12 Jul 2022 | Professional golf |
The Open: How Kel Nagle foiled Palmer's Grand Slam bid
by PGA of Australia
As the tournament’s 150th staging, the 2022 Open Championship at St Andrews will not only create its own history but will serve as a celebration of all that have come before it.
In 1960, the R&A were marking 100 years since The Open was first played at Prestwick Golf Club and one American superstar helped to coin a phrase that he was already halfway to completing.
Enroute to St Andrews from the Canada Cup in Ireland, it was Arnold Palmer who floated the idea of a ‘Grand Slam’ for golf with sportswriter Bob Drum. It was to consist of the Masters, US Open, Open Championship and US PGA Championship in a calendar year, Palmer arriving at The Open for the first time having won both the Masters and US Open in the months prior.
Palmer thrilled the heaving galleries that flooded the Old Course yet by week’s end an unlikely anti-hero emerged to quash his Grand Slam aspirations.
In the recently released Aussies At The Open, Tony Webeck and Steve Keipert recount Kel Nagle’s unexpected triumph at the Centenary Open at St Andrews. “The putt that won the 1960 Open Championship at St Andrews was indicative of the man himself.
Coming to the 18th hole in Saturday’s final round needing a par to edge American gallery-magnet Arnold Palmer, Kel Nagle played a brilliant approach shot to just outside three feet, missed the putt for birdie before stepping in and nonchalantly tapping in for par… and golf immortality.
"I just turned around and whacked it in. It went in pretty hard," Nagle told Rohan Clarke in an interview for Australian Golf Digest in 2005.
"I saw the replay later on the TV and I could hear Henry Longhurst, the famous old writer, in the background saying, 'Oh, be careful, be careful.' But I just turned around and knocked it straight in.
"I didn’t line it up or anything. I didn’t feel like I could miss it. [Laughs.] I probably should have taken a bit more time."
Make no mistake, Kel Nagle was not meant to win the Centenary Open at the famed Old Course.
At 39 years of age the former member of the Australian Imperial Force anti-tank regiment had only played in three major championships prior, showing a fondness for British links with top-20 finishes in both 1951 and 1955.
He was better known outside Australia as Peter Thomson’s great mate and partner in Canada Cup wins in 1954 and 1959. He was the loyal sidekick who shunned the spotlight, renowned more for his kind and generous nature than for standing up to the giants of world golf on the game’s grandest stages.
At the start of the week Nagle was considered only a 33/1 outsider by bookmakers – relatively short odds when you consider his prior record – and had given so little thought to his own prospects that he didn’t bring the customary jacket required for the presentation ceremony to the course on the final day.
"I was staying at Forgans just across from the 18th, there’s a little white building there. With all the people there, I didn’t have my jacket," Nagle recalled.
"Pete (Thomson) was first on the green to congratulate me. I borrowed his coat to pick up the trophy."
Nagle’s journey to the 1960 Open at St Andrews began eight months earlier and almost 17,000 kilometres away at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
It was on November 21, 1959 that Nagle and Thomson won the Canada Cup for the second time, on this occasion beating the American team of Cary Middlecoff and Sam Snead by 10 strokes.
With the 1960 edition scheduled for Portmarnock in Ireland two weeks prior to The Open Championship at St Andrews, Thomson and Nagle plotted the path to their title defence.
Thomson and Nagle finished 12 shots back of the American team of Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer in their Canada Cup defence in Ireland but it provided the first sign – to Thomson at least – that an unlikely contender had emerged.
"These were his exact words. He said, “God, you’re playing well. I think you can win The Open,”’ said Nagle 45 years later. ‘I said, “Oh, I’m 100-1.”
‘And he said, “I know the course pretty well. We’ll practice for two or three days.” And that’s just how it worked out.
"He was playing in the tournament but apparently he had a bit of confidence that I could win."
Palmer’s mere presence electrified a championship that had lost some of its lustre in the years prior. Palmer would win the two subsequent Opens in 1961 and 1962 yet his near miss at St Andrews would remain a source of disappointment within one of golf’s great careers.
In a tribute video to Nagle in 2010 to mark 50 years since their wonderful parry and thrust, Palmer kind-heartedly said that the Aussie had “kind of spoiled my day that day” but reiterated that it had served to strengthen their friendship.
In a blog post for the St Andrews Links Trust in 2016, Palmer again spoke of the pain of coming so close to not only holding a special place in Open folklore but in the annals of golf history.
"I certainly was very disappointed at the end of an exciting week when I came up one stroke short of the winner, Kel Nagle," Palmer wrote.
"There went my chance to win such a prestigious title on such a historic course in my first shot at it, but also what proved to be my only real chance to win my self-created Grand Slam.
"Another disappointment lingers that even though I won the Open Championship the next two years at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon, I never won on the Old Course."
The emotions could not have been more different for Nagle.
Sporting Thomson’s tweed coat and greeting well-wishers with his left hand due to the pain he continued to experience in his right, Nagle’s presentation speech again deferred to his countryman and to the significance of the championship.
"This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me," Nagle said.
"I want to thank Peter Thomson for his coaching. He has won this event four times while this is probably my first and last'." Aussies At The Open by Tony Webeck and Steve Keipert is available now. To order your copy visit australiangolfdigest.com.au/aussiesattheopen.
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