EAST LANSING – Golf professionals in the early years of golf in the United States were considered at best hired help, and often simply declared unworthy for entry to the best of golf clubhouses or even admittance to the locker rooms.
Walter Hagen helped change that with flamboyant showmanship, popularity and talent in becoming the winner of the most major championships (11) before Jack Nicklaus (18) and Tiger Woods (14) came along.
Leo Diegel, born in Wayne County, was just 17 when he won the first Michigan Open Championship in 1916 at Saginaw Country Club and became one of the game’s top players, though he was often overshadowed by rivals Hagen and Gene Sarazen.
Al Watrous set the standard for major wins in Michigan with six Michigan Open wins and nine Michigan PGA Championships, and also set the standard as a golf professional at Oakland Hills Country Club for 37 years. He was part of the first U.S. Ryder Cup team as well, which was captained by Hagen and included Diegel.
Marvin Stahl was the golf professional at Blythefield Country Club near Grand Rapids and worked in California in winters becoming known as the golf pro of the stars. He counted Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Cagney among his students and golf partners, and screen actor Buddy Rogers was a lifelong friend.
Hagen, Diegel, Watrous and Stahl make up a standout foursome to represent the first 25 Michigan Open Championships. Hagen won in 1921 at Lochmoor Club in Grosse Pointe Woods. Diegel won in 1916 and again in 1919 after no tournaments were held in 1917 and ’18. Watrous won in 1926, ’27, ’29, ’30, ’43 and ’49. Stahl won in 1936, ’38 and ’39.
Hagen, the first Oakland Hills Country Club professional for a two-year period in 1918 and ’19, became the first unaffiliated professional to travel the world seeking championships and exhibition golf. He helped to popularize golf with his play, his dashing wardrobe and his endorsement of Walter Hagen and Haig Ultra clubs through Wilson Sports.
He is one of the game’s biggest names, regarded as perhaps the most flamboyant great player, and spent the final years of his life living in Traverse City where he died at his home in 1969 at the age of 76. Arnold Palmer was one of his pall bearers, and he rests at Holy Sepulchre Mausoleum in Southfield.
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." He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
Diegel is perhaps the most accomplished Michigan native golfer ever. He is credited with 28 PGA Tour wins, including two major championships, the 1928 and ’29 National PGA Championships. He beat Hagen in match play on the way to both wins, and was runner-up in the title match to Hagen in ’26. The U.S. Open title eluded him, though he was in the top 10 eight times and finished second once and third twice.
Known as a great ball-striker, he battled a balky putter and eventually developed a unique putting style. His elbows-out technique with a dramatic bend at the waist became known as “Diegeling.” LPGA star Michelle Wie is among the most recent to employ a “Diegeling” look.
Diegel is also known for writing with author Jim Dante the highly regarded instructional book; “The Nine Bad shots of Golf.” He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
Watrous moved to Michigan from New York at an early age and made it his home as the professional at Oakland Hills. He is credited with eight PGA Tour wins, and played in 55 of golf’s major championship where he made the cut 49 times. He won three PGA Senior Championships on the national level, and in his adopted state was dominant. His 15 Michigan PGA Section “major” wins has only recently been tied by Jeff Roth and Scott Hebert.
Watrous came very close to winning the 1926 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1926. He was tied with Bobby Jones in the final round, only to fall victim to Jones hitting what is regarded as one of the greatest recovery shots in golf history – a 175-yard blast from dune grass left of the 17th fairway.
Hagen called Watrous one of the game’s real stylists, a pro’s pro with a classic swing Watrous said he developed by watching Harry Vardon among others. He is a member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame, the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, as well as the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Stahl, abandoned by his father as a youngster, dropped out of high school, worked as a caddie at Cascade Hills Country Club in Grand Rapids, learned the game, worked as a professional at Blythefield, later worked in Palm Springs, Calif., and became a Hollywood filmmaker for a time, too. He was partner of founder Bing Crosby in the “Clambake,” now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, on more than one occasion.
He is one of three former Blythefield pros in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame with John Barnum and Buddy Whitten. In addition to his three Michigan Open titles, he won the 1942 Michigan PGA Championship and the 1943 Southern California PGA Championship.
After his golf career he became a prominent Grand Rapids businessman based on contacts he had made as a caddie with legendary Grand Rapids businessman A.J. Sparks. Stahl died at the age of 93 in Palm Springs in 2002.
Hagen, Diegel, Watrous and Stahl stand out, but other notable winners marked the first 25 Michigan Opens as well.
Mike Brady won the third Michigan Open in 1920. He was the second golf pro at Oakland Hills, hired after Hagen resigned and had lost to Hagen in a notable playoff in the 1919 U.S. Open. He won the 1922 Western Open at Oakland Hills.
George Von Elm was the U.S. Amateur champion of 1926 when he won the Michigan Open in 1928.
Chuck Kocsis was 18 and an amateur, and well on his way to becoming Michigan’s version of Bobby Jones, when he won his first of three Michigan Opens in 1931. Brother Emerick won in 1940.
Chick Harbert, who won his first of four Michigan Opens in 1937 (’37, ’42, ’48 and ’53), went on to win seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 1954 PGA Championship and was a Ryder Cup captain.
Finally, Gib Sellers, who won in 1941, was a gifted player and alleged golf hustler known as the baby-faced “Round Man” who would often partner with the famous con-man/golfer Titanic Thompson.
Thompson would reportedly set up opponents by pointing at Sellers, who would be standing innocently nearby with just two woods in a beat-up golf bag: “I’ll just take that kid over there and play you two guys.”
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