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.