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  • Alistair Tait

When Walter Hagen got lost on Arran

Many Americans have made the pilgrimage to Arran. None as famous as the 11-time major winner who literally got lost on the island.

Well, as I wrote yesterday, there are few better places than Arran in which to lose yourself.

The story of Walter Hagen’s trip to Arran has long intrigued me. Many of his compatriots have taken time out from playing Scotland’s great mainland courses to sample the delights of the 12-hole Shiskine Golf Club. It’s a course that should be on everyone’s bucket list, if only for the scenery alone. Not just American bucket lists, but all lovers of this game seeking something a wee bit out of the ordinary.

Hagen didn’t travel to Arran to play this unique layout, though. He ended up at a course further up the island’s west coast that not many would go out of their way to play. He travelled to Arran to play Machrie Bay, in one of the worst examples of route finding ever recorded by devotees of the royal & ancient game.

The story goes that Tommy Armour advised Hagen to play The Machrie to experience links golf at its quintessential best. Of course, Armour was referring to the course by the same name on Islay. It really is a quintessential links. (That’s code for: make plans to visit if you haven’t played it. You won’t be disappointed.)

Machrie Bay? Not quite in the same league. Sure, it’s a lovely enough spot and a good place for a pleasant knock. It may sit in close proximity to the sea, but it’s hardly links like. Oh, and it’s a 9-hole layout. It currently measures 2,278 yards to a par of 33. Carnoustie it isn't.

Hagen and Australian Joe Kirkwood turned up on the island on the 10th August 1937 and played a match against two locals over this 9-hole layout.

Details of this match are sketchy at best. Proof The Haig and Kirkwood played on that day can be found from the photos on the Machrie Bay website.

The Glasgow Herald ran a story on The Haig’s appearance in its 5th April 1961 edition, which is worth reading. Herald correspondent S.L. McKinlay – forerunner to the present incumbent, the inimitable and sometimes incomprehensible Nick Rodger because he speaks a language with which few of us are familiar – complains about the sketchiness of the story after receiving a tip off from a correspondent in Brodick. He writes:

“Oddly, details were seemingly hard to come by, as though there were a conspiracy of silence and reluctance to make available what I can only describe as a rough island story.”

Hagen finished T26 in the 1937 Open Championship at Carnoustie the previous month, his last appearance in the game’s greatest major after victories in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929. According to the Herald story, it was Hagen’s last trip to Scotland.

Kirkwood, who missed the cut at Carnoustie, was a good enough player to have won the 1920 Australian and New Zealand Opens; the California, Illinois and Houston Opens of 1923; the 1933 Canadian Open; and record three fourth-place finishes in the 1923, 1927 and 1934 Open Championships.

Seems there was a wee bit of niggle in the match against the two locals, one of whom played cross handed with the other referred to as a “wiggler,” which I take to mean a player who waggled the club excessively. Hagen mimicked the “wiggler,” while Kirkwood aped the cross hander by hitting one shot left hand below right. No problem for the Australian. He was one of the best trick shot artists in the business, and made a lot of money from his exhibitions. Kirkwood’s party piece was to borrow a watch from a gallery member, tee a ball up on the watch face and then hit driver off it.

Anyway, seems the mimicking didn’t go down well with the two local lads, although McKinley’s correspondent doesn’t indicate how the estimated 200 strong gallery reacted to the visitors’ actions. Maybe that’s why the local boys were one up after nine holes, that and perhaps local knowledge. Still, Hagen didn’t win the PGA Championship five times because he was a slouch in match play. He and Kirkwood won 3&1.

McKinley writes:

“That was one game I should dearly have liked to have seen.”

No kidding!

So many questions have flown through my head since I first heard of this peculiar match about 15 years ago. What was Hagen’s reaction when he got out of his 1925 vintage saloon car, surveyed the golf course, the cows and sheep in the surrounding fields? McKinley’s correspondent writes:

“Hagen got out and surveyed the bucolic scene. He turned his head heavenwards as though looking for, or maybe hoping for, a cloudburst. Kirkwood’s reaction was more stoical.”

Was Hagen looking heavenwards in anger at the thought that maybe Armour had stitched him up? Was Kirkwood looking stoical to cover up his fury at getting lured to the western reaches of Scotland to play in what looked like a field with flags? You can imagine the time it took back then to get from the mainland to the far side of Arran?

What was the private conversation like between Kirkwood and Hagen afterwards? Did they argue, or fume that perhaps Armour had got one over on them?

How did Hagen feel when he finally realised he’d gone to the wrong course on the wrong island?

Was someone else responsible for the mistake? If so, did Hagen give the hair dryer treatment to the poor sod?

Did Armour ever find out that his good friend had used a faulty compass? And, if so, how unmercifully did he tease Hagen and for how long afterwards?

Did the visitors ever consider Shiskine, or were they in such a hurry to get back to the mainland they didn’t even make enquiries as to a better course on Arran?

Did arguably golf’s most colourful character ever get to play The Machrie on Islay?

Maybe the details McKinlay sought were hard to come by because Hagen was so embarrassed by his geographical incompetence he tried to hush up the story. Nowadays he’d just have edited his twitter account and deleted the relevant tweets.

Golf is full of great stories. The Haig’s Arran visit is one of the best, even if we are short on details.

Don’t you just wish you’d been in the gallery on that August day in 1937 when the world’s greatest, most flamboyant golfer got lost on Arran?

Main picture courtesy of Hamish Bannatyne

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