One of golf’s quiet men, Kel Nagle’s greatest triumph took place on the game’s grandest stage. The 1960 Open was the championship’s centenary and the occasion of Arnold Palmer’s momentous pilgrimage to St. Andrews. But once play began, it was the then 39-year-old Nagle who mastered the Old Course best with a game built on accuracy and precision.
In the final stages, Nagle was leading by one and facing a 10-footer for par on the Road Hole when a tremendous roar went up. Palmer had birdied the 18th, and Nagle now had to make his putt to stay ahead. He did, later calling it “the best putt of my life.” After a good drive on the home hole, his 9-iron approach to three feet – “the best shot of my life” – sealed the championship.
"Since I was in bushes all the time, and couldn't control my shots, I decided to shorten my swing," he said. "I started keeping the ball in play and started playing much better."
Nagle’s victory was a shock to many, which was understandable. Despite his veteran status, the only two major championships he had played previously where the 1952 and 1955 Opens. Born in Sydney on Dec. 21, 1920, Nagle had entered the game as a lowly apprentice at age 15 and had his playing aspirations put on hold by a five year stint in the military during World War II. By the time he emerged, he was 25 year old fledgling touring professional with little competitive experience and three young children.
Powerfully built, Nagle began his career as long but wild hitter and a poor putter. But after studying the top American professionals during his first trip to the U.S. in 1951, he decided to transform his game, sacrificing distance for accuracy in the long game as well as shortening his putting stroke to become a wizard of the greens.
“Since I was in bushes all the time, and couldn’t control my shots, I decided to shorten my swing,” he said. “I started keeping the ball in play and started playing much better.” Nagle also made himself a master of getting up and down from within 30 yards of the green, giving him what he believed was “a tournament winning edge over his competitors.”
Encouraged by his close friend and fellow Australian Peter Thomson, Nagle beginning in 1949 would go on to win more than 60 times on the Australasian tours, including the Australian Open, six Australian PGAs, seven New Zealand Opens and seven New Zealand PGAs. He also won 17 times around the world.
Nagle won 61 times on the PGA Tour of Australasia, giving him the most wins all-time on that tour.
Thomson, who called Nagle “Mr. Accuracy, the Ben Hogan of Australia,” and ranked him one of the dozen best players he ever saw, said Nagle had a natural temperament for tournament golf. “There was absolutely no malice in him, or vice of any kind, and he was always in good humour,” said Thomson.
The pair won the Canada Cup (now the World Cup) in 1954, and again before home crowds on the glassy greens of Royal Melbourne in 1959. Of Nagle’s performance, Sam Snead said, “Kel never hit one bad putt. I’ve never seen putting like that in my life.”
It was the onset of a late prime. After his victory at St. Andrews, Nagle won the 1961 French and Swiss Opens, and in 1964, won the Canadian Open, again nipping Palmer. In The Open Championship from 1960 to 1966, he was only out of the top 5 once.
Nagle nearly won a second major championship at the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive, where he tied Gary Player after 72 holes before losing the 18-hole playoff 71-74. But he continued winning against younger men, taking the 1969 New Zealand Open, and at age 54, the New Zealand PGA in 1975. He also won the World Seniors in 1971 and 1975, and thrice won the European Seniors.
Throughout, Nagle was considered one of the game’s great gentlemen. Bruce Devlin name his son after Nagle, and Player once said, “I can honestly say I never met anybody in my life that didn’t really like Kel Nagle.”