Leo Diegel: Golfer Had Weird Putting Style, Lots of Wins

golfer Leo Diegel pictured in 1932

In terms of tournament wins, Leo Diegel is one of the Top 20 golfers in PGA Tour history. He won two major championships in the 1920s. And he was regarded in his own time as one of the greatest iron players ever. Today, he is little-remembered. But his name still comes up when a current golfer adopts a strange putting method. Because Diegel's greatest fame came from "Diegeling," the eponymous name given to his putting stance, which one observer compared to "a car with both doors open."

Full name: Leo Harvey Diegel

Date of birth: April 20, 1899

Place of birth: Gratiot Township, Wayne County, Michigan

Date and place of death: May 5, 1951, in North Hollywood, California

Nickname: Eagle Diegel

Diegel's Biggest Wins

Leo Diegel won 28 tournaments that today are counted as official PGA Tour victories. Diegel is tied for 20th-most wins ever on the PGA Tour. His biggest wins were these eight:
  • PGA Championship: 1928, 1929
  • Canadian Open: 1924, 1925, 1928, 1929
  • San Diego Open: 1927, 1929
The full list of his wins appears at the bottom of this article.

His Two Major Championship Wins and Other Major Highlights

Leo Diegel had an excellent record in the four professional majors: He played in 35 of them, made the cut in 34 of those, and finished in the Top 25 in 32 of them. Sixteen of those finishes were in the Top 10. He had 11 Top 5 finishes in majors, four third-place showings and three runners-up.

And two victories: Diegel won the 1928 PGA Championship and the 1929 PGA Championship.

It was the 1928 PGA Championship that was particularly noteworthy. Walter Hagen had won the previous four PGA Championships, winning 22 consecutive matches in the tournament. Diegel ended both those streaks in the quarterfinals, beating Hagen by a 2-and-1 score. Diegel then thrashed Gene Sarazen, 9 and 8, in the semifinals, before beating Al Espinosa, 6 and 5, in the championship match.

Diegel's win over Hagen in the quarterfinals was particularly sweet for Diegel because Hagen had bedeviled him for several years. In the quarterfinals of the 1925 PGA Championship, Diegel and Hagen were all square after 36 holes of their quarterfinal, before Hagen finally won the match on the 40th hole. At the 1926 PGA Championship, Diegel reached the championship match, only to lose to Hagen, 5 and 3.

In the 1929 PGA Championship, Diegel once again pulled off consecutive wins over Hagen and Sarazen. This time, though, he beat Sarazen in the quarterfinals and Hagen in the semifinals, both by 3-and-2 scores. In the championship match, Diegel was 1-down to Johnny Farrell after the morning 18, but rallied in the afternoon. He frustrated Farrell with a couple stymies, too, and on the 27th and 28th holes, Farrell, trying to get his ball around or over Diegel's, instead knocked Diegel's into the hole. Diegel wound up hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy a second consecutive time with a 6-and-4 win.

Before his two victories, Diegel's reputation in the majors was coming close without closing the deal. And that started in his very first attempt.

Diegel's first appearance in any of the majors was at the 1920 U.S. Open, and that is where he first gained notice on the national golf scene. He tied for second place, one stroke behind the winner, Ted Ray.

In addition to the 1920 U.S. Open and 1926 PGA, the third of Diegel's three runner-up finishes in majors was at the 1930 British Open. He tied for second, two strokes behind Bobby Jones in Jones' Grand Slam season.

Another near-miss was in the 1933 British Open, which was also Diegel's last Top 10 in a major. Diegel whiffed a putt — he completely missed the golf ball — on the 72nd hole; had he made the putt, he would have joined Denny Shute (the eventual winner) and Craig Wood in a 36-hole playoff.

Diegel was solo third in the 1929 British Open after being the 36-hole leader; and was solo third in the 1931 U.S. Open. He tied for third in the 1926 U.S. Open. In addition, Diegel was fourth in the 1932 U.S. Open, seventh in the 1922 U.S. Open, and eighth in the U.S. Opens of 1923, 1925 and 1929. (In 1925, he played the final five holes in 9-over par and finished five behind the winner.) He played in the first two Masters in 1934 and 1935, recording Top 20s both times. Diegel's final appearance in a major was at the 1939 PGA Championship, where he went out in the Round of 32.

Diegel's Weird, But Famous, Putting Technique

Leo Diegel's odd putting stance was so well-known that when he died in 1951, the New York Times obituary mentioned it in the article's very first sentence. Diegel, the Times wrote, was "best-known for his arms-akimbo putting stance."

That stance even had its own name. It was called "Diegeling." Amateur and recreational golfers who gave the method a try — and many did in the beginning — were called "Diegelists." A golfer who sank a putt using the method was said to have "diegeled it."

Diegel started using the unusual putting technique in 1924. What did it look like? Here are a few ways others described it over the years:

  • "He had a wide stance with stiff wrists, and with his elbows bent out wide, away from his body."
  • "He spread his legs wide and pointed out both elbows parallel with his chest, while his chin was near to touching the top of his putter shaft."
  • "The elbows bent so much that the forearms were almost horizontally opposed."
  • "(A) spread-eagle putting stance in which he bent over with his chin almost touching the handle of the putter and stuck his elbows out in a fashion that looked like a car with both doors open."
  • "A stiff-wristed, bent over, elbows-out style."
To us, his head, shoulders, arms and elbows made him look like a coat hanger. Diegel bent over from the waist so that his back was almost parallel to the ground. He gripped the putter with his left hand high, right hand low, with both arms thrust out with elbows pointed forward (left) and back (right). His elbows were essentially pointing up and down the line. Then he rocked his shoulders by dipping the back shoulder to start the stroke, raising the front shoulder on the follow-through.

If that sounds like a pendulum stroke, well, that is a term that was used to describe "Diegeling." It was one of the first common uses of that term in golf. Virtually all putting at the time, and most of it for decades to come, used a very wristy, handsy, poppy stroke of the golf ball.

Diegel used this method for the rest of his competitive career, and it greatly helped him in the beginning. But it was too weird a method to catch on. However, the term "Diegeling" is still sometimes used today as a reference point when another golfer tries a very bent-over, or very arms-akimbo, putting method.

The video clip above includes several instances of Leo "Diegeling."

More About Leo Diegel

During the latter stages of his tournament career, and for several decades after, Leo Diegel was regarded as one of the greatest tee-to-green golfers the game has ever seen. The famous golf writer Bernard Darwin, in 1930, wrote that Diegel was, "in a way, the greatest golfing genius I have ever seen."

That "in a way," though, gives away that in other ways Diegel came up short relative to his peers Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, and his contemporary Bobby Jones. There were his putting problems that led to "Diegeling," plus his temperament issues.

As the New York Times put it in its 1951 obituary of Diegel, he suffered an "inability to control his nerves. He was a 'fixationist,' always expecting bad luck and frequently meeting it." The World Golf Hall of Fame refers to Diegel's "sensitive soul and hyperactive mind."

Still, the regard in which the rest of Diegel's game was held was tremendous. As late as the 1970 edition of Golf Magazine's Encyclopedia of Golf (affiliate link), its editors described Diegel as "(o)ne of the greatest, and at the same time most tragic, figures in the history of golf. It has been said that in his inspired moments Diegel was the equal of any player who ever lived."

But despite his many achievements, including 28 PGA Tour wins and two PGA Championships, plus a record four Canadian Open wins, much more was expected of a man of Diegel's talents, the Golf Magazine editors wrote in that 1970 book. They explained:

"... He was eighth or better 11 times in the British and U.S. Opens and was fourth or better on seven of those occasions. Eight times he was in position to win right down to the closing holes. His temperament was his undoing, and none of the many remedies he tried had any lasting effect. By nature he was an impatient player and a worrier. He would bound forward after each shot, unable to walk down the fairway at a normal gait. Often, while waiting for another player to drive, Diegel would jump into the air or climb on a tee box in order to see from what lie he would be playing his next shot."
But here's the key takeaway: You have to be a very great talent to accomplish all that Diegel did and still have golf observers, decades later, lamenting that you didn't achieve even more.

In the more than 100-year history of the PGA Tour, fewer than 20 golfers have won more official tournaments than Leo Diegel. No golfer won more Canadian Opens than Diegel's four. And no golfer had beaten Walter Hagen in the PGA Championship in more than four years until Diegel did it in both 1928 and 1929, winning the championship both years. It still took until the year 2003 before Diegel was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Diegel grew up in the Detroit, Michigan, area, and was something of a childhood phenom. He won the Detroit Caddie Championship when he was 13. He turned pro at age 17 in 1916.

And he almost immediately won, claiming his first professional title at the 1916 Michigan Open. He won that crown again in 1919. That same year Diegel was runner-up to Jim Barnes in one of the biggest tournaments of the time, the Western Open. (He finished second in the Western Open again in both 1923 and 1925. He was sometimes called "Third Round Diegel" because he was in contention so often.)

His first win that today is counted by the PGA Tour as an official victory was at the 1920 Pinehurst Pro-Am Bestball, where Diegel partnered with Tommy Armour in the team tournament. That same year saw his first close call in a major at the 1920 U.S. Open.

Another early PGA Tour win for Diegel was in the 1922 Shreveport Open. His winning total of 275 was reported as a 72-hole tournament record at the time.

Diegel's first multi-win season was 1923, with three PGA Tour victories, including the Canadian Open. He also won the Canadian Open in 1924, 1928 and 1929. At the 1929 Canadian, he beat runner-up Armour by three. Going for his third consecutive win in 1930, Diegel and Armour finished 72 holes tied before Armour won the 36-hole playoff. (Diegel lost another playoff in 1930 at the Oregon Open to Gene Sarazen.) Diegel is the only four-time winner in Canadian Open history.

Diegel's greatest years were from 1923-30: He won every year, all but one of those years posting multiple victories. He had three wins in 1923 and four each in 1925, 1928 and 1929. In 1928 and 1929, he won both the PGA Championship and Canadian Open back-to-back, plus added wins in big California tournaments at the Long Beach Open and San Diego Open.

The Ryder Cup was first played in 1927, and Diegel was on Team USA in the first four competitions. He had an overall 3-3-0 record, 2-1-0 in singles. In the 1927 Ryder Cup, Diegel beat Ted Ray 7 and 5.

In the 1929 Ryder Cup, Diegel won his singles match over Abe Mitchell by a 9-and-8 score, which is tied for the second-biggest margin of victory in any 36-hole singles match at the Ryder Cup.

Diegel lost his foursomes match and didn't play singles in the 1931 Ryder Cup. At the 1933 Ryder Cup, Diegel lost his final match, in singles, to Arthur Havers, 4 and 3.

Diegel also played on a Team USA squad that traveled to Australia in 1934 for the Lakes International Cup (which was a 9-0 win against Team Australia). But it was during that trip that Diegel's career began winding down. He and his friend and teammate Harry Cooper engaged in a friendly wrestling match one day during the trip. Unfortunately, during the hijinks something went wrong in Diegel's right shoulder — he suffered nerve damage.

Diegel announced in a 1936 newspaper article that due to that injury, he had lost 20-percent of the power in his golf swing and had decided to retire from tournament play (although he still made very occasional appearances afterward). But the article noted that Diegel would retire wealthy from his substantial tournament, exhibition and endorsement earnings, estimated at $375,000, and that he "lived in a beautiful Beverly Hills estate."

After his retirement from tournament golf, Diegel became a respected teacher of the game at golf clubs in Pennsylvania and Arizona, as well as teaching in California (including some Hollywood stars, Douglas Fairbanks being one of his pupils). He helped found the Tucson Open, a tournament that was part of the PGA Tour from 1945-2006.

Diegel co-authored an instructional book named The Nine Bad Shots of Golf (affiliate link), which was published in 1947. He also worked with the United States Army, helping returning World War II soldiers deal with injuries and what we now call PTSD through golf.

In 1947, Diegel was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer. He was only 52 years old when he died in 1951.

Attending Diegel's funeral, his old friend and rival Walter Hagen, recalling Diegel's bent-over, elbows-away putting stance, quipped, "How are they going to fit him into the box?"

In addition to the World Golf Hall of Fame, Diegel is also a member of the PGA of America Hall of Fame (inducted 1955) and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2005).

List of Leo Diegel's Tournament Wins

These are the 28 tournament victories that the PGA Tour recogizes as official tour wins:
  • 1920 Pinehurst Fall Pro-Am Bestball (partnered by Tommy Armour)
  • 1921 Coronado Beach Open
  • 1922 Shreveport Open
  • 1923 District of Columbia Open Championship
  • 1924 Shawnee Open
  • 1924 Canadian Open
  • 1924 Illinois Open
  • 1925 Florida Open
  • 1925 Canadian Open
  • 1925 Middle Atlantic Open
  • 1925 Mid South All Pro
  • 1926 Middle Atlantic Open
  • 1927 Middle Atlantic Open
  • 1927 San Diego Open
  • 1928 Long Beach Open (tie with Bill Mehlhorn, no playoff)
  • 1928 Canadian Open
  • 1928 PGA Championship
  • 1928 Massachusetts Open
  • 1929 San Diego Open
  • 1929 Miami International Four-Ball (partnered by Walter Hagen)
  • 1929 Canadian Open
  • 1929 PGA Championship
  • 1930 Pacific Southwest Pro
  • 1930 Oregon Open
  • 1930 San Francisco National Match Play Open
  • 1933 California Open
  • 1934 Rochester Open
  • 1934 New England PGA
Diegel also had the following non-PGA Tour wins:
  • 1916 Michigan Open
  • 1919 Michigan Open
  • 1922 Louisiana Open
  • 1925 Mid-Southern Amateur-Professional
  • 1926 Maryland Open
  • 1931 California Open
  • 1933 Timber Point Open
  • 1933 Southern California Open

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