Tom Moore, Kel Nagle & Peter Thomson
One of golf’s more modest souls, Kel Nagle would be first to claim he was never as good a player as his close friend and multiple Canada and World Cup partner, Peter Thomson. And he certainly couldn’t match the prolific winning records of Gary Player (seven times champion) and Jack Nicklaus (six) in the Australian Open. But when it comes to sheer consistency and bloody-minded persistence, the soon-to-be 92-year old’s record in his national championship is hard to beat.
Think about this. Between 1948 – when he finished T-7 behind Ossie Pickworth – and 1976 (T-8, 11 shots behind Nicklaus), Nagle totted up as many as 20 top-ten finishes. His lone victory came at The Australian in 1959, when he brought to an end years of frustration with a five-shot victory.
“I was beginning to think I would never win the Open,” he said at the time. “I was determined not to crack up this time.”
The memory of that occasion still brings a smile to golf’s oldest-living major champion. As he says himself, “I loved the competition, but I must admit I liked to win too.”
Which is not to say Nagle struggled in that department. Today, long after his retirement, his 61 Australasian Tour wins remains the all-time record. His longevity is something to behold, too. Every year between 1949 and 1975 he won a tournament somewhere in the world. And at age 50 he was still proficient enough to finish T-11 at the 1971 Open Championship.
Still, for all that, the Australian Open made him wait. Both before and after tasting victory – one he celebrated with his customary cup of tea - he was runner-up on three occasions.
“I certainly had a few near things over the years,” he says with his customary smile. “I should have won at Royal Sydney in 1956, but I made a mess of the final few holes just as Bruce Crampton was making birdies at the last two. I shot 76 on that last day when 73 would have won. So that was obviously disappointing.
“In fact, I felt like I should have won the year before that too. The rain on the first day made the course all but unplayable; there was water everywhere and it should have been called off. I led after three rounds, but, in the end, I lost by one shot to Bobby Locke. When things like that happen, you do begin to wonder if your time will ever come.”
When he did win, however, the long wait was the last thing on his mind.
“The first thing I felt was relief,” he says. “I would have hated to have gone my whole career without winning my own national Open. After my Open Championship win at St. Andrews in 1960, that was the biggest thrill of my career. Although I did pick up a few other national titles along the way – Canada, France, Switzerland and New Zealand seven times – there is something special about winning your own national title in front of your own people.
Nowadays, restricted by circulatory problems in his legs and feet, Nagle – who last played golf as long ago as 1992 – is content to view the game on television from his Sydney home. And he remains enthusiastic about the future of the game that has been his life.
“I love to watch the young lads play,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Rory McIlroy. And I love the way Louis Oosthuizen swings the club. But I’ll be cheering for a home victory over the next few days. I like more than anything to see the Aussies do well, especially in our Open. It’s still a great event, one that deserves a great champion.”
A bit like Kel Nagle then.