Sport Golf Farewell to Kel Nagle, the ‘finest fellow’ in golf

Farewell to Kel Nagle, the ‘finest fellow’ in golf

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Golfers don’t come much better – as players or human beings – than Kel Nagle, who has died in Sydney aged 94.

He is one of four Australians to have won the British Open, along with five-times champion Peter Thomson, dual winner Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch.

The defining moment of Nagle’s career came on a summer’s day in Scotland in 1960, when at the age of 39 he out-duelled Arnold Palmer to win the centenary British Open at St Andrews, the ancestral home of golf.

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There could hardly be a better setting.

It was the only major for Nagle, a self-effacing and widely loved Sydneysider.

But he was by no means a single-win wonder.

Nagle (born December 21 1920) won 80 professional tournaments worldwide, including at least one every year between 1949 and 1975.

He lost a play-off to Gary Player in the 1965 US Open, and was in the top five at the British Open six times between 1960 and 1966, including a runner-up finish to Palmer in 1962.

He twice won the Canada Cup (later World Cup) with his great friend Thomson, whom he credits with giving him the confidence to win the Open.

Kel Nagle at his induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007. Photo: AAP
Kel Nagle at his induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007. Photo: AAP

Thomson, who had already won four of his five titles in golf’s oldest championship, spent much of the lead-up to the 1960 tournament encouraging and advising his fellow Australian.

“He could have won the tournament himself, but he was helping me,” Nagle said. “That’s what you call a friend.”

The unfancied Nagle found himself in a final-round dogfight with Palmer, who had won the US Masters and US Open in the months before and was eyeing the first professional grand slam.

Nagle held a two-stroke lead and was sizing up a tricky 10-foot putt for par on the 17th – the Road Hole – when he heard the roar from “Arnie’s Army” that told him Palmer, playing in the group ahead, had birdied the last. (There were no scoreboards on the course in those days.)

“I made the putt and then Don Lawrence (the Australian golf writer) ran up to me and said `you know what you need to win, don’t you?’,” Nagle recalled in 2010.

“I told him `yeah, I just heard’.”

Nagle held his nerve and safely made par at the last to win by a shot.

For his feat he earned a cheque for 1120 pounds ($2240). “I was glad to get it,” he said.

The rewards for professionals were meagre in his era but Nagle never worried about it, taking pleasure instead in his family and a rich bank of memories.

Even into his 90s he retained an astonishing recall for those long-ago tournaments. He could describe, shot by shot, rounds he had played half a century earlier.

Nagle had a particular fondness for the Australian PGA Championship, which he won six times. It provided him with his maiden professional title, at Royal Perth in 1949.

He remains the oldest winner on the Australasian tour – he was 54 when he won his seventh New Zealand PGA – and his 61 victories is almost double second-placed Peter Thomson’s 34.

None of which takes account of what he was like as a man.

Fellow Australian pro Bruce Devlin thought so much of Nagle he named his son after him.

Gary Player once said: “I can honestly say I never met anybody in my life that didn’t really like Kel Nagle”.

When he became the fifth Australian inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007 Nagle was too ill to travel to Florida for the ceremony.

Australia’s golf writers joined with Greg Norman to pay for Hall of Fame boss Jack Peter to fly to Sydney to perform the induction.

In a speech marking the occasion, Thomson said he had never known Nagle to drink, smoke, or say a bad word about anyone.

“Of all the people I have ever met in the world of golf, this fellow is the finest.”

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