Best Golfers from Every State: Michigan Golf and Leo Diegel

April 1929: American golfer Leo Diegel driving from the 18th tee during the Ryder Cup tournament at Leeds. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
April 1929: American golfer Leo Diegel driving from the 18th tee during the Ryder Cup tournament at Leeds. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images) /

Detroit’s Leo Diegel won two PGA championships in the 1920s, establishing himself as the top Michigan golf product.

The golf reputation of Leo Diegel is colored by two things, both of them negative. For years he had a disturbing tendency to come up short in big events, and his putting was so spotty under pressure that he developed a singular hunched-over, stiff-wristed elbows-wide style in the hope of combating the problem.

His fellow pros found so much humor in the putting style that they gave it a name: Diegeling.

They stopped laughing when Diegel used that putting stroke to defeat four-time defending champion Walter Hagen 2 & 1 in the quarter-finals of the 1928 PGA Championship. It broke a string of 22 consecutive match wins for Hagen in the championship dating back to 1923.

That win would cement Leo Diegel as the best Michigan Golf Product.

It also sent Diegel to his first of two major titles, which he won two days later by defeating Al Espinosa 6 & 5. One year later he repeated, this time winning over Johnny Farrell 6 & 4. Again he made Hagen one of his victims on the way to the title. Unlike Illinois best golfer Bill Mehlhorn, Leo Diegel came through in a couple of majors.

Born in Detroit in 1899, Diegel learned the game as a caddie and turned pro in 1916. His first victory came partnered with Tommy Armour at the 1920 Pinehurst Fall Best Ball, and over the next 15 years, he would run his count of titles to 30, highlighted by those pair of PGAs.

Until his PGA championship, though, Diegel was best-known for coming up short at key moments.  In the 1925 U.S. Open at Worcester, he was in a position to win with six holes remaining but gave back five strokes on the next five holes. Then needing a birdie on the final hole to join Willie Macfarlane and Bobby Jones in a playoff, he made eight.

He tied for third at the 1926 U.S. Open, stumbled badly in losing that year’s PGA final to Hagen, blew a 36-hole lead at the 1929 British Open, and at St. Andrews in 1933 closed with a 77 to fall out of a tie for the lead and finish one stroke out of a playoff.  The finish was especially galling, Diegel literally whiffing the short putt on the final green that would have put him into that playoff.

“They keep trying to give me a championship, but I won’t take it,” he lamented afterward.

Diegel’s determination won praise from the game’s best.”In all my years of golf I have never seen anyone whose devotion to the game could match Leo’s,” remarked Gene Sarazen.

Next. Best Golfers from Every State: Maryland Golf and Fred Funk. dark

A 1938 auto accident effectively ended his playing career, but Leo Diegel became a teaching pro, his clientele including such celebrities as Douglass Fairbanks Jr.  He died in 1951, and in 2003 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.