By Ron Driscoll
Museum Moment: Leo Diegel and His Magic Wand Putter
Apr 28, 2011
Leave it to Bob Jones to sum up the career of Leo Diegel, who was described in The Complete Encyclopedia of Golf as “the Greg Norman of his day.”
Jones competed in the 1920 U.S. Open at Inverness Club at age 18. He finished in a tie for eighth place, but what struck him was the way the championship played out. He later said, “That tremendous finish at Inverness hypnotized me. Think of it: five players having a chance to win, right up to the 72nd green. I concluded right there that the [U.S.] Open Championship was the thing. … I watched Leo Diegel play the last three holes, and I remember wondering why his face was so gray and sort of fallen in. I found out for myself, later.”
Jones went on to master that major-championship pressure as well as anyone who played the game, but Diegel’s reaction to it often proved his undoing, earning him the dubious nickname “Third-Round Diegel.” In that 1920 U.S. Open, Diegel lost four strokes to par down the stretch in a final-round 77 that left him in a four-way tie for second place, one stroke behind Ted Ray. In 1930, when Jones captured the British Open at Hoylake, the second victory in his march to the Grand Slam, Diegel was tied with Jones through 13 holes of the final round, only to slip back and finish runner-up by two strokes with Macdonald Smith.
Diegel would go on to finish among the top four in a total of seven U.S. and British Opens, yet he failed to capture any of them. His most painful defeat may have been in the 1933 British Open at St. Andrews, when he missed a tap-in putt on the final green that would have put him in a three-man playoff.
“They keep trying to give me a championship,” Diegel once said, “but I won’t take it.” Aware of his tendency to rush at critical times, the amiable Diegel tried to slow his walk and his routine, and he also tried psychoanalysis, an unusual approach for the time.
Many observers wondered if Diegel simply cared too much. “In all my years of golf, I have never seen anyone whose devotion to the game could match Leo’s,” said Gene Sarazen.
That single-mindedness enabled Diegel to win 30 PGA Tour titles over his career, and his iron play was widely considered to be unrivaled. “Diegel could put his second shots closer than any other golfer of his day,” according to renowned golf observer Herbert Warren Wind, in Diegel’s profile at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
For the longest time, those skills abandoned Diegel at critical junctures in majors. Walter Hagen in particular proved to be his nemesis. Hagen roared back from a large deficit in the quarterfinal round of the 1925 PGA Championship to defeat Diegel on the 40th hole.
In the 1929 British Open at Muirfield, Hagen trailed Diegel by two strokes going into the 36-hole final day. Hagen spent the night before in typical fashion, carousing into the wee hours. When someone reminded Hagen that Diegel had retired for the night hours earlier, “The Haig” asked the band to play something loud and, looking up toward the bedrooms, replied, “Yeah, but he ain’t sleepin’.”
The next day, Hagen won his fourth British Open by six strokes; Diegel shot 82 in the third round and went on to finish third.
Diegel gained his revenge on Hagen and broke through in a major way by securing back-to-back victories in the 1928 and 1929 PGA Championships. In 1928, he eliminated Hagen in the quarterfinal round, 2 and 1, before thumping Sarazen, 9 and 8, in the semifinals and Al Espinosa, 6 and 5, in the final match.
The following year, Diegel again ousted Sarazen (in the quarterfinals) and Hagen (in the semifinals), before defeating Johnny Farrell in the final. His twin victories over Hagen had to be sweet, especially since Hagen had won the four previous PGA Championships, building a 22-match victory streak in the process.
How did Diegel do it? He apparently conquered the putting “yips” with a highly unusual crouched stance, his elbows splayed out so that they were parallel with the ground. The result was a decidedly “shoulders-and-arms” stroke. As Diegel described it, “There are fewer nerve centers in the elbows than the wrists, so there’s less chance of me stabbing a putt under pressure.”
Having taken to this putting posture in 1924, Diegel went on to win five events in 1925, including the second of his four Canadian Open titles, presaging his major breakthrough three years later. His stiff-wristed, elbows-out routine became known as “Diegeling,” though it did not appear to catch on widely among the golf public.
Diegel was injured in an auto accident in 1938, bringing an end to his competitive career, but he went on to become a highly successful instructor. A native of Detroit, he returned to the area and served as the pro at Detroit and Lockmoor country clubs, giving upwards of 600 lessons annually. He also worked for several years as the private instructor to movie moguls Adolph Zukor and Joseph Schenck, actor Douglas Fairbanks and publishing heir E.B. McLean.
While a club professional at Philmont (Pa.) Country Club outside Philadelphia, Diegel worked with the U.S. Army to promote golf as a healing activity for wounded soldiers returning from World War II. Diegel was also one of the founders of the PGA Tour’s Tucson Open, and his Magic Wand putter was donated by longtime Phoenix Country Club professional Willie Low. It is displayed in the “Depression and World War II” gallery in the USGA Museum. Diegel was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2003. He was born in 1899, and his birthday is April 27.
Diegel died of cancer at age 52 in 1951 in North Hollywood, Calif., and at his funeral, his longtime friendly rival Hagen had the last word. Tweaking Diegel’s unorthodox putting style, Hagen wondered, “How they gonna fit him in the box?”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for USGA Communications. Email questions or comments to email@example.com.
How did Diegel do it? He apparently conquered the putting “yips” with a highly unusual crouched stance, his elbows splayed out so that they were parallel with the ground. (USGA Museum)
Diegel's Magic Wand putter is displayed in the “Depression and World War II” gallery in the USGA Museum. (USGA Museum)