“Just stay in the moment and keep plugging along,” Brooks Koepka said of his plan for the PGA Championship this week. The trouble with that is golf fans aren’t living in the moment; they’re living in 1926, the year Walter Hagen won the third of his four consecutive PGA titles.
Walter Hagen set the PGA Championship standard
By most accounts, Walter Hagen qualifies as the first genuinely great American golfer. The Masters Tournament did not exist until the latter years of his career, but that did not stop Hagen from capturing 11 major championships.
Five of those majors were PGA Championships, an achievement eventually matched by Jack Nicklaus. Where Hagen remains unique, however, is that he won the tournament four consecutive years beginning in 1924.
It’s that feat that is causing Hagen’s name to be mentioned alongside that of Brooks Koepka this week. Tiger Woods understandably is getting a lot of attention this week, but Koepka is the two-time defending PGA Championship titlist. Winning at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco would make Koepka the only golfer besides Hagen to three-peat.
Brooks Koepka is going after three in a row at the PGA
There will be repeated mentions this week of Walter Hagen’s four straight PGA Championship victories in the context of Brooks Koepka going after three in a row. One important difference, however, is the tournament format.
When Lionel Hebert defeated Dow Finsterwald 3&1 in 1957, it marked the end of the PGA Championship’s match-play format. The tournament shifted the following summer to 72 holes of stroke play, a decision that proved prescient.
The Masters in 1958 would be Arnold Palmer’s first of seven major championships. Although he never won the PGA, Palmer ushered in an era of rapid growth for interest in the sport. The stroke-play format and the possibility of eight or 10 golfers still in contention on the back nine on Sunday made for large galleries and what would become compelling television viewing.
Six rounds of match play in Hagen’s day lent itself to top contenders crashing out early because of uncharacteristic strings of mistakes on a few holes or at the hands of obscure competitors who suddenly get hot.
The 72-hole format theoretically allows the cream to rise to the top, although the PGA has a history of crowning golf’s equivalent of one-hit wonders – Jeff Sluman, Rich Beem, Y.E. Yang, Shaun Micheel, etc. — as champions.
Brooks Koepka already fares well in a comparison with Walter Hagen
Again, going for three in a row is why Brooks Koepka’s name will be linked with Walter Hagen’s during PGA Championship week. But, in a sense, the two already have a connection because of one trait.
As great as Hagen was, winning 45 PGA Tour events from 1914-36, he was absolute money in the big events. Aside from winning 11 majors, he captured the Western Open five times during an era in which it was regarded as one of the sport’s premier events. When it came to the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA, Hagen finished in the top 10 an impressive 23 of 25 times from 1921-29.
Koepka has a similar knack for turning the volume up to 11 at majors. Including winning two U.S. Opens and two PGAs, Koepka has 12 top-10 finishes in 16 majors since the middle of 2015. Even more striking, he’s placed in the top five the last five times out.