Leo Diegel’s sensitive soul and hyperactive mind wouldn’t rest as he pondered the complexity of the game. Known as one of the great shotmakers, Diegel between 1920 and 1934 won 30 PGA TOUR events, including two PGA Championships. His hunger to understand the mysteries of the game and his amiable nature made him one of the most popular players of his time.
“In all my years of golf, I have never seen anyone whose devotion to the game could match Leo’s,” wrote Gene Sarazen. “It was his religion. Between courses at the table, Leo used to get up and practice swings. Every night he went to bed dreaming theory and every morning he awakened with some hot idea that was going to revolutionize the game.”
On the other hand, Diegel’s many friends wondered if he cared too much. His passion combined with a nervous temperament often conspired against him at the biggest moments. His history in the major championships betrays a pattern of superb play undermined by shaky finishes.
"They keep trying to give me a championship, but I won't take it.”
Diegel placed in the top four in seven U.S. and British Opens, but could never win one. At the 1925 Open in Worcester, Diegel lost nine strokes to par over the last six holes to finish five strokes back. At the 1933 British Open at St. Andrews, Diegel needed only one over par on the last five holes for outright victory, but instead three-putted the 18th to miss a playoff by one.
“They keep trying to give me a championship, but I won’t take it,” Diegel once said wistfully. Aware of his weaknesses, Diegel would walk slower to fight his tendency to rush and even had himself psychoanalyzed. The biggest compensation Diegel made was his putting stance. Exasperated with missing short putts, Diegel in 1924 devised a stiff -wristed, bent over, elbows-out style that was so distinctive it became known as “Diegeling.”
The odd angles of Diegel’s posture provided an unending source of good-natured ribbing all his life, and even after: “How they gonna fit him in the box,” deadpanned Walter Hagen at Diegel’s funeral.
Along with the affection he engendered, Diegel was respected for his uncannily accurate iron play and his ferociousness in match play. It was Diegel, in winning the 1928 PGA Championship, who ended Hagen’s amazing streak of 22 straight match play wins (and four straight titles) by defeating him in the semifinals. He did the same thing on his way to repeating in 1929. In four Ryder Cups, including the first in 1927, Diegel lost only one match. At the 1929 event, he defeated Abe Mitchell, 9 and 8, while playing 28 holes in 10 under par.
Leo Diegel won back-to-back PGA Championships in 1928-29.
Diegel’s greatest weapon was an amazingly precise iron game that was the envy of his peers. “Diegel could put his second shots closer than any other golfer of his day,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind. Bernard Darwin once called Diegel, “in a way, the greatest golfing genius I have ever seen.”
Born in Detroit in 1899, Diegel was a boy wonder who won the city caddie crown at age 13 and turned pro the same year the PGA was formed, 1916. His greatest year was 1925, when he won five events, including his second of four Canadian Opens. After a 1938 auto accident ended his competitive career, Diegel became a club pro who became a favorite of Hollywood stars such as Douglas Fairbanks.
He dedicated his instructional book, The Nine Bad Shots of Golf, “to the vast army of struggling golfers whose swings need help.” He was one of the founders of the Tucson Open, and while a club pro in Philadelphia, he worked with the U.S. Army promoting golf as a psychological and therapeutic aid for wounded servicemen returning from World War II. Diegel died of cancer in 1951.