Nagle, 89, remains part of St. Andrews lore

Kel Nagle in 1961 at Royal Birkdale. But the Australian's luck came in 1960 at St. Andrews when he beat Arnold Palmer by a stroke to win the Open Championship.
Kel Nagle in 1961 at Royal Birkdale. But the Australian's luck came in 1960 at St. Andrews when he beat Arnold Palmer by a stroke to win the Open Championship.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman have generated a lot of headlines for not being at St. Andrews this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the game’s oldest tournament. Gone unnoticed is the absence of the oldest-living Open champion.

While the world’s elite are preparing to play in a championship that began as an eight-man tournament 150 years ago at Prestwick, 89-year-old Kel Nagle will be sitting at home in Sydney, Australia, watching the 139th Open unfold on television.

Norman and fellow Australian Peter Thomson may be synonymous with the Open Championship considering their success – Thomson is a five-time winner, while Norman triumphed twice – but Nagle’s place in Open lore is secure. He’s the man who denied Arnold Palmer from winning at St. Andrews in 1960.

Palmer’s participation in the centennial Open is well documented. He’s the man responsible for restoring the Open to its proper place on the golfing firmament.

Palmer’s appearance in that tournament ensured that the top Americans started to look at the championship in a new light. Soon they were following Palmer’s lead and traveling on an annual basis. Thankfully, they’re still traveling to what they call “The British.”

Palmer turned up at St. Andrews that year after winning the Masters and U.S. Open. He had his eye firmly on the third leg of the grand slam. Nagle denied him by finishing a stroke ahead of him.

Palmer did realize his dream of winning the Open Championship, taking the title the next two years. But he never completed the grand slam or even the career slam. – the King never won the PGA Championship.

Nagle was a 100-1 shot at St. Andrews. The Australian was making his third appearance in the Open, following 19th-place finishes in 1951 and 1955. Although he would go on to win more than 60 times around the world, including the French, Swiss and Canadian Opens, no one was expecting him to get the better of Palmer.

However, he arrived at the Home of Golf with renewed confidence and a new set of sticks.

Earlier that year, Thomson loaned Nagle a set of Spalding clubs. Nagle used them well by shooting 65 in the Colonial National Invitation in Texas. Better still, Nagle had played in the company of Ben Hogan, winner of the 1953 Open Championship.

When Nagle tried to give the clubs back to Thomson, the then four-time Open winner refused to take them back. He also gave his friend some encouragement.

“You’re playing great, you’re driving it straight, and you’re putting so well. I think you can win The Open,” said Thomson, who went on to win his fifth Open in 1965.

Nagle spent practice rounds in the company of Thomson, not only borrowing his clubs but stealing as much knowledge from the links specialist as he could.

It wasn’t the only thing Nagle borrowed from Thomson that year. He also took a loan of Thomson’s jacket to wear to the prize giving.

Nagle turns 90 later this year. He still cherishes the replica Claret Jug that sits in his Sydney home, while the putter he used to win 50 years ago resides in the British Golf Museum behind the R&A clubhouse.

Considering how special this Open is, it’s a shame Nagle can’t be here.