Daimler limousine for his time in England, changed into his golf shoes in the back seat of the limo as well as ate his lunch alone in his chauffeured car.

Hagen, however, wasn't done with English class snobbery.

After the 1928 Open, Hagen stayed in Great Britain at the invitation of the Prince of Wales to play a few rounds of golf with the future King of England. Playing a round at Royal St. George's Club, the Prince and Hagen entered the clubhouse for lunch.

Tom Clavin relates in his book on Hagen, Sir Walter, that when the prince and Hagen weren't seated, the prince summed the club's secretary who explained that a golf professional was not allowed into a British clubhouse, let alone to dine there. Hagen offered to leave so as not to cause the prince embarrassment.

"You stay right where you are," the future king said. He turned to the club secretary and told him, "You must stop this, here and elsewhere. If this man is not welcome here, I shall see that the name 'Royal' is removed from your club."

John Coyne
From that point on, professional golfers were never barred from British clubhouses, nor in the clubhouses of the United States.

Soon afterwards, a cartoon the New York World-Telegram and Sun showed Hagen dressed as a knight holding a long sword, and hanging on its tip was an empty garment labeled the "Clock of Snobbery." 

What began as a Midlothian Incident became the law of the land. Sir Walter had slayed the dragon of golf snobbery.

John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.

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