The era of the 1920s embodied the beginning of modern America. Under any moniker, “The Roaring Twenties” were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929. However, this economic growth was not being felt by those playing on what passed as golf’s pro-tournament circuit. The colorful Gene Sarazen called pro golf “a sucker’s game.” Even the best players made little cash from tournament play, golf’s purses of the day being far inferior to the pay offered the top athletes in, say, boxing and baseball. For example, the prestigious U.S. Open title carried a purse of only $500 in 1926 (equivalent in purchasing power to about $7,265 in 2020).
A golf champion’s overall earnings, then, depended largely on his personal showmanship and ability to market his playing skills away from the scheduled tour. Exhibitions were where the money was in golf, and stars such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen were among those who crisscrossed the country playing one- or two-day events for cash. These matches were a sure thing – no pressure and an automatic payoff. Once a player had established himself as one of the leading tour pros, the exhibitions offered an easy supplement to tournament winnings.
In 1922, Hagen aimed a glaring spotlight on the importance of these good-paying exhibition matches to leading professionals. After becoming the first American to win the British Open, he opted just a few weeks later not to defend his PGA Championship when the tournament was held at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh. Hagen wasn’t ill or injured. Rather, his schedule was full of more-lucrative engagements. During his career as a golf pro, Hagen played close to two-thousand one-day stands. The man called “Sir Walter” played wherever cash was available – from Chatham, Massachusetts, to Salt Lake City, to the dusty fairways and sand-based greens of the Southwest.
In October 1922, the Hagen caravan pulled into Oklahoma City for an exhibition match at the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club. This one pitted club pro Sandy Baxter and caddie master Dick Grout against Hagen and fellow touring pro Joe Kirkwood Sr. Seven hundred people turned out to watch, and Hagen and Kirkwood were paid about $300 each. Baxter made $100, and my dad’s brother, Dick, just eighteen years old but already playing in high-level company, took home $50. My dad also played a role in the club’s big day. Having established himself by then as a first-rate caddie, even at age twelve, he was assigned to tote Hagen’s bag, giving him yet another great learning opportunity. Hagen was at that time the most celebrated American professional golfer. Dad’s terrific chance, then, would be comparable to a pre-teen caddying for Tiger Woods in his prime.