Golf lost its oldest living major champion when the great Kel Nagle passed away today in Sydney aged 94. He was one of our greatest champions and one of only nine Australians to win one of the game’s four professional major championships.
The playing of golf professionally was a much different thing in Nagle’s era. Norman Von Nida, thirteen years older than Nagle, was our first full-time player relying on his skills and wits to earn a living playing the game both home and abroad. Nagle instead chose early in his life to play in Australia and mix the local competition with life as the club professional at Pymble Golf Club in Sydney.
Of course it is unimaginable in this era of golf someone could combine the two but he was a prolific winner on the Australasian tour. He eventually won 61 tournaments including six Australian PGA titles, seven New Zealand Opens and the 1959 Australian Open. Next on the all-time list of winners on the local tour is Greg Norman and he is a full thirty wins shy of Nagle’s tally.
Initially he was known as a long and wild hitter but twice in his thirties he combined with his great friend and admirer Peter Thomson to win the World Cup, an event at the time of significant prestige. The second of those triumphs came famously at Royal Melbourne in 1959 when, amongst the vanquished, was the great American team of Sam Snead and Cary Middelcoff.
Extraordinarily at 39 and the winner of one of the games great events he had only played in two major championships tying for 19th place in The Open Championship’s of 1951 and 1955, the latter being the middle rung of Thomson’s hat-trick of wins in the mid-fifties.
He shortened his swing in his mid- thirties, determined to sacrifice distance from the tee and no more would he be known as ‘The Pymble Crusher’. Instead he based his game around unswerving accuracy and his almost unmatched talent with his putter, a centre-shafted, brass Acushnet which was never sidelined for another model promising more.
The 1960 World Cup was played over the windswept Portmarnock links in Dublin and whilst Snead and Arnold Palmer predictably triumphed it was Nagle, who with a new set of irons and encouraging words from Thomson, moved onto St Andrews with some hope he might improve on his Open Championship record.
Palmer had earlier in the season won at Augusta and then come back from seven shots behind with a 65 to beat Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan in an unforgettable U.S Open at Cherry Hills.
The American, with high hopes of matching Hogan’s feat of 1953 and winning the three most important titles in the game in a single season, was the clear favourite but it was Nagle who came to the Road Hole with a single shot lead over the American superstar.
Palmer had birdied the final hole and the Australian faced an eight-foot putt for a four on one of the most exacting two-shot holes in golf. Under the greatest of strain, it is just about the last hole you would choose to play.
Faced with a moment, which, would come to define his career, he tapped the ball into the middle of the hole and then calmly pitched to a yard on the final hole and it was all over. That he took two putts from three feet was of no consequence as he had proved on the previous green he would have holed had he needed to. So was his life as a club professional over and for the rest of the decade he would five times more finish in the top five in The Open Championship.
At 45 he went to Bellerive in St Louis to play the U.S Open. The course, designed by Robert Trent-Jones was long and ‘modern’ in the fashion of the time and seemingly set to favour the bombers including Palmer and Nicklaus, two of the best three players in the world at the time. The other was the little South African Gary Player and after 72 holes it was Player and Nagle tied and set for an 18-hole playoff. Early in the match an errant Nagle drive hit a woman spectator, something which predictably caused him some upset. Player took the lead and his 71 was three shots better than Nagle.
My abiding memory of Nagle was his method and his almost unmatched accuracy. By the late 1970s he was still more than competitive, finishing second on the Australasian money list in 1977, but he was a short hitter by the tour standard of the time. He could compete because of the absolute simplicity of his motion, his short game and a disposition, which like Thomson was never ruffled or upset.
Only once in all my time playing have I seen a man play 18 holes without missing a single shot but in the 1979 South Australian Open at Glenelg Wayne Grady and I had the privilege of watching Kel play one flawless stroke after another in what was a remarkable and unforgettable exhibition.
In one of his very last events, sometime in the 1980s, he was drawn on the opening days at Royal Melbourne with Norman and another long hitter, Lyndsay Stephen. Kel was well past sixty and he came to the final hole facing a fairway wood for the long approach. Stephen and Norman were predictably miles ahead with pitching clubs in their hands but Nagle bumped his four wood up within fifteen feet of the hole. The other two somewhat clumsily pitched to almost double the distance from the hole and as Kel marked his ball he turned to the younger men and said, ‘not really much you can say, boys.’
He was a wonderful man, beloved by all and one who will be sadly missed but by no one more than by his great mate and partner, Peter Thomson. Together they moved the game into the modern era and made the path easier for all who followed.