15 Jun 2021 | Professional golf | Feature stories |
Open flashback: Nagle's near-miss
by PGA of Australia
By Tony Webeck
When the field gathered for the 65th staging of the US Open at Bellerive Country Club near St Louis, Missouri in 1965, columnists such as Alfred Wright from Sports Illustrated prepared for a parade of new wave of powerful punishers at what at the time was the longest golf course America’s grandest championship had ever seen.
“It was a bad week for the close-your-eyes-and-hit boys,” Wright would later pen.
After 45 consecutive years of American leaderboard superiority, it was a diminutive South African with a will as strong as steel and a gentle giant from Sydney five years removed from his greatest triumph who turned what would be 90 holes of championship golf into a two-horse race.
WHAT CAME BEFORE
Winner of the first of his four US Opens three years earlier at Oakmont Country Club, the accepted consensus was that the 7,191-yard Bellerive Country Club layout would play directly into the hands of “Ohio bomber” and recent Masters champion, Jack Nicklaus.
Requiring only the US Open trophy to complete the career Grand Slam before the age of 30, South African terrier Gary Player was never one to be discounted while Australia’s representation was led by the likes of US residents Bruce Crampton and Bruce Devlin and the 44-year-old Champion Golfer of 1960, Kel Nagle.
Although revered for his record in the Open Championship, Nagle had taken his game to North America with some success, winning the 1964 Canadian Open and finishing tied for 15th at The Masters in the months prior to arriving at Bellerive.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
When Nagle posted 2-under 68 in his opening round to assume the outright lead, golf’s earliest statisticians began thumbing through the record books.
No foreigner had prised the US Open trophy from American hands since England’s Ted Ray in 1920 while at 44 years of age and six months Nagle was on track to become the oldest winner in the championship’s history.
While former US PGA champion Jim Ferrier struggled to an 82 and promptly withdrew citing a bad back, Nagle used nous and shot-making to ride the gusty north-easterly winds to a one-stroke advantage from then amateur and future PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman and Mason Rudolph.
“I’m 44 and don’t expect to get any longer,” Nagle told The Morning Call newspaper.
“If the wind and the weather stay this way, maybe I can stay up there.”
It would be Player who assumed the lead at the halfway point of the tournament with a second straight round of even-par 70, Nagle’s 73 that included three bogeys early in his back nine saw him fall to a share of second, a shot behind Player.
While the expectation was that big hitters such as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer would dominate, Player offered an explanation for the international look at the top of the leaderboard.
“The foreign players learn to hit the ball straighter,” Player said. “In our countries, we have all this rough that you just would not believe, and you have absolutely no chance unless you can hit the ball straight. So we learn to hit it straight first. Then we learn to hit it a little harder.”
Nagle and Player went back and forth in Saturday’s third round, Nagle’s score of 72 adjusted on the 18th hole when it was decided that he should have been granted a free drop in swamp area on the par-4 12th. The Pymble Crusher’s decision to play his original ball – with which he made bogey – and a provisional with which he made par proved to be a prudent one, keeping him within one of Player heading into the final round.
Sunday looked set to be a South African procession and coronation of Player’s career Grand Slam until a dramatic twist in the tail in the final throes of competition.
Three strokes back with three to play, Nagle’s birdie at the par-5 17th – dubbed by Jack Nicklaus earlier in the week as “the toughest par 5 in golf” – and Player’s double-bogey at the 16th sent the crowd of 18,000 into a mix of stunned silence and excitable exasperation.
Player missed a birdie putt at 17 to regain the lead and saw a putt from 30 feet pull up just inches from the cup on the 72nd hole… in the exact same spot Nagle had missed just minutes earlier that would have won him the title.
The resulting tie sent the 1965 US Open into an extra day as the pair faced off in an 18-hole playoff in front of close to 7,000 fans.
Unfortunately for Nagle, the championship turned again towards Player when one of nature’s true gentlemen hit two female spectators as he played the fifth hole of the playoff.
“The fifth hole turned out to be the ball game,” Nagle told The Evening Standard.
“You have no idea how awful I felt after I hit that lady with my tee shot.
“I was never really in it anymore after that.”
Able to cruise home when he opened up a five-stroke lead with only two holes to play, Player would ultimately shoot 71 to Nagle’s 74 and promptly returned his $25,000 prize money to the USGA with instructions to give $5,000 to American Cancer Research and to use $20,000 for the promotion of junior golf.
“The people of the United States have been so wonderful to me that I wanted to do a little something in return.”
The fourth of his nine Major championships, Player was unable to win the US Open again in his career, winning the Open Championship twice more (1968, 1974) the Masters twice more (1974, 1978) and a second US PGA Championship (1972) to round out one of golf’s truly great careers.
A five-time winner on the Australasian circuit in 1965, Nagle would continue to be a dominant force well into his 50s, finishing tied for second at the 1975 Australian PGA Championship at 55 years of age.
He had success on the seniors circuit in the UK and twice won the World Senior Championship, defeating the American Seniors Championship winners Julius Boros 4&3 in 1971 and Charlie Sifford 1 up in 1975. Nagle also took Sam Snead to 41 holes in 1973 before falling to the American legend.
In July 2007 Nagle was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame and in 2019 he was named a PGA Immortal.
Nagle died on January 29, 2015 at 94 years of age.
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