Bobby Jones vs. Walter Hagen: The Match That Changed the Course of History

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2008

The year was 1925, and a 23-year-old Bobby Jones had already won the US Open and US Amateur, both of which were considered to be major championships at the time.

After years of prosperity, America was showing the first signs heading towards an economic downturn, which would later evolve into the Great Depression.

The spark that fueled this economic downturn was a complete housing market collapse in the southeast region of the country, combined with a significant decrease in the disposable income available to middle-class America.

Sounds frighteningly familiar, doesn’t it? 

After college, still unsure of what career path to pursue, Bobby Jones settled for a job selling golf course real estate in Florida. 

This was an early version of what would later become the widespread phenomena known as "Golf Communities."

Jones was, admittedly, a terrible salesman and understood that the company had hired him for the sole purpose of cashing in on his well-known name.

At this time, Jones had a young wife with a baby on the way. 

Like most young adults in any generation, Jones was having grave concerns as to how he would be able to support his young family.

Jones, who we now associate with being the greatest amateur golfer of all time, was seriously contemplating turning pro in order to get his hands on some of the increasingly large sums of money given to professionals for exhibition matches.  

Now, in the context of the modern day PGA Tour, you may be asking yourself “why in the world would Jones not turn professional?”

Well, you have to remember that it was a completely different time.

Back then, amateur golfers were considered the gentlemen of the game while professionals were considered nothing more than vagabond gamblers. 

Professional golfers back in the 20s would be equivalent to how people today may view an individual who spends their time trying to make a living at the poker tables in Las Vegas. 

Sure, they may make a lot of money doing so but most would not consider that to be a "respectable" profession.

Bobby Jones had met golf’s first true professional, Walter Hagen, several years earlier while attending the British Open at St. Andrews.

Hagen had given Jones some useful pointers on how to handle the pressure of major championship play and the two struck up a casual friendship over the years.

Hagen was always on the look-out for any opportunity to make a buck, and he too had jumped at the opportunity to sell golf course property down in Florida.

When Hagen first began selling property in Florida, middle-class America had money to spend and were in a feeding frenzy to purchase second homes in Florida to escape the brutal Northeast winters. 

Hagen won some money on golf’s professional tour; however, the bulk of his money came from the exuberant fees he was able to charge for exhibition matches.

Hagen, along with another early professional golfer named Tommy Armour, had been lobbying Jones for some time to turn professional and reap the financial benefits that were sure to follow.

For a man who was obsessed with winning as much as Hagen, his lobbying of Jones to turn professional probably had more to do with the opportunity he saw to tour the country with Jones making an extravagant amount of money in exhibition fees, rather than a desire to compete against Jones in events like the PGA Championship.

Hagen did not want to wait forever for Jones to make his decision to turn pro, so he approached Jones with the idea of putting on what Hagen would promote as "The Match of the Century;" a 72-hole exhibition match between himself and Jones.

Needless to say, as a professional, Hagen would earn any and all money produced by the match.  

However, Jones saw it as an opportunity to get his name out there and grow his legend, which might just translate into more home sales.

The first 36 holes would be played at Jones’ home course, with the second 36 holes being played the following weekend at Hagen’s home course.

Hagan managed to hand Jones one of the worst match-play defeats he would endure throughout his entire career.

The match ended with Jones suffering an embarrassing 12-and-11 defeat at the hands of golf’s first true professional, Walter Hagen.

Jones always had a tendency to question his ability, despite any amount of successes he experienced on the course. 

Jones saw this embarrassing loss to Hagen as a clear sign that he was not ready, nor did he really want to turn professional and have to rely on golf to pay his bills.

Jones had been so seriously contemplating turning professional in 1925 that it is reasonable to believe that had Hagen not handed him this embarrassing defeat, it is very possible Jones might have turned pro, thus altering the history of the game as we  know it today.

Aside from being considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, Jones is most well-known for being the only player to win four majors in one calendar year, now popularly known as "The Grand Slam."

In 1930, the year of Jones’ Grand Slam, he won the US and British Opens as well as the US and British Amateur championships.

Had Jones beaten or never played Hagen at all in 1925, he very well might have decided to turn pro, thus rendering him ineligible for the US and British Amateur championships and never even allowing him the opportunity to go on and win the Grand Slam. 

To this day, Jones remains one of the most legendary golfers of all time and is still the only player ever to have won four major championships in one calendar year.

Had the outcome of a little known exhibition match against Walter Hagen in 1925 been different or had never took place at all, golf history as we know it might have been vastly different. 


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