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A Tribute to 3 Australian Golfing Greats

Wed 10th Mar 2021

Peter Thomson at Royal Birkdale in 1965. Golf. Picture: United Press
Peter Thomson at Royal Birkdale in 1965. Golf. Picture: United Press

From its conception in 17th Century Scotland, golf has risen to become one of the world's favourite sports. Highly skilled and revered players exhibit great wits, adaptability and patience on the varied terrains of courses around the world. Many legendary Australian players have been amongst the professionals. It is important to remember them and the impact they had on the sport, paving the way for future generations of Australian golfing legends.

1. Peter Thomson AO, CBE - 1929 - 2018

Five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson. Picture: Don Morley/Getty Images
Five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson. Picture: Don Morley/Getty Images

Peter '5 Times' Thomson was the first ever Australian to win the British Open. To top that, he won it 5 times between 1954 and 1965, being the only golfer in modern times to win three consecutive years. Over his career, he won 26 times in Europe, 19 times in Australia and New Zealand and 11 times in Asia and Japan. He became known as one of the greatest link players of all time.

Born in Melbourne, Thomson started his golfing career in his early teens during the war years at the 9-hole Royal Park course. Golf teachers during the war years were far and few between, so he taught himself to play on the hard and bouncy course that gave him his trademark skills. By age 16, he was a member of the Victoria Golf Club and in 1945, he studied to be an industrial chemist, taking a job at Spalding as a rubber technologist designing golf balls. However, he left the job in 1949 to become a professional golfer.

His professional career quickly took off in his early twenties. In 1948, he won the Victorian Amateur and then in 1950, he won the New Zealand Open, his first professional event, winning again the next year. By 22, he entered The Open Championship (1951), finishing in 6th place. Over the next two years, he returned to reach 2nd place but by 1954 he was holding the Claret Jug, winning by one point against South African Bobby Locke. He went on to win The Open three consecutive times. He returned in 1958 to win a fourth time and earned his final and most important victory of The Open in 1965, playing and fending off all of the world's greats.

Dunlop Masters Golf Tournament at Sandwich, UK, in 1954.
Dunlop Masters Golf Tournament at Sandwich, UK, in 1954.

Along with these incredible achievements on the world stage, Thomson made huge contributions to the game - inspiring all corners of the world with a passion for golf. Thomson shared golf with the world, competing in Asia, India and China during his peak playing years as well as winning national championships in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, India, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Italy, Spain and Germany. He competed in exhibition matches across the world to earn his living as a professional golfer and inspire a global love of golf.

Thomson continued to be a big name in the sport even beyond his professional golfing career. He regularly commentated on tournaments and up until his retirement, he designed over 180 golf courses in 30 countries, pioneering golf architecture in Australia and Japan. His achievements include receiving ABC Sportsman of the Year, becoming a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, being awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia and becoming an immortal of the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) of Australia. He is rightly considered one of the grandfathers of Australian golf.

After being treated for Parkinson's for four years, Thomson passed away at the age of 88 in Melbourne, surrounded by family.

2. Kel Nagle AM - 1920 to 2015

Among the many tournament victories Kel Nagle enjoyed were the four North Coast Opens he won at Coffs Harbour Golf Club in the 1950s.
Among the many tournament victories Kel Nagle enjoyed were the four North Coast Opens he won at Coffs Harbour Golf Club in the 1950s.

Another grandfather of Australian golf, Kel Nagle was renowned as one of the greatest short game players ever seen in his time as well as a humble ambassador for the game. Over his playing career, he travelled to all corners with Peter Thomson, winning tournaments and inspiring the world. Among his many achievements include seven Australian PGA titles, an Australian Open, seven New Zealand PGAs, seven New Zealand Opens, a French Open, eight Hong Kong Opens, a Swiss Open, two British Seniors titles, two World Seniors titles and the 1960 Open Championship.

Kel was somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to his professional career. Born in Sydney with six siblings, he started playing golf at the age of 16 but the Second World War interrupted his game. He was drafted into the army at 19 years of age, only rediscovering the game after he had returned from service at 25. He reached the height of his game between the age of 39 and 45 and he won a title every year for 26 years. He won his seventh New Zealand PGA Championship at the age of 54.

Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson at launch of PGA's centenary celebrations in Sydney.
Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson at launch of PGA's centenary celebrations in Sydney.

He had a rare aptitude for hard work and like Peter Thomson, was self-taught, never having a mentor or coach but played alongside Peter Thomson and Eric Cremin, learning from his peers. He won over 30 tournaments in Australia and championships in Canada, New Zealand, Europe and Hong Kong. In 1980, he was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the sport and in 2007, he was one of five Australians inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. An award for the best performing rookie at the Australian PGA Championship was created in 2005 after him, named the Kel Nagle Plate.

Retiring from golf in 1977 and after three back operations and tendonitis in his hands, he hadn't played the game since 1992. Despite being unable to play, he continued to love the sport, watching tournaments and senior events. Kel passed away peacefully at Mona Vale hospital at the age of 94.

"Kel was a giant of the game - he had an incredible record with wins at the Open and Australian Open that make him a legend… But much more than that, he was an ambassador for his sport and his country, universally liked and admired by his peers."

- Stephen Pitt, Golf Australia Chief Executive

3. Norman Von Nida OAM - 1914 to 2007

Norman Von Nida taking a shot. Photo: Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales
Norman Von Nida taking a shot. Photo: Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales

Norman Von Nida, another great, arguably paved the way for players like Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle in the international scene, being amongst the top half a dozen players in the world at his peak. Developing the local professional circuit and assisting promising young players, he was known for his fiery temper on the course, making headlines for chastising noisy spectators, journalists who made mistakes and indecisive officials.

The Brisbane-born Von Nida began his professional career at 18 after winning the 1932 Queensland Amateur Championship. He went on to win the Queensland Open in three consecutive years and then the ACT Open. Aiming for the international scene, he flew to Manila and won the Philippines Open, his first international win, taking it again the next year. Before the war, he took out his first New South Wales Open, won another ACT Open, and another Queensland Open, coming runner up to great Jim Ferrier in the Australian Open.

The war did not stop his path to legendary status though. In 1946, not only did he win his first Australian PGA title, but also made a scene in England for winning the News Chronicle and Brand Lochryn Opens and coming in 3rd at the British Open. The following year, he won seven English tournaments and an NSW Open, being the first Australian to win the Vardon trophy. Over his playing years, Von Nida won record numbers of state Opens in Australia, including seven Queensland Opens, six NSW opens and four ACT Opens. He also won the Australian Open three times. Overall, he won over 100 tournaments.

After his playing years, Von Nida shared his passion for the sport through teaching in the US and preparing Italian National golf teams. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to golf. Despite his eye-sight giving way in his later years, his legally blind status couldn't stop him playing the game. He played with clubs and balls covered in iridescent yellow paint and used his hearing to listen to the ball. In 2007, he passed away at the age of 93 on the Gold Coast but his lasting legacy remains. Von Nida made an impact on the sport unlike many before him, encouraging a new frontier of Australian golfers and encouraging players like Thomson to challenge the world's best.

By Sophie Robertson

Sources:

  • https://www.insidegolf.com.au/news/remembering-peter-thomson/
  • https://sahof.org.au/hall-of-fame-member/kel-nagle/
  • https://www.australiangolfdigest.com.au/on-the-day-kel-nagle-would-have-turned-100-we-revisit-our-favourite-interview-with-the-1960-open-champion/
  • https://www.pga.info/news/kel-nagle-passes-away/
  • https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/2848179/golfing-great-kel-nagle-dies/
  • https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jun/20/peter-thomson-australian-golfing-great-dies-aged-88
  • https://sahof.org.au/hall-of-fame-member/norman-von-nida/
  • https://pga.org.au/news/australias-greatest-golfer-norman-von-nida-v-brian-jones/
  • https://www.golfchannel.com/article/associated-press/aussie-great-norman-von-nida-dies-93