Why Jack Nicklaus is Not the Best Golfer in History, Part Two: Walter Hagen

Lou VozzaAnalyst IOctober 18, 2008

In Part One of this series, I examined the career of British golfer Harry Vardon.  It is my contention that Jack Nicklaus is not necessarily the greatest golfer of all time, and his record needs to be carefully compared to other outstanding golfers of the past. 

This week, I compare the records of Nicklaus and Walter Hagen.  This series will conclude with a Top Ten list of the greatest golfers of all time.

Walter Hagen won 11 major tournaments in his career.  His first tour win was the 1914 US Open, when he was a mere 22 years of age.  Eerily, Jack Nicklaus's first tour win was the US Open as well.  Like Hagen, he also won it at the age of 22.

Hagen didn't quite match Jack's longevity the way Harry Vardon did.  Hagen won his last major in 1929 at age 37.  Nicklaus stopped winning majors consistently in 1980 at the age of 40, but did add a final Masters victory at age 46. 

However, Hagen continued to play very well into his 40s.  He finished third at the US Open at age 44, but he wasn't able to win at as late an age as Nicklaus.

I've compared their career totals in the four majors below:

US Open

Number of events played


2nd Place

Top Five

Top Ten

The US Open is the one event where we can compare these two almost straight up, because they played in nearly the same number of events.  During their primes, Hagen played in 22 US Opens to Jack's 24.  (2 US Opens were cancelled during Hagen's career because of WW1). 

Hagen only won two to Jack's four, so Nicklaus clearly comes out on top in terms of US Open wins.

However, it should be noted that overall, their statistics are remarkably similar.  Also, Hagen's two victories were sandwiched around the two missing WW1 years, so it is conceivable he might have won a third or fourth if he had had the opportunity.

PGA Championship

Number of events played


Nicklaus had a ton of second place and top five finishes in the PGA, but I can't compare them to Hagen because during Hagen's era, the PGA Championship was a match play event.

As any golf fan knows, it is much more difficult for the superior player to win a match play event than a stroke play event, because of the risk of losing to a hot player in an early round. 

Therefore, not only was Hagen's winning percentage in the PGA twice as high as Jack's, he won under a much more difficult format.

Even more remarkable is that for six straight PGA Championship tournaments, Hagen played in the final pairing every time, losing only once.  The streak included winning 29 straight matches.

When all is said and done in Tiger Woods' career, he may be remembered as much for his six straight amateur match-play victories as anything else. 

For Hagen to win four straight and five of six match play events at the professional level is no doubt his greatest achievement.

Finally, it should be noted that Hagen beat Bobby Jones in a 36-hole match play exhibition match in 1926, when both were at the peak of their playing abilities.  The match was one of the most highly publicized sporting events of the 1920s.

British Open

Number of events played


Second Place

Top Five

There are a several reasons why Hagen didn't play in more than nine British Opens.  First, in his era it wasn't worth the trip financially.  Purses in the day were minuscule, so it cost much more for players to travel there than they could possibly win in prize money.

Second, often it was played the same week as the PGA Championship and third, it was cancelled for five years of Hagen's career due to WW1.

Despite playing in almost a third fewer events, Hagen won more British Open championships than Nicklaus.

  I must take note, however, of Jack's amazing record of 16 top 5 finishes in 25 events.  This included finishing in the top five for the entire decade of the 70's.  It's no wonder he was so idolized in his time.

Nonetheless, Hagen outdid him here also in percentage terms, finishing in the top 5 seven out of nine times.

The Masters and the Western Open

The Masters didn't begin until 1934, which was well past Hagen's prime.  However, there is controversy about Hagen's Western Open victories.  Many have argued that Hagen really won 16 majors, because he won the Western Open five times.

In Hagen's day, The Western Open was a highly publicized event that always attracted the top players in the world.  It is plausible that if the term "major" was in use during that era, it would have applied to the Western Open.

The fact that Hagen played in so many seems to confirm this.  In his era, top professional golfers derived most of their income from appearance fees.  The more prestigious titles they won, the more they could charge in exhibition fees. 

Hagen was notorious for blowing off smaller tour events because they didn't enhance his earning power.  This may be the reason he ended up with only 45 total tour victories.

Hagen's other legacies

Hagen was the best known golfer of his generation besides Bobby Jones, and he helped popularize the sport.   Because Jones was an amateur, Hagen was the paramount figure in establishing the professional golf tour. 

He had a flamboyant personality and was socially active to a fault.  He also captained and played on the first five Ryder Cup teams.


Hagen had an overall major winning percentage of 25 percent vs. Jack's major winning percentage of 16 percent.  If Hagen had had the opportunity to play in as many majors as Nicklaus and had maintained his career winning percentage, he would have won 28 majors. 

He also more or less equalled Nicklaus in terms of career longevity, winning majors starting at age 22 until age 37.  Nicklaus was slightly superior to Hagen in this regard.

Next post: Bobby Jones

Note:  When calculating winning percentages, I am only counting the number of majors each player played in during his prime winning years.  For example, I count 118 majors played in for Nicklaus. 

These are the majors he played in between the ages of 22 and 46.  He continued to enter into majors after the age of 46 but generally was not competitive.


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