GIANTS OF THE GAME
Hall of Famers Hagen, Armour, Sarazen all played exhibition matches at the FD Country Club
The next time you’re standing over a shot at the Fort Dodge Country Club, consider this: Hall of Fame golf legends Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour and Gene Sarazen did the same some 90 years ago.
Before PGA professionals became household names raking in multi-million dollar purses and superstar endorsement deals, they spent a lot more time in the trenches of our country. That often meant barnstorming tours to help supplement income or even make ends meet, and during an eight-year period of time, three of the game’s all-time best rubbed shoulders with the citizens of Fort Dodge.
“It would be like bringing Tiger Woods to our community,” said Dave Sergeant, a local attorney and Iowa Golf Association Hall of Fame member. “Just having the chance to see some of the better professional golfers in the world up close … you’re standing next to Walter Hagen the year after he won the British Open and right in the middle of his PGA Championship heyday (Hagen won four consecutive titles from 1924-27). The same could be said for Armour, who won the Open in ’31 and was here in ’32, and Sarazen, who was in the prime of his career.
“Right in the middle of all this success, they’re teeing off here at the Country Club.”
The details of how and why the sport’s icons made stops in Fort Dodge for exhibition matches during that period of time aren’t exactly known. Sergeant and local historian Al Nelson deduced it had a little to do with location and a lot to do with money.
“You can’t think of a professional golfer from that era the same way you do with modern (PGA Tour) players in terms of fame or fortune,” the 75-year-old Sergeant said. “In a lot of ways, the pros were even secondary actors compared to the amateurs of the time. The pros were just trying to put food on the table (a typical major winner from that era would only collect around $1,000).
“When the Great Depression hit especially (1929-33), they probably had to get even more creative. Fort Dodge could’ve been a stop and a way to make some extra cash if they were migrating west from Chicago on either (Highway) 20 or 30.”
Hagen — a man who, to this day, only trails only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on the career major list with 11 victories — played in an exhibition at the FDCC on Oct. 1, 1925. He teamed with Country Club pro Jack Canavan to defeat Bob McKee of Des Moines and Severt Thompson of Fort Dodge — a state Kiwanis champion — 1-up.
Hagen carded a 36-33–69 on the par-34 layout. Though newspaper records didn’t verify, it would have to be assumed that the foursome played the nine-hole course twice, given the FDCC didn’t become an 18-hole layout until the next year. An estimated crowd of 400 followed the action.
Armour, who captured the U.S. Open in 1927, the PGA Championship in 1930 and the British Open in 1931, teed off at the FDCC on Sept. 8, 1932. Armour and Canavan, a pro from Des Moines, were defeated by state amateur champ Denmar Miller and Pete Jordan of Des Moines.
“Armour had just won the British the year before,” said Sergeant, who has lived in Fort Dodge since 1949. “Again, it’s not like these guys were coming to Fort Dodge after they’d retired or something. They were in the prime of their careers. They were headliners in the sport.”
The Messenger newspaper article on the Armour exhibition did note the gallery was paltry, drawing only around 100 onlookers.
“(The crowd) was pitifully small in spite of the presence of the young men who hold Iowa’s two most glittering golf titles and an internationally-famous professional,” the article said. “The admission price ($1.10) was to blame for the paucity of the spectators, a dollar and a dime looming unnaturally large through the Depression haze that fogs the horizon these days.”
Armrour carded an even-par round of 70, with just one birdie.
Sarazen, a seven-time major winner, is one of five players in history to own a career “grand slam” (victories in all four majors). Like Hagen and Armour, he came to town during the apex of both his skill and popularity — on Aug. 30, 1933.
“Sarazen had won both the U.S. and British Open in 1932, and the PGA in ’33,” Sergeant said. Sarazen had been named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in ’32 as well.
Sarazen and Joe Kirkwood — a famous trick-shot artist at the time — faced Miller and fellow Des Moines standout Pete Jordan. The match — with 200 fans following — ended in a draw. Sarazen shot 37-37–74.
The Fort Dodge Country Club formally opened as a new nine-hole course on May 29, 1912. Renowned golf designer and IGA Hall of Famer Warren Dickinson of Des Moines was the lead architect and supervisor of the project. The original clubhouse, which was also dedicated in 1912, still stands today.
A second nine was added in 1926, when it became a 6,498-yard, 18-hole course.
The current 18-hole Country Club layout was completed in 1977.
“It’s just a fascinating look back into the history (of the FDCC) — both the course design and knowing these iconic golfers were here,” Sergeant said. “When I played (in the 2003 United States Senior Open) at Inverness (Club in Toledo, Ohio), I noticed that some of the original designs from their clubhouse were almost identical to ours. And it was built at almost the exact same time.
“There’s just so much rich golf tradition in our community. In my mind, knowing Hagen, Armour and Sarazen played here only adds to the mystique of it all.”