THIS WEEK’S STOP ON the PGA Tour is the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, a tournament that for much of its life was known as the Colonial National Invitation. In 1960, a 39-year-old professional from Sydney named Kel Nagle almost won the ‘Colonial’: his putt at the final hole hit the cup and bounced away, leaving him a shot behind Julius Boros.
That result is in the record book. What is less well known is something else Kel Nagle did at the Colonial Country Club that year — a seemingly unimportant act at the time that actually had a huge influence on the history of golf and how we describe the sport’s biggest tournaments.
Nagle had hardly played in America before the 1960 Colonial. He had missed the cut when making his debut at the Masters five weeks earlier. But then he got his hands on some new clubs, a set of Spalding irons, and though he was contracted to PGF, on the urging of his good friend Peter Thomson he sought and gained permission to make the swap. Most significant of all, he bought a new driver at the Colonial. ‘I had been having a lot of trouble with my tee shots,’ he told the Australian golf writer Don Lawrence of his new purchase. ‘But this one has given me terrific confidence.’
Another famous Australian sports scribe, Phil Tresidder, recalled Nagle reminiscing years later: ‘If you had told me to hit to the left or to the right, or down the middle, I could have done it with that driver.’
A little less than two months after Nagle discovered that driver in the Colonial clubhouse, he won the Centenary British Open at St Andrews. It is impossible to underrate the significance of the Centenary Open and Nagle’s victory in the story of golf’s major championships. Without that driver, who knows how the story might have unfolded ….
THE TERM ‘MAJOR’ IS as much a part of big-time golf today as ‘Grand Slam’ is synonymous with tennis and ‘Gold Medals’ are won at the Olympics. It was not always so. When Kel Nagle sank his final putt at St Andrews — to beat Arnold Palmer, then the undisputed champion of the golf world — no one talked about this being the popular Australian’s first ‘major’, or the sixth win by an Australian in a ‘major’. When Boros won the Colonial no one referred to him, the 1952 US Open champion, as a former ‘major’ winner.
The term wasn’t in golf’s lexicon. Not yet.
There had been a ‘grand slam’ of golf: the foursome of championships won by Bobby Jones in 1930. When Jones won the US Open and Amateur and then the British Open and Amateur, it was seen as a phenomenal achievement, something that might never be repeated. Professional golf had nothing to match it; through the 1950s, it was impossible to get any international agreement as to what were the four biggest pro tournaments in the world.
Palmer changed that when he made plans to enter the 1960 British Open. In April, he won his second Masters and then during the US Open, which he was favoured to win, he announced he was going for a ‘slam’ — Masters, US and British Opens, and the US PGA Championship — in an article in the Saturday Evening Post.
‘The odds against it must be at least 1000-1,’ Palmer wrote. ‘Yet I feel confident that, with a little luck, it can be done. I want to be the one to do it.’
Palmer then went out and shot a final-round 65 to overcome a seven-shot deficit and win the US Open.
Legend has it that Palmer and his long-time friend and ghost writer, Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press, invented the concept of the ‘grand slam’ of professional golf on the flight from the US Open to Ireland, where Palmer was going to play in the Canada Cup (now the World Cup) before heading to Scotland.
In fact, the press — inspired by that Evening Post story — had jumped on the idea even before they were on the plane.
A United Press International (UPI) wire story written straight after the US Open revealed that ‘Arnold Palmer is en route to Europe today in search of the greatest grand slam in golfing history’.
The Associated Press’s report of the US Open final round suggested Palmer was chasing ‘the first grand slam in pro history’.
Before long, even Gene Sarazen was in the act, talking about Palmer’s potential achievement as the ‘greatest grand slam in golfing history, better than that of Jones in 1930’.
This was a concept whose time had come. Palmer and Drum liked to describe the four tournaments that made up their Slam as ‘majors’ and that caught on as well. When the ‘World Series of Golf Champions’ (more popularly known as the ‘World Series of Golf’ ) was introduced in 1962, featuring just the winners of the Masters, US Open, British Open and the PGA, it was promoted as ‘a 36-hole television package designed to match the winners of the four major golf championships’.
Palmer used the term as a reflex. ‘I’m going to concentrate on winning the major championships,’ he told reporters in 1964. ‘I still want to win the four major titles in one year and I hope I don’t lose that ambition for a while.’
NOWADAYS, EVERY WINNER OF those four big tournaments, starting with Willie Park senior at the inaugural British Open in 1860, is considered a major champion. Another commonly accepted practice with golf historians is to divide the British Open story into two eras: pre- and post-Palmer.
In the years after the second Great War, especially following Ben Hogan famous victory at Carnoustie in 1953 (his only British Open appearance), US interest in the Open declined. In 1958, when Australia’s Peter Thomson won his fourth Open in five years, there were no Americans with a genuine winning chance in the field. A year later, there were no Americans at all.
Long-haul flights were expensive and a grind. The prizemoney was less than that on offer at most US tournaments. It was just a quarter that awarded at the Masters. As well, the British Open had stringent qualifying rules — everyone had survive a 36-hole qualifier just to make the final field.
Palmer, a genuine golf traditionalist and the rising star of world golf, saw beyond all this. Walter Hagen had told him, ‘Arnie, you ain’t nothin’ ’til you win the British Open.’ Palmer duly entered the 1960 Centenary Open Championship and quickly captured the hearts of UK fans with his aggressive style, unassuming nature and willingness to accept, even embrace, everything that was different about British golf. His presence doubled gate receipts and other American golfers followed him. Jack Nicklaus made his first British Open appearance in 1962; his first victory (of three) came in 1966. Another American, Phil Rodgers, lost a playoff to New Zealand’s Bob Charles in 1963. Tony Lema won in 1964. By the time Nicklaus beat his countryman Doug Sanders in a dramatic playoff in 1970, the Open was as prestigious as any of golf’s four biggest tournaments.
In the US papers of July 1960, Palmer’s Open challenge was the biggest story in golf, more important than Art Wall’s win in the richer Canadian Open that took place at the same time. The renowned US golf writer Curt Sampson describes the 1960 Open as ‘the most important Open of the modern era’. His fellow golf historian David Hamilton, recalls ‘the beginning of a golden era for the Open’.
‘The only thing I regret about it,’ Palmer told the Independent’s Brian Viner in 2011, as he recalled the Centenary Open, ‘is that Kel Nagle beat me.’
NAGLE WAS HARDLY A star attraction when he arrived at St Andrews. He was 39 and competing in just his fourth major. Back in 1936, he had landed a job as a trainee professional at the Pymble Golf Club in Sydney, but six years of war meant he didn’t appear in an Australian Open until 1946, when he finished nine shots behind Ozzie Pickworth.
He won the Australian PGA Championship in 1949, the NSW Open in 1950 and three straight WA Opens (1950–1952), but didn’t announce himself as a true top-liner until 1953, when he dominated the $15,000 McWilliams Wines tournament at The Australian course in Sydney, winning by seven shots from Argentina’s Robert de Vicenzo. More than once, de Vicenzo was seen shaking his head as Nagle sank another long-range birdie putt.
‘I would like to play the American circuit, but the expenses are far too high,’ Nagle said, when asked if he wanted to compete overseas.
To this point, his only experience in a big foreign tournament was the 1951 British Open, when he finished in a tie for 19th, 14 strokes behind Max Faulkner. In 1954, Nagle and Thomson won the Canada Cup (now the World Cup) in Montreal. Twelve months later, using the round-the-world ticket the Canada Cup organisers had awarded him, Nagle ventured on from defending that title with Thomson in Washington DC (they finished third) to St Andrews for the Open, where he finished in a tie for 19th, 11 strokes behind Thomson.
That was it for Nagle and majors until 1960. Again armed with a round-the-world ticket after he and Thomson won their second Canada Cup title at Royal Melbourne in 1959, Nagle played at Augusta for the first time and recorded his second-place finish at the Colonial. But neither he nor Thomson stayed in America for the US Open, preferring to head across the Atlantic to prepare for the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in Ireland and then the British Open.
Legend has it he was 100–1 going into the Open, though that seems an extravagant price for the reigning Australian Open champion, a man who’d won more than 30 times in Australia and New Zealand, had combined with Thomson to win two Canada Cups, and who just seven weeks earlier had almost claimed the Colonial. Perhaps his disappointing effort in qualifying, when he shot 74-71 to finish 10 strokes behind the leading qualifier, defending champion Gary Player of South Africa, swayed the bookies. Or maybe they listened to Don Lawrence, who dismissed Nagle’s chances, writing in the Melbourne Age on tournament eve that Thomson was Australia’s only hope. Sydney’s Bill Fitter, golf columnist for the Sun-Herald, was more optimistic, arguing that St Andrews would suit Nagle, whom he described as ‘Australia’s second string’.
In America, the Pittsburgh Press had Palmer as the 7–2 favourite, ahead of Thomson and Player. Will Grimsley from the Associated Press reported things slightly differently. He described Palmer as the ‘underdog’ and reckoned Thomson was favourite, ahead of Player and the American.
The Glasgow Herald’s Cyril Horne was another who believed the Open was a three-horse race. ‘Palmer, Player and PW Thomson (Australia), who apart from last year at Muirfield has been winning or almost winning the Open since 1952, who won here in 1955 and who was second here in 1957, and who loves the Old Course as much as some of his contemporaries and rivals hate it, form a group from which nine out of 10 people here think the centenary champion is bound to come,’ Horne wrote.
THE BOOKIES MIGHTN’T HAVE noticed that Nagle was hitting the ball nice and straight with his new clubs, but Thomson certainly liked his friend’s chances. He showed Nagle how to keep out of the infamous St Andrews bunkers and where he had to aim his approach shots away from the flags. ‘It was like signposting the course for me.’ Nagle told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Stone in 2010.
The field was quite strong, the best in years. Belgium’s Flory Van Donck, who just a fortnight earlier had won the Canada Cup’s individual event at Portmarnock, failed to qualify. So too did Dave Thomas, the man Thomson had beaten in a playoff at Royal Lytham in 1958, and Max Faulkner, the 1951 champion. Left among the entries were not just the four-time Open winner Thomson and the defending champion (Player), but also the reigning Open champions of Australia (Nagle), USA (Palmer), South Africa (Player), Spain (Sebastian Miguel) and Argentina (Leopoldo Ruiz). As well, there was de Vicenzo, a future Open champion (in 1967), Dai Rees of Wales, captain of the British Ryder Cup team that had stunned the Americans in 1957, and the Englishmen, Harry Weetman and Eric Brown, two more Ryder Cup stalwarts.
What only those closest to Nagle knew was that he was battling an annoying ache in the little finger of his right hand. Throughout the week of the Open he’d apply ointment to the finger, bathe it in hot and cold water to try to loosen it up, and shake hands with his left hand. But he wouldn’t worry about seeing a specialist until after the Open, when he returned to Sydney.
IN ASSESSING THE 1960 British Open’s place in history, a crucial factor emerges: it was a fantastic tournament. The crowds were substantial; the golf was often magnificent; the tension was palpable. The first round, played on a Wednesday, belonged to De Vicenzo, who fired a 67 to lead by two from Nagle and another Argentinian, Fidel de Luca. Nagle and de Luca were both out in 38, back in 31, comebacks that impressed Cyril Horne.
‘St Andrains were dumbfounded that anyone should treat the inward half of their great pride so scurvily,’ Horne wrote. ‘Nagle went daft on the greens on the inward half, holing putts of 10 feet at the 10th, 12 feet at the 14th, 12 yards at the 15th, 4 yards at the 16th, and one of 30 yards from off the green at the Road Hole [the 17th].’
In doing all this, Nagle set the tone for his tournament. Throughout, except for two hiccups during the final round, his putting was superb. Horne described him as ‘uncannily accurate’ from two to six yards, concluding: ‘Nagle won the championship with his putter.’
This was perhaps most evident on day three, when Nagle clearly out-putted de Vicenzo. ‘If Roberto had putted at all over the first nine on that third round he would surely have won,’ Nagle recalled for The Scotsman in 2005. ‘He missed about four or five putts of less than four feet for birdies. Had he made them, he’d have had a big lead.’
The two had both shot 67s in the second round. Nagle’s 71 to de Vicenzo’s 75 gave the Australian a two-shot lead after 54 holes. Palmer — who’d started 70-71 — was lurking, a further two shots back, and he would have been even closer had he not three-putted each of the last two holes. Reporters wondered if he’d been distracted by the storm that swept over St Andrews as he completed his round. Player was eight off the lead, seemingly out of contention, while Thomson’s challenge was over after a disappointing third-round 75.
In normal circumstances, the final 36 holes would have been completed on this third day. The 1960 Open was originally scheduled to take place over three days: 18 holes on the Wednesday and the Thursday; 36 holes on the Friday. But the tempest dumped a flood upon the St Andrews fairways, and a river surged cross the 18th green. The final round was delayed until the Saturday.
This hadn’t happened since 1910, when 40-year-old James Braid won the ‘Jubilee’ Open.
THOSE WHO HAD TIME to scan the Glasgow Herald’s preview of the final round would have observed the paper’s suspicion that De Vicenzo was more fearful of the threat posed by Palmer than of Nagle, even though the Australian led the field by two. Golf World magazine would later write that most observers at this point believed a Palmer victory was a formality. As if to prove the point, the American promptly birdied the first two holes, to get within two of the lead. But things then calmed down, and all three leaders went out in 34.
De Vicenzo dropped a shot at 11, Palmer gained one at 13, but the mood didn’t really change until the 15th, when Nagle, to general astonishment, three putted. At the Road Hole, Palmer risked all by going for the pin and almost played the perfect shot: the ball teetered on the back of the green, which would have left him a three-metre putt for a three, but then … slowly … cruelly … it slipped down and away towards the road beyond the putting surface.
The next 15 minutes were full of drama. Palmer’s playing partner, Sebastian Miguel, had finished in similar territory and tried to lob his ball onto the green’s edge, so it could trickle down to the hole. But it came up short. Palmer grabbed for his putter, and produced a remarkable, impeccably judged shot, which left him just half a yard for his four. From the fairway, Nagle watched the American sink his putt and then played the hole conventionally, as Thomson had shown him, leaving his approach on the front edge of the green. He putted up to about eight feet.
Palmer then produced a wonderful wedge to the 72nd flag, inducing a roar as loud as anything ever heard on the British golf course. He had three feet left for a three.
Nagle was by nature a quick player. He could have rushed and putted before Palmer. Instead, he waited … and saw in the distance Palmer make the birdie that equalled Bobby Locke’s record low four-round score for an Open Championship at St Andrews. There was a buzz across the old course, and gasps and animated chatter around the 17th green, which only slowly faded to a whisper. Now came the moment when Kel Nagle confirmed what Australian and New Zealand golf fans had known for a number of years, the moment he proved he was an exceptional, not just a very good player …
‘If ever a brave shot was played by anyone in the history of the game of golf, it was by Nagle on the 71st green,’ reported Golfing magazine.
‘Here indeed was a test of nerves,’ wrote Cyril Horne. ‘But he maintained his reputation ...’
‘It was the best putt I ever hit,’ Nagle told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Rod Humphries in 1976. ‘It had a right-to-left burrow. It never looked like missing.’
Over the four days, Nagle had gone 3–3–4–4 on this tough-as-they-come hole, sinking long or awkward putts every time. Palmer went 5–5–5–4, three putting on all but the final day.
‘There’s no question about it, that 17th sure is a bad one,’ Palmer lamented later, when he was asked what he thought of the Road Hole.
As Nagle walked to the 18th tee, he saw a clearly excited Don Lawrence.
‘You need a four to win,’ Lawrence advised.
‘Yeah,’ Nagle replied flatly. ‘I just heard.’
He proceeded to play the final hole perfectly … almost. His drive was typically smooth to the left of the fairway and he then lobbed a nine iron to just three feet. But he mucked up the putt that would have left him on 277, an Open record. His final putt, just a few inches, was made without a flourish. Palmer was one shot back; de Vicenzo, England’s Bernard Hunt and South Africa’s Harold Henning were tied for third on 282.
It was, by all accounts, a hugely popular victory. ‘Nagle was rarely off the correct line in his long game,’ Horne wrote. ‘He merely completed with his putter what he had started with his driver and his irons.’ Pat Ward-Thomas, the Guardian’s long-time golf correspondent, argued Nagle’s performance was ‘as fine an example of golfing character as any I have known’.
NAGLE ALWAYS MADE A point of highlighting Peter Thomson’s role in guiding him to victory. The then four-time champion (he would win again in 1965) had one more contribution. ‘When he finished, he had no way of making it through the crowd to this hotel, but he needed a jacket for the presentation,’ Thomson wrote in his 2005 book, Lessons I Have Learned. ‘I’d finished some time earlier so I took off my jacket and gave it to him. In the picture taken of him, holding the trophy, he is wearing my jacket.’
After the presentation, with trophies still in hand, Nagle was confronted by a large group of autograph seekers, most of them children.
‘Just wait till I put these inside, kids,’ he said, looking down at the prized trophy nestled on his forearm. ‘Then I’ll be right out.’
Which is exactly what happened. Despite his aching finger and with two policemen controlling the queue, the new champion signed for half an hour, until the last book and scrap of paper were signed. It was the same in Sydney, when he arrived home four days later and was given a reception at the Sydney Town Hall. In August, he headed to Perth, to Lake Karrinyap, to defend his Australian Open crown, and finished in a tie for fourth, the only professional in the top nine, four strokes behind 22-year-old Bruce Devlin.
Only then could he finally give that damn little finger the rest it had needed all along.
IT WAS PALMER, BY venturing to St Andrews and then returning to claim the next two championships, who revived the British Open. However, by defeating the world’s best and most charismatic golfer on the sport’s most famous course, and doing so in such a dignified, nerveless manner, Nagle provided the championship with a sense of quality it might not have had if the iconic American had won comfortably in 1960. Because of what happened at the Centenary Open, there was no suggestion Palmer’s wins at Birkdale (in 1961) and Troon (1962) were soft or easy.
At the same time, the concept of the Grand Slam refused to go away. But with every year it becomes clearer that the Slam is a desperately hard thing to complete. Since 1960, only Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tiger Woods (2002) and Jordan Spieth (2015) have won the Masters and the US Open in the same calendar year. Only five men in history — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods — have won all of the Masters, US and British Opens, and PGA during their careers.
‘Winning majors happens one at a time,’ Tom Watson said in 1982. Victory at the PGA Championship was the one he was never able to achieve.
Kel Nagle didn’t win another major. He did, though, compile a superb Open record through the 1960s: second in 1962, fourth in 1963 and 1966, fifth in 1961 and 1965, ninth in 1969. He won the French and Swiss Opens in 1961 and the Canadian Open in 1964, edging Palmer once again, lost an 18-hole playoff at the 1965 US Open to Player, and continued to stockpile tournaments in Australia and New Zealand until 1977, when he won the Western Australian PGA Championship four months after his 56th birthday. In total, Nagle won more than 60 times in Australia. He also recorded another runner-up finish at the Colonial, missing out by a shot to Doug Sanders in 1961. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.
He died in January 2015, aged 94, and was lauded across the world of golf. ‘We had some exciting times together, especially at my first Open Championship when he won and I finished second,’ Arnold Palmer said fondly. Understandably, no one remembered the 1960 Colonial, but maybe they should have — not so much for Kel Nagle’s near miss at the 72nd hole that year but rather for the driver he bought while he was there.
The Centenary Open might have been very different but for that transaction. Whenever we hear the terms ‘major’ and ‘grand slam’, we should think of Palmer, Nagle and their thrilling encounter of 56 years ago. This week, we should also think a little of Colonial and its part in the drama. And of what it all meant to the story of the game these two remarkable men played so very well.
PHAR LAP DIED AT around 8.30am (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on April 6, 1932. This was around 2.30pm on April 5 in San Francisco, where the death occurred. For the next 68 years there was much conjecture as to the cause of the great horse’s death, until Peter Thompson and I released our biography, Phar Lap, in which we demonstrated that the cause of death was almost certainly a bacterial infection known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis.
In 2006, a new argument was put that Phar Lap had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. This theory received much coverage, even though Phar Lap did not show the signs of a horse suffering from arsenic poisoning in the last 24 hours of his life and the champion’s post-mortem specifically ruled out arsenic as a possible cause of death.
Since then, there have many claims made that Tommy Woodcock was to blame for the wonder horse’s death.
This is wrong ...
THE VRC HANDICAPPER GAVE Phar Lap 10.10 (68kg) for the 1931 Melbourne Cup, which meant he would have smashed Carbine’s weight-carrying record had he won. However, he finished eighth as a 3-1 favourite. It was the first time the champion had started at odds that generous since September 1929, and the first time since February 1930 he’d finished worse than second in a race.
By Cup Day 1931, Phar Lap was a tired horse. Soon after, however, he was on a boat to New Zealand, on to California, and then down the long road to the Agua Caliente racetrack situated just on the southern side of the US–Mexican border. There, in the rich Agua Caliente Handicap, Phar Lap produced one of his greatest performances, sitting four or five wide until he took off five furlongs from home to win by two lengths. That one win was enough for some US racing historians to rate Phar Lap one of the greatest horses to race in North America.
Sixteen days later, Phar Lap was dead, in what many thought to be sinister circumstances. For 68 years, from 1932 to 2000, one of Australia’s enduring legends was that the great champion had been poisoned. He had lived a heroic life and Australians wanted to believe that he was extraordinary. When the famous racecaller Bill Collins described the finish of the 1986 Cox Plate with that wonderful phrase, ‘Bonecrusher races into equine immortality,’ he eloquently captured how we feel about our best-loved stars of the turf. Thus, when Phar Lap’s mortality was so tragically confirmed and remained unexplained, we had to believe that something sinister had occurred. Ignorance of bacteria and how they worked made it easy to blame the dark forces of evil that we knew ran amok in that crime-ridden society of North America.
In 2000, when Peter Thompson and I published our findings about the actual cause of death — a humble bacterial infection whose existence was unknown until 1982 — it was widely acclaimed as the solution to the mystery. Six years later, when scientists discovered two forms of arsenic in some hair from Phar Lap’s mane, sensationalists in the media and opportunists in politics resuscitated the prejudices of the past.
‘Australia’s greatest racehorse, the mighty Phar Lap, may solve the mystery of his own death,’ was how the then Minister for Innovation in Victoria, former premier John Brumby, began a media release in October 2006, ignoring the fact that in our book we had put forward a compelling case that the cause of death was a common bacteria, which produced an enterotoxin that caused a disease syndrome known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. Mr Brumby was alluding to analysis that was being undertaken using synchrotron technology, which had revealed traces of arsenic in hairs from the stuffed hide of Phar Lap — the famous exhibit at the Melbourne Museum. In June 2008 further analysis allegedly ‘proved’ Phar Lap died of arsenic poisoning, a contention that was again argued in an article published in the journal Angewandte Chemie in April 2010. However, in that article the authors conceded that ‘many complexities in the analysis (and interpretation of results) of arsenic in hair exist’. They also contended that Phar Lap’s symptoms and autopsy results ‘are consistent with ingestion of a large dose of arsenic just prior death’.
THE SYNCHROTRON ANALYSIS DETERMINED that arsenic found in the shaft of the hairs from Phar Lap’s mane had not been used in the taxidermy process. By making assumptions about the rate of growth of the hair, estimations were made that the horse ingested this arsenic anywhere between 10 and 40 hours before his death. From this came the superficial and hysterical reaction: ‘Arsenic is bad, there was arsenic in his system, so arsenic killed him.’
But there are alternative explanations for the arsenic found in Phar Lap’s hide, none of which carry a sinister undertone. It is true, for example, that hair absorbs substances via the blood supply to the follicle, but as research on other taxidermied museum specimens shows hair can also absorb arsenic from the environment. Dunnett and Lees, in a paper published in Research in Veterinary Science in 2003, proved that external contamination can cause the incorporation of drugs into all parts of the hair, including the follicle. The original theories about arsenic poisoning being the cause of Phar Lap’s death came about because trees adjoining the paddock in which he had been grazing were sprayed with a pesticide containing lead arsenate; there were fears that Phar Lap had eaten grass onto which the pesticide had fallen, and that this was his undoing. The autopsy refuted this notion, but it is still possible some or even most of the arsenic in Phar Lap’s hair came from the pesticide spray landing on Phar Lap’s skin and being absorbed into his hair, without causing him harm. Several other animals in the same paddock with Phar Lap were unaffected by that ‘contaminated’ grass.
It is also well recognised that the nature of hair, even its colour, can affect the amount of arsenic taken up from the blood supply and from the environment. Other variables include the rate of take-up from the blood and the pace of growth of the hair. So conclusions about how much arsenic Phar Lap had ingested, or when he had ingested it, must remain vague at best.
But for those so easily convinced arsenic was the culprit, the next question was obvious: ‘How was the great horse poisoned?’ And the most popular answer in the media was that Tommy Woodcock did it. For example, on June 19, 2008, the Melbourne Age reported: ‘It was probably strapper Tommy Woodcock who may have mistakenly put too much arsenic in one of his tonics for his beloved Phar Lap.’
Similarly, Agence France-Presse stated: ‘The latest theory surrounding Phar Lap’s demise was that the strapper that accompanied the gelding to the United States, Tommy Woodcock, used too much arsenic while making up a batch of tonic and accidentally killed his charge.’
At the same time, an old notebook, which once belonged to Harry Telford and contained a series of recipes for tonics, some of which included arsenic, was found (and then purchased by Museum Victoria for a reported $37,000). This was used as more evidence of Woodcock’s guilt, even though it is common knowledge that most trainers of the 1930s safely used arsenic-based tonics; some trainers were still doing so as recently as the early 1980s. To compare the amount of arsenic in such tonics against that needed to kill a thoroughbred is akin to comparing a test tube to a bucket.
CRUELLY, THE PEOPLE ACCUSING Tommy Woodcock of making a colossal, grievous and stupid error never stopped to think there are alternative explanations for the synchrotron’s findings. Much worse, they did not consider the known and unchallenged facts: that at the time of Phar Lap’s death, university experts specifically searched for evidence of arsenic poisoning and could only find small amounts, more likely to be beneficial than detrimental to the horse; and that the clinical signs and progress of Phar Lap’s rapidly deteriorating condition were a text book presentation of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis and entirely inconsistent with arsenic poisoning.
First, the clinical signs. In 2001, Dr Stan Casteel, Professor in Research Toxicology at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the United States, published a paper entitled Metal Toxicosis in Horses in which he wrote, ‘Clinical signs of acute inorganic arsenic toxicosis in horses include drooling, trembling, ataxia, depression, colic, recumbency and green-to-black watery diarrhoea.’ Six years later, Dr Sally Church, a senior lecturer in equine medicine and surgery at the University of Melbourne, told Graeme Putt, co-author with Pat McCord of the 2009 book Phar Lap: the Untold Story, that acute severe arsenic poisoning in horses is reported to cause severe haemorrhagic diarrhoea.
It is a natural reflex, when a horse is sick, for a veterinary surgeon to examine the horse’s droppings. According to Tommy Woodcock’s account, in the hours before Phar Lap died, the champion’s vet, Bill Nielsen, did so and then stated, ‘Gee, he don’t seem bad.’ This strongly suggests Phar Lap was not suffering from any form of diarrhoea.
Even more importantly, all reported cases of arsenic poisoning in horses are consistent on one critical point: the time from the appearance of clinical signs to death is always a minimum of 24 hours.
Woodcock slept in the stall opposite Phar Lap. When he went to sleep on the night of April 4 1932, the horse was okay. The next morning, Phar Lap’s breath was hot, he was sweating and he wouldn’t accept the sugar cube Woodcock offered him first thing every sunrise. Not long after 2 pm, just nine hours later, the great horse was gone. This would not have been enough time for arsenic poisoning to have killed the champion.
Four days after his death, Phar Lap’s organs were examined by chemists from the University of California, who tested for a number of poisons. They specifically analysed samples of liver, lung, spleen, stomach and kidney, searching for ‘common volatile poisons, alkaloidal poisons, arsenic and mercury’, and claimed afterwards that they found nothing untoward.
In Phar Lap, The Story of the Big Horse, published in 1964, Isobel Carter reports the findings of R.U. Bonnar, a chemist with the United States Food and Drug Administration. Bonnar examined Phar Lap’s organs in advance of the post-mortem and found the concentration of arsenic trioxide in Phar Lap’s liver was 1.143 parts per million, less than one-eighth of the concentration required to diagnose arsenic poisoning of a horse.
On the basis of what he had seen as Phar Lap died and then during the autopsy, Bill Nielsen initially suspected that the cause of death was acute gastric enteritis (inflammation of the intestines), brought about by a toxic substance, but because he and others couldn’t identify what that toxin was, in the years that followed observers and gossip merchants were left to concoct their own poisons. For our book Phar Lap, we sought the advice of Dr John van Veenendaal, one of Australia’s leading equine surgeons. Dr van Veenendaal, a man who has worked for many of the country’s leading trainers and who treated some horses trained by Tommy Woodcock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was shown the post-mortem reports of Phar Lap’s death. In response, he stated:
‘Phar Lap did die of poisoning but not a poison that was given maliciously or intentionally. The poison was an enterotoxin that caused Anterior Enteritis or more correctly Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. The clinical features that Tommy described to me and the reports you have supplied me with indicate that this was the most probable cause of death ... The disease syndrome now known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis was not described in the literature until the early 1980s. Nielsen would not have been aware of this disease but his summation of the cause of death was correct.’
In 2008, after the synchrotron analysis made the papers, we sent copies of all the information we had on Phar Lap’s death, including the post mortem and the published reports from the team behind the synchrotron analysis, to Dr Tam Garland from Texas A&M University and the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology. Her response in part reads:
‘I do not believe arsenic was involved. There may be a background level or a very low level from some solutions in use then. I am convinced the cause of death was Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis …’
Veterinary surgeons today know that horses can be quickly killed by Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. Bacteria in the gut of the horse produce a toxin that attacks the lining of the small intestine close to the stomach, causing a functional obstruction. The walls of the small intestine are severely damaged and acutely inflamed. The intestine is blocked, not by a physical barrier but by a length of intestine that refuses to function
The textbook description of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis is a list of the signs Phar Lap exhibited before his death: elevated temperature, increased pulse rate, acute colic, distention of the small intestine, a build-up of fluid in the stomach leading to perforation and rapid death. In almost all cases of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis, the horse has travelled significant distances in the preceding weeks. The fact that the disease was not identified until 50 years after Phar Lap’s died is important. Those performing the autopsy in 1932 would have looked first for a physical blockage in the intestine, and were probably astonished when they did not find one.
Only then would they have joined others in thinking seriously about less logical causes of death.
IT’S A GOOD YARN, the story of William Webb Ellis — of the young English rebel taking the ball in his arms at Rugby School one day in 1823 and running with it. With one precocious dash, so the legend goes, a new style of football was born. That most researchers concede that Webb Ellis’ run never happened is now largely irrelevant; world rugby has its ‘founder’, and the winners of the Rugby World Cup now receive the ‘Webb Ellis Trophy’.
Football codes need father figures. The AFL has Tom Wills, who came up with the idea of a distinctly ‘Australian’ game for the citizens of Melbourne in the late 1850s, and Henry Harrison, a key figure in the drafting in 1866 of the code of rules that set the basis for what many know today as Aussie Rules. Australian rugby league has James J. Giltinan, the gallant entrepreneur who took the first Kangaroos to England in 1908. Australian rugby union, in contrast, has been something of an orphan, having apparently evolved at its own pace with no one man its initial driving force.
This, surely, can only be half right at best. So having chanced upon a critical snippet of information written in 1919, a few years ago I set off on what proved to be a productive search for rugby’s No. 1 man, a ‘Webb Ellis’ of our own if you like. Inevitably, given we’re going back to the 1860s, the evidence is a little ragged in parts, but with the help of his grandson I was able to build a strong picture of the bloke who kick-started rugby in New South Wales more than 150 years ago. Others who came later may have been more influential in terms of how rugby evolved in Australia, but he was the first. Strangely, the game is still to officially recognise this man’s contribution; hence the retelling of his story here.
He was a pioneer of the bush as well as of football, a man of courage, persistence and pride, a fellow who might have stepped out of a Banjo Paterson poem. His family home became the residence of the Governor-General— a tangible link between his sport and his country’s head of state.
If Australian rugby was able to select its own father, it could hardly have made a better choice.
THE EARLY DAYS OF football in Sydney have been well scrutinised, most notably by Thomas Hickie in They Ran With The Ball: How Rugby Football Began in Australia (Longman Cheshire, 1993) and by the extraordinary work of league and union historian Sean Fagan. The first record of any football taking place in Australia most likely appeared in the Sydney newspaper, The Australian, on 24 July 1829:
The privates and others of the garrison have lately been amusing themselves more than usual in the ordinary practice of foot-ball, in the Barrack Square, and a healthful exercise is foot-ball.
The Sydney Monitor of the following day added that the sport the soldiers were playing was ‘a healthy amusement, and much played in Leicestershire’. But it wasn’t until 1865 that reports of organised football being staged in the city appeared in the Sydney press. Whatever was played in the years in between was hardly rugby, most likely kicking and catching and ball-dribbling contests with rules that varied from field to field in the way impromptu contests in school playgrounds often develop minds of their own.
The reports of 1865 were of matches involving the ‘Sydney Football Club’ (most likely, an offshoot of the Albert Cricket Club), a team featuring members of the Australian Cricket Club and then Sydney University. It appears that the Sydney and Australian clubs were experimenting with something like Tom Wills’ style of football (which was originally conceived at least in part to give Melbourne’s cricketers a game to play in winter), but if there was a push to bring Melbourne rules to Sydney, a small group of undergraduates at the University was having none of it. Three young men decided to form a club on campus that played football under the rules set down by Rugby School in England, a move remembered by one of them, Richard Teece, when he was profiled by the Sydney Mail more than half a century later, on 11 June 1919:
While Mr Teece was at the University there was a man named Campbell and another, George Deas Thomson (son of Sir Edward Deas Thomson), in his third year, who had played rugby football in England. These two combined with Teece to form a team among the undergraduates to play the game in Sydney. For some time their efforts were confined to scratch matches among themselves, as there were no other teams to play against. They were the first games of Rugby in Sydney ...
Twelve years earlier, at a time when Teece was chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, the Sydney Mail recalled that he ‘took part in the formation of the first Rugby club in Sydney in 1865’. During the same season, at a New South Wales Rugby Union event organised to welcome the Queensland team to Sydney, Teece described himself as ‘certainly the oldest Australian footballer present’; he had, after all, ‘watched the progress of the game since he had taken part in the formation of the first football club in Sydney 42 years ago’ As his twin administrative careers in sport (mainly cricket) and insurance reveal, Teece was an enthusiastic beaver when it came to making things happen. But it was his two comrades from Sydney University in 1865 who were the young men with rugby experience. By the time of that Sydney Mail profile in 1919, Teece was a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, having been the AMP’s driving force for almost 30 years. Poor Deas Thomson was long dead. And ‘a man named Campbell’ was in the latter stages of an extraordinary life on the Australian land.
From 1837 to 1856, Edward Deas Thomson, later Sir Edward, was New South Wales’ Colonial Secretary, the colony’s leading public servant. In 1854 he took his family to England, and according to press reports left his three sons to enjoy a Public Schools education. But where George boarded is not known. University of Sydney records suggest he was privately tutored. After gaining his degree in 1865, George worked as an associate for two Chief Justices until his passing, in March 1877, aged just 31.
Frederick Campbell was a grandson of Robert Campbell, Sydney’s first great shipping merchant, after whom ‘Campbell’s Cove’ at Circular Quay is named. Frederick, or Fred as he was known, was born 170 years ago, on 26 February, 1846, on his grandfather’s property, ‘Duntroon’, in southern New South Wales. He had been taken to England by his parents in 1854, where he was enrolled at the Cholmeley School in London. A classmate was Marcus Clarke, later to write For the Term of His Natural Life. Since 1860, the school has been known as Highgate. Campbell remained there until July 1863.
Across Britain at that time, the football young men were playing was a matter of dispute. Many schools of the early 1860s preferred what were known as ‘Eton’ rules, what would evolve into ‘Association’ rules or ‘soccer’. However, a few, including Highgate, took to the game as played at Rugby School. Emails with the school confirmed that Frederick was in the school’s football team in 1863, and that the football he was playing ‘must have been rugger’ (the school’s words). ‘Highgate changed from Rugby to Soccer under the headmastership of the Rev C. McDowall in 1878,’ explained the School’s Foundation Office.
Returning to Australia, Fred Campbell headed for Sydney University, where he studied in 1865 — not long enough to gain a degree, but ample time to inspire a rugby club. George Deas Thomson had been at the University since 1863, but as the first formal rugby games between students didn’t take place until August 1865, more likely it was Campbell — a more ‘seasoned’ footballer given his first-team experience at Highgate — who provided the catalyst for the football revolution on campus, with Deas Thomson and Teece alongside him as enthusiastic accomplices. If any one man deserves the title of ‘Father’ of Australian rugby, it is Fred Campbell.
In a strange way, the records at Sydney University add some weight to this claim. Campbell resided at the St Paul’s College for at least some of his university days, and the college’s archives suggest that prior to becoming an undergraduate he had been educated at Rugby School in England. This is not true, but how could such an error have been made? Perhaps someone saw Campbell’s enthusiasm for rugby football and assumed he had some link with the game’s birthplace.
The story of Sydney rugby between 1866 to 1869 further suggests Campbell was an influential figure in the game’s evolution. Deciding an Arts degree was of little use to him, at the end of 1865 Campbell went looking for experience on the land, first at the North Goonambil station at Urana in southern NSW and then at cattle and sheep stations near Rockhampton in Queensland. Briefly back in Sydney in 1866, he found time to lead a team that lost a rugby contest on the University Ground to a team of undergraduates, and the fact he was captain suggests he was the most experienced rugby man. He might also have been the chief organiser of the side, the best player, perhaps all of the above. Soon after that game, Campbell went bush again, and rugby’s rise at the University and in Sydney stuttered. Documented games in the big city for the next three years were few and far between.
Season 1870 was the year of rugby’s revival in Australia. This was the winter in which the soon-to-be-renowned Wallaroo club was formed in Sydney. Among the five hardy individuals who came to the inaugural meeting that led to Wallaroo’s birth was one George Deas Thomson. When it came to electing office bearers, Fred Campbell — having been cajoled back to Sydney to learn the family business — became Wallaroo’s treasurer. The duo’s influence in the football community continued through the early 1870s, until Deas Thomson began to succumb to the disease that would claim his life, and Fred again headed bush, this time for good. First, he rode to the Bundabarena Station on the Barwon River in north-western NSW, then in 1877 to the ‘limestone plains’ as the area around Queanbeyan in southern New South Wales was known, to manage Duntroon.
Under the stars, Campbell could ponder the fact that his game was here to stay. Such was the game’s rising popularity, a central governing body, the Southern Rugby Football Union, had been established as early as 1874. For the next 35 years, until rugby league took over, rugby was Sydney’s No. 1 winter sport.
SO WHO IS THIS man named Campbell? He was born into a wealthy and highly respected family, but with a cleft palate and a harelip. As a boy, he ran a long second in his father Charles’ eye to his elder brother Walter. To overcome his speech difficulty young Fred focused on the written word, which he made his main method of communication, and it was only the tragic death of Walter in a boating accident at Cambridge in 1860 that boosted his standing within the family.
After his mother Catherine died, shattered by the loss of her first-born son, the decision was made for the rest of the family to return to Sydney. For the next few years, Fred’s father travelled between a home in Scotland and properties in NSW and Victoria, while for many days through 1864 and 1865 Fred lived with his uncle John at Wharf House, on Circular Quay. During this period, Fred mixed with members of the upper echelons of Sydney society, including notable figures in sporting circles. Two prominent members of the Albert Cricket Club, Captain Edward Ward and Septimus Stephen, were married to cousins of Fred, as was a sister of George Deas Thomson. Like Fred’s grandfather, father and two of his uncles, Captain Ward was a member of the NSW Parliament. However, the restless young footballer’s decision to forsake the city to pursue the pleasures that townsfolk never know meant he lost contact with this influential group.
In 1881, Fred left Duntroon after purchasing an adjoining property, Yarralumla, and began putting into practice the skills and feel for the land that he had developed over the previous decade and a half. He was much more than just a pastoralist; he became a pivotal figure in most of what happened in the Queanbeyan district. While he did have the occasional quarrel with neighbours, the men and women who worked for him were fiercely loyal, and served him well. A New Year’s Eve dinner dance and New Year’s Day celebrations involving the Campbell family and their friends and employees were a much anticipated annual event, a feature of which was the cricket match between a Yarralumla XI and a Queanbeyan combination.
The property grew to 40,000 acres (16,400 hectares). Fred became president of the board and chief benefactor to the Queanbeyan District Hospital, a part-time magistrate, president of the local branch of the ‘Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association’, church elder, founder or patron of several sporting clubs, including the Queanbeyan Rugby Union and the Queanbeyan Rifle Club. In 1900, he was elected chairman of the ‘Queanbeyan Federal Capital League’, which helped argue the case for the region to become the site of the new national capital.
In this last instance, Fred was too effective for his own good. Canberra won the day, but the committee chairman had never envisaged the authorities compulsorily acquiring his property. When his daughter visited Canberra in the 1960s, she said to her son, ‘Father would have been heartbroken to see the best pasture land in Australia permanently drowned by a man-made lake.’
Fred attended some of the ceremonies staged in early 1913 to mark the birth of Canberra, but he did so begrudgingly. By this time he had been booted from his home, having received considerably less in compensation than what he believed his grand property was worth, and the Queanbeyan Age reported that many locals were aghast at the way he had been treated. He never really resettled until well into his seventies, when he began living at his Cooinbil Station in the Riverina, which he had originally purchased in the 1890s and then expanded through a series of shrewd land purchases. In one awful week during the Great War, he lost two children: Charles, missing in action over France; and John, the youngest, at home to epilepsy. Fred himself died at Narrandera in 1928, aged 82.
After leaving Yarralumla, Fred’s first stop had been ‘Bishopthorpe’, once the official residence of the Bishop of Goulburn. However, within eight months the mansion caught fire and most of its contents were destroyed, including reams of Campbell family documents. For a man who had lived by the written word, this must have been a catastrophe; one of the great Australian memoirs of the 19th century may well have been lost.
SUCH WAS THE GREAT divide between the city and the bush at this time, it is perhaps understandable that Richard Teece, one of Sydney’s most prominent businessmen and sporting identities, could remember his one-time university friend only as ‘a man named Campbell’ when he was interviewed in 1919. In an article that appeared in Old Times in July 1903 that is often quoted by rugby historians, WM ‘Monty’ Arnold, one of the founders of the Wallaroo Club in 1870, refers to Fred in a single sentence:
‘Amongst our first players, in addition to the original five who started the (Wallaroo) club, (was) Fred Campbell, a descendant of Campbell of the Wharf …’
Accompanying that Old Times article is a photo of ‘the Old Wallaroo Football team’, with Fred Campbell sitting at the far left of the middle row, a bushy moustache disguising his disability. Moustache aside, there was a definite facial resemblance between Fred and his grandson, Mr Sandy Newman, whom I met when I was researching Fred’s life. Sandy was researching his grandfather’s life in much greater depth than I had been, walking around The Rocks to the Mitchell Library in Sydney, to Canberra, the National Library, Yarralumla, the Riverina, Highgate School, Cambridge, everywhere, patiently and diligently writing and refining Fred’s story.
In 2007, some of Sandy’s research was published by the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, in an article titled ‘Frederick Campbell of Yarralumla: a forgotten pioneer pastoralist’.
Perhaps Sandy’s greatest frustration was that for most Canberra historians the story of the city seems to begin around 1913, the year his grandfather left the district. It is as if the pain and distress felt by landowners deprived of their land and homes without fair recompense is best left unmentioned. Consequently, Fred’s vision and innovation in building Yarralumla into a model station have been largely ignored, even though his land extended across what are now many of Canberra’s southern to north-western suburbs, on which ran a Merino wool clip that was regarded as one of the most valuable in the country. Forests had been efficiently cleared into prime grazing paddocks; marshy country shrewdly drained; so effective were his fences the entire property was as good as rabbit proof. Fred never fell into the trap of trying to replicate the lush grasses of England. Instead, he retained the native grasses, and the Yarralumla paddocks remained brown and productive for much of the year.
In the 1960s, Sandy Newman was a director of Cooinbil Limited, the company formed by Fred to manage his second major pastoral enterprise. ‘During those years, I had full access to all the company records,’ he explained to me, ‘and I discovered that many of the “tried and true” practices still in use had been initiated by Fred.’
Sandy believed Fred’s life was driven by two things: to overcome his speech disability and to demonstrate to his father and his peers that he had the ability and the pioneering spirit to develop and improve his pastoral business as well or better than they could have. That he did so is a source of enormous family pride.
BACK IN OCTOBER 1913, at Ryan’s Hotel in Queanbeyan, Fred found himself surrounded by family and friends for his ‘farewell’ from the district. The event was reported in extraordinary detail by the Queanbeyan Age, and it reveals much of the great man’s character, with humour and humility shining through. Crucially for me in my search for the father of rugby, it also offers unqualified confirmation of Fred Campbell’s place in the history of rugby football.
The Queanbeyan Age’s correspondent at one point writes this way of Fred’s speech …
Leaving his old home at Yarralumla had been a terrible wrench, for he had never expected to have to part from it (here the speaker became visibly affected). Had he seen what was coming, he would have endeavoured to induce the Commonwealth Government to fix their choice on Dalgety — or for the matter of that, Mount Kosciusko (laughter) — rather than Canberra …
Dalgety is in Man From Snowy River country, well south of Queanbeyan. The story continues …
There were two little matters he took particular pride in. The first was that he started rugby football in New South Wales at the University of Sydney. Football was a manly game and one he thoroughly enjoyed. It taught a person to govern his temper and play the game of life cleanly and honestly, and to otherwise behave as a true man always should ...
The second ‘little matter’ was that with a bloke named John Gale, Fred was responsible for introducing trout into New South Wales. The trick here was that he and Gale brought 300 yearling trout all the way from Ballarat in Victoria, and despite it being a ‘bitterly cold and tedious job’ they lost only three fish along the way. He described this as a ‘successful national enterprise’, and was clearly chuffed, 30 years on, that they’d had the smarts and the determination to pull off the venture.
WORK HAD BEEN COMPLETED on a new homestead at Yarralumla back in 1891, and for the next 22 years this impressive building was the Campbell’s family home. After it was decided that Canberra would become the federal capital of Australia, the first property in the district to be resumed was Duntroon, the home of three generations of Campbells, to become the site of the Royal Military College. The building in which Fred was born became the officers’ mess. The homestead at Yarralumla became ‘Government House’, the official residence of the Governor-General.
While there have been numerous additions and renovations to the Yarralumla homestead, it is still in essence the house that Fred built. Every night, if they choose, His Excellency General Sir Peter Cosgrove and his wife can acknowledge the Campbell family crest that remains on the gables. And if, on a misty moonlit evening, they hear a ghostly game of footy being played out on the lawns, they need not be alarmed.
It’ll just be Fred Campbell and his university mates George Deas Thomson and Richard Teece, a few Wallaroos, maybe Captain Ward and ‘Seppi’ Stephen, and some of the lads from old Yarralumla, playing the game cleanly and honestly, behaving as true men always should.