Golf’s Characters

Blue Insights
9 min readApr 26, 2024


Arnold Palmer ~ Lee Trevino ~ Payne Stewart ~ Walter Hagen ~

Photo by author

These guys brought more than their talent to the game. Their personalities and antics on the course are legendary, but they also backed it up with stellar play. Their ball striking was and still is some of the best that ever was in the game of golf.

Walter Hagen

I never got to see Walter Hagen play but he was truly a character and perhaps, but for him, the great ones who followed might not enjoy the notoriety and wealth they do today. He was a dashing and assertive character who raised the status of professional golfers and improved their earnings as well. Throughout his career, he played hundreds of exhibition matches, all across the United States and around the world which popularized golf to an immense degree. Hagen was also widely known for his dashing wardrobe of bright colors and plush fabrics. As one of the world’s top players, Hagen found his skills were much in demand in exhibitions, and it was much more lucrative than playing most tournaments at that time. Match play was the format of choice then and Hagen was a master of it. His on-course banter with his opponents would get in their head and as soon as that happens it’s over. Just an innocuous compliment about their swing was often enough. Hagen was the first golfer to earn a million dollars in his career and said he “never wanted to be a millionaire, just to live like one”. Hagen once expressed his creed in these words: “Don’t hurry, don’t worry, you’re only here for a short visit, so be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” Gene Sarazen, who was ten years younger commented, “All the professionals should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is.” Hagen wrote in his autobiography, “My game was my business and as a business it demanded constant playing in the championship bracket, for a current title was my selling commodity.” Hagen emerged in an era when the division between amateurs and professionals was a stark one, with the amateurs having the upper hand in some sports, golf among them. This was especially true in Great Britain, the leading country in competitive golf when Hagen began his career. Golf professionals were not allowed to partake of the facilities of the clubhouse, and were not allowed to enter the clubhouse by the front door. On one occasion, at the 1920 British Open, Hagen hired a Pierce-Arrow car to serve as his private dressing room, because he was refused entrance to the clubhouse dressing room. He hired a chauffeur and parked the expensive car in the club’s driveway which raised a few eyebrows in class-conscious Britain. On another occasion, he refused to enter a clubhouse to claim his prize because he had earlier been denied entrance. In the 1914 Midlothian Open, he brazenly entered the clubhouse and mingled with the rich members who were delighted and the episode permanently opened the doors. The 1920 U.S. Open in Toledo marked a turning point; the players, encouraged by Hagen, donated a large grandfather clock to the host Inverness Club, in appreciation of the club allowing access for the professionals to their clubhouse during the tournament. In 2000, Hagen was ranked as the seventh greatest golfer of all time by Golf Digest magazine and as the eighth greatest player of all time by Sports Illustrated / Golf Magazine in a major 2010 ranking.

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer (Arnie) was the first animated and truly emotional golfer that I can remember. He could get a gallery fired up faster than anyone before him. Arnie is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most charismatic players in the sport’s history. Nicknamed The King, Arnie was one of golf’s most popular stars who was seen as a trailblazer and the first superstar of golf’s television age, which began in the 1950s. Arnies social impact on golf was unrivaled among his fellow professionals; his humble background and plain-spoken popularity helped change the perception of golf from an elite, upper-class pastime of private clubs to a more populist sport accessible to middle and working classes via public courses. He, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player were “The Big Three” in golf during the 1960s; credited with popularizing and commercializing the sport around the world. Palmer’s charisma was a major factor in establishing golf as a compelling television event in the 1950s and 1960s, which set the stage for the popularity it enjoys today. Pioneering sports agent Mark McCormack listed five attributes that made Palmer especially marketable: his good looks; his relatively modest background (his father was a greenskeeper before rising to be club professional and Latrobe was a humble club); the way he played golf, taking risks and wearing his emotions on his sleeve; his involvement in a string of exciting finishes in early televised tournaments; and his affability. Palmer’s most prolific years were 1960–1963, when he won 29 PGA Tour events, including five major tournaments. He built up a wide fan base, often referred to as “Arnie’s Army”, and in 1967 he became the first man to reach $1 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. In a career spanning more than six decades, Arnie won 62 PGA Tour titles from 1955 to 1973. He is fifth on the Tour’s all-time victory list, trailing only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan. He won seven major titles in a six-plus-year domination from the 1958 Masters to the 1964 Masters. He also won the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, and in 1974 was one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In 2004, he competed in the Masters Tournament for the last time, marking his 50th consecutive appearance in that event. My wife and I met Arnie at his Bay Hill club in Florida one morning at breakfast. My brother and sister in law and us would travel to Bay Hill every year on the weekend following the Bay Hill Invitational to stay at the lodge and play the course for two days. The camera and gallery stands were still up on most of the holes giving us a feeling of playing in the tourament. Arnie was having breakfast a couple of tables away from ours and my sister in law couldn’t resist going over to say hi. He welcomed her and greeted all of us as we left. One night we had dinner at the formal dining room. Jacket’s were required and I hadn’t brought one. The Maitre d’ brought me a GREEN JACKET to wear for the evening. Arnie’s wife, Winnie was there a couple tables from us and I remember my brother had a sneezing fit that must have gone on for 10 minutes. Winnie was very gracious.

Lee Trevino

Lee Trevino, affectionately known as “The Merry Mex”, was loquacious and it didn’t stop when he left the 1st tee. He talked and joked constantly and his opponents just had to shut him out and keep going. Before he made the tour he was a bit of a hustler. Reports have it that he would play for $100 a hole with an empty wallet. His ability to recover from trouble was unparalleled. His imagination and ability to work the ball inspired me to learn all I could about shaping golf shots.

Trevino was introduced to golf when his uncle gave him a few golf balls and an old golf club. He then spent his free time sneaking into nearby country clubs to practice and began as a caddie at the Dallas Athletic Club, near his home. He soon began caddying full-time. Trevino left school at age 14 to go to work. He earned $30 a week as a caddie and shoe shiner. He was also able to practice golf since the caddies had three short holes behind their shack. After work, he would hit at least 300 balls. Many of these practice shots were struck from the bare ground with very little grass (known locally as ‘Texas hardpan’) and often in very windy conditions. It is this that is widely believed to be the reason Trevino developed his extremely distinct, unique (many would say unorthodox), and compact swing method which, of course, he went on to develop and groove with tremendous effect. A very pronounced controlled ‘fade’ was undoubtedly his signature shot, although he had many other shot-types in his repertoire and he is, still to this day, remembered as one of the very finest shot-makers of all time.

Throughout his career, Trevino was seen as approachable and humorous, and was frequently quoted by the press. Late in his career, he remarked, “I played the tour in 1967 and told jokes and nobody laughed. Then I won the Open the next year, told the same jokes, and everybody laughed like hell.”

At the beginning of Trevino’s 1971 U.S. Open playoff against Jack Nicklaus, he threw a rubber snake at Nicklaus that his daughter had put in his bag as a joke, Jack later admitted that he had asked Trevino to throw it to him so he could see it. Trevino grabbed the rubbery object and playfully tossed it at Nicklaus, getting a scream from a nearby woman and a hearty laugh from Nicklaus. Trevino shot a 68 to defeat Nicklaus by three strokes.

During one tournament, Tony Jacklin, paired with Trevino, said: “Lee, I don’t want to talk today.” Trevino retorted: “I don’t want you to talk. I just want you to listen.”

Trevino also made a notable cameo appearance in the comedy Happy Gilmore.

After he was struck by lightning at the 1975 Western Open, Trevino was asked by a reporter what he would do if he were out on the course and it began to storm again. Trevino answered he would take out his 1-iron and point it to the sky, “because not even God can hit a 1-iron.” Trevino said later in an interview with David Feherty that he must have tempted God the week before by staying outside during a lightning delay to entertain the crowds, saying “I deserved to get hit…God can hit a 1-iron.”

Trevino said: “I’ve been hit by lightning and been in the Marine Corps for four years. I’ve traveled the world and been about everywhere you can imagine. There’s not anything I’m scared of except my wife.”

Payne Stewart

Payne Stewart was an American professional golfer who won eleven PGA Tour events, including three major championships in his short career.

Payne was a popular golfer with spectators, who responded enthusiastically to his distinctive clothing. He was reputed to have the biggest wardrobe of all professional golfers and was a favorite of photographers because of his flamboyant attire of ivy caps and patterned pants, which were a cross between plus fours and knickerbockers, a throwback to the once-commonplace golf “uniform”. Stewart was also admired for having one of the most gracefully fluid and stylish golf swings of the modern era.

On October 25, 1999, a month after the American team rallied to win the Ryder Cup and four months after his U.S. Open victory, Stewart was killed in the crash of a Learjet flying from his home in Orlando, Florida, to Texas for the year-ending tournament, The Tour Championship, held at Champions Golf Club in Houston. National Transportation Safety Board(NTSB) investigators concluded that the aircraft failed to pressurize and that all on board died of hypoxia as the aircraft passed to the west of Gainesville, Florida. The aircraft continued flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a field near Mina, South Dakota.

At that week’s tournament, The Tour Championship, Stewart’s good friend, Stuart Appleby, organized a tribute to his friend. With Stewart’s wife’s permission, he wore one of Payne’s signature outfits for the final round of the tournament on Sunday, and most of the rest of the golfers in the field wore “short pants” that day, as well.

Some data courtesy of Wikipedia

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