UNASSUMING and modest, Kel Nagle easily masks his significant golfing deeds.
“It’s been a nice journey,” is how this quiet, humble man sums up his stellar career, which includes winning the centenary Open Championship at St Andrews.
Still, Kel has an astonishing recall for tournaments he played in more than 50 years ago.
He can take you through all 18 holes, shot-for-shot, of his agonising 1965 US Open playoff loss (71 to 74) to legendary South African Gary Player.
Between 1960 and 1966, Nagle had a remarkable six top-five finishes in the Open Championship, including a runner-up finish to Arnold Palmer in 1962.
Nagle, who won 80 tournaments worldwide, captured the 1959 Australian Open, six Australian PGA Championships, seven New Zealand Opens and seven NZ PGA Championships and won tournaments in Canada, France, Britain, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Sweden and the US.
He played in nine World Cup teams, winning twice with playing partner Peter Thomson and triumphed in seven NSW PGA Championships, three WA Opens, four ACT Opens and two Queensland Opens.
Born in 1920, Kel went through the Great Depression and survived four years as a gun sergeant in Darwin and New Guinea during World War II.
When he was eight, his father purchased a dairy farm at Dorrigo, 550 kilometres north of Sydney.
In his book, Australian Golf, author Jack Pollard wrote: “They (family) travelled in a cart hauled by an aged gelding.
“Kel rode a pony all the way, camping beside the road and sleeping under the stars.”
On the farm, it was Kel’s job to round up and milk the cows before and after school. When he wasn’t milking cows, he and his brothers would set rabbit traps to earn a little extra money.
“The previous tenant had left a few old golf balls, so the Nagle boys fashioned rough golf clubs from she-oaks, paring down the knobby roots to produce a flat surface and tacking pieces of tin to the clubface,” Pollard wrote.
“The natural swing and timing that won him won many championships began with that crude set of clubs.”
When Kel was 15 he had to give up his job at the local sawmill when his father sold the farm.
The family returned to Sydney and Kel started work as an apprentice carpenter. He also foxed golf balls for Pymble Golf Club pro Tom Popplewell and did the odd job around the pro shop until a vacancy for an assistant pro arose, which allowed him to give up carpentry.
He would spend around 16 hours a day at the golf club working, practising and playing.
He enlisted in 1939 and spent the war years out of the game before playing his first tournament at Manly Golf Club at the age of 26.
He went back to Pymble to continue honing his craft and slowly evolved his technique – reduced his natural powerful swing by shortening his backswing with the aim of keeping the ball in play.
Greg Norman’s former coach, Charlie Earp, said Kel had a classic, simple swing – “back and through (the ball), back and through, back and through”.
Kel also spent countless hours perfecting a putting stroke, but success didn’t come until he acquired a Bullseye putter in 1954 while on a trip to the US.
He used that putter for the rest of his career.
Today, Nagle’s putter holds pride of place in the R&A museum at St Andrews.
“He was not very long off the tee, but hit the ball extremely straight and was a wonderful putter,” Gary Player told Inside Golf.
“He used the stroke that most of us used in those days called the “pop” stroke.
“I’m fascinated when I hear golf commentators today say, ‘oh, he hit a bad putt because he jammed it’.
“The best putter that ever lived was South African Bobby Locke and he never followed through at all. Nagle, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Doug Ford and I all gave it the ‘pop’ stroke and were as good a putter as there is today.
“We also played on greens that were lousy compared to today’s manicured greens.”
Arnold Palmer, too, was impressed with Nagle’s putting prowess.
“Kel Nagle was one of the great putters of all time,” Palmer said.
“He was not long off the tee, but he made up for it by being a very accurate player. He hit it straight and was very precise with his game.
“Kel played wonderful golf in the years I knew him – always very competitive and a great guy.”
Norman von Nida, in his book, The Von, recalls seeing Nagle, before he sacrificed distance for accuracy, drive the opening hole (around 350 yards) at Royal Canberra.
“His putting was rock solid throughout his best playing years,” von Nida said.
“Sam Snead once told me Nagle had the best putting action he had seen.”
In his list of top-10 Australian players, the Von ranked Nagle fourth behind Peter Thomson and Greg Norman (equal first) and David Graham.
Peter Thomson can take a lot of credit for Nagle’s Open Championship victory as he happily schooled his fellow-Australian on the nuisances of St Andrews.
In fact, word has it Thomson was convinced his mate would win and backed him at 35/1.
Thommo was on the money as Nagle edged out Arnold Palmer with a birdie at the infamous Road Hole (17th) and parred the last for a one-stroke victory in the 100th staging of the prized tournament.
The historic win was worth £1250 ($1883), a fraction of the $1.4 million Ernie Els banked for winning last year.
At the presentation ceremony, unpretentious Kel had forgotten his jacket and had to borrow one from Peter Thomson.
Kel joined the senior ranks in 1971 and in the same year won the Volvo Seniors Championship, the British Seniors and the World Seniors in 1971 and 1975.
He quit playing competitively in 1977 after an 82 in the third round of the NZ Open.
At 57, Kel succumbed to age, back pain and tendonitis in his hands.
Unaccustomed to shooting in the 80s, Kel once signed for a 105. Playing partner Christy O’Connor had written in Kel’s nine-hole total of 34 in the space reserved for his score on the ninth hole.
The rules dictated that the score had to stand after Kel had signed the card.
Admired by all, Kel’s fellow pros liked playing with him.
“I have never met anyone in my life that didn’t like Kel Nagle,” Gary Player said.
“I enjoyed the many matches that Kel and I played together and have fond memories of the times we have spent both on and off the course.
“Australia can be proud of one of its greatest competitors and best ambassadors ever in Kel Nagle,” Player added.
Australian Bruce Devlin, too, admired Kel and even named his son after him.
Close friend Peter Thomson, in a speech marking Kelvin David George Nagle’s induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame said: “Of all the people I have met in the world of golf, this fellow is the finest.”