Kel Nagle Australian Golfer: Take a survey at the local water hole asking the sports experts to name Australia’s greatest golfer and you will hear the name Greg Norman prominently mentioned, and justifiably, because he is certainly the best to play on the PGA Tour, both in results and earnings.
Earnings is an unfair criterion, however, due to the growth of corporate sponsorship, not only in the United States, but around the world as well. When Jason Day raised the Wanamaker Trophy for his 2015 PGA Championship victory, he claimed a cool $1.8 million USD ($2.44 million AUD) for his four rounds of golf. No wonder he was crying at the end. Those of us with a head for figures (and a handy calculator) know that Jason earned $6,716 USD for each of the 268 strokes he needed to play 72 holes.
To put that figure in perspective, in Greg Norman’s top season on the PGA Tour in terms of earnings, just 20 years ago he had to scrape by on USD $1.65 million, despite winning twice and playing in 16 tournaments. His 20 Tour wins brought him a total of USD $14.5 million, compared to young Mr. Day’s USD $23.7 million for just five victories. The practical amongst us would have to say that right now is a very good time to have prodigious skill at hitting a little white ball, before the value of money in Norman’s heyday considered what it worth as Jason Day’s ascendancy gets underway is even mentioned.
A few of the more erudite greatest all-time Australian golfer survey participants in the boozer might mention the name of Peter Thomson.
His contributions and influence on the game, not only in Australia but also throughout the world, made him truly worthy of legendary status.
One name you are unlikely to hear, however, would be that of our subject, even if the boozer in which you were conducting the survey were a golf clubhouse in north Sydney and was inhabited by avid golf historians. That last may be straying into the realm of hyperbole, but only just.
A free round, of drinks, not golf, would go to anyone who raised the name of Kelvin David George ‘The Purple Clasher’ Nagle.
Since Kel Nagle recently passed away at the very respectable age of 94, we thought it would be a nice time to have a look at and pay a bit of homage to one of the most formidable Australian golfers of all time.
Kel Nagle (21 December 1920 – 29 January 2015) was born in North Sydney, a distinction we make in the event some South Sydney-ers try to claim him as one of theirs, was late to the game of golf, unable to turn professional until the age of 25 in 1946 after he completed a five-and-a-half year military commitment. We are not exactly sure of his role, other than feeling safe to say that anything he may have been teaching to the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre had nothing to do with golf.
It is easy to summarise his PGA Tour career, because he won just two times, but oh, what wins those were. Both of those victories came at the expense of Arnold ‘The King’ Palmer, including the National Championship of Great Britain in 1960 and the Canadian Open of 1964, when Nagle unceremoniously dispatched The King back to Western Pennsylvania sans crown and throne.
Where his accomplishments come into sharper focus, however, was on the Australasian Tour, where he won 61 times, leaving the estimable Mr. Norman in arrears by 30 wins. A complete resume of his victories would be impractical, but here are a few of the more impressive numbers.
He won the New Zealand PGA Championship seven times in the 18-year span from span from 1957 to 1975. The Kiwis on more than one occasion considered blockading Sydney Harbour to keep him away. Add to that six wins of the Australian PGA and we believe that our point about the excessive nature of a chronological listing of Nagle’s victories.
Kel Nagle did partner Peter Thomson on a couple occasions, where the pair would combine to win the World Cup in Montreal in 1954 and again in Melbourne in 1959.
The following year, 1960, would provide his only major tournament win, the 100th edition of The Open Championship, held that year at the Old Course at Saint Andrews, Scotland.
Few Americans could be persuaded to make the trip at that time, expressing the opinion that £1,000 was not adequate prize money to justify the trip. They also objected to the fact that in order to get a proper cup of coffee, it was necessary to cross the Channel into France, a place that has always been inhospitable to Yanks.
Palmer is often credited with making it fashionable for Americans to make the journey, with his anecdotes about all the friendly birds to be found (not certain if he was referring to the sheilas or a score of one under par) there, but he was to return empty handed in 1960. Nagle was something of a surprise winner, to observers that is, being already 39 years of age and having never posted a top-10 finish in a Major. Peter Thomson told Nagle that he had the game and mental stamina to win, although we think his backing Nagle at 35 – 1 may have had a role.
Nagle did have to withstand one of Palmer’s famous charges at the end, when Palmer finished with a 68 to take the lead into the clubhouse. Nagle had to make a 10-footer at the 17th and a par at the last to secure the victory. Palmer did return to win in 1961 and 1962, with Nagle turning in a fifth in ’61 and a second in ’62.
His brush with fame in the U.S. came in the 1965 U.S. Open won by Gary Player at the Bellerive Country Club in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Town and Country. Nagle staged a furious comeback in the final round, when Player stood on the 16th tee with a three-shot lead. Nagle was in the group ahead of Player and when Player inexplicably double-bogeyed the 16th whilst Nagle was birdie-ing the 17th and parring the 18th, Player knew he had to birdie the last for the outright win. His par forced an 18-hole playoff, where he built a five-shot lead after eight holes and held on to win by three.
Kel Nagle would seemingly play forever, winning at least once for a period of 26 years commencing in 1949 and concluding in 1975. He was ranked amongst the top-10 in the world when he turned 50 in 1970. He joined the PGA Senior Tour when he was in his 60s, managing a couple of third-place finishes at an age where most golfers have long moved on to other pursuits.
He was recognised for his efforts for the first time in 1980 when he was made a member of the Order of Australia. In 1986, he entered the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, followed by an Australian Sports Medal in 2001. Beginning in 2005, the Kel Nagle Plate is awarded annually to the best performing rookie in the Australian PGA Championship, and finally, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.
Kel Nagle deserved every one of those accolades and for all of you who mentioned his name in response to our hypothetical survey question: Cheers!