Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, renowned photographer Leonard Kamsler died at his home in Swan Lake, N.Y., at age 85 after a short illness. Kamsler was a pioneer in golf photography, shooting features, instruction and tournaments over five decades for an assortment of publications, including Golf Digest. In January, the PGA of America honored Kamsler by naming him the inaugural recipient of the Lifetime Achievement in Photojournalism award. Upon that announcement, our Peter Morrice put together this post recognizing Kamsler’s work.
Kamsler was to receive the award during the 2020 PGA Championship when it was originally scheduled to be played in May. Last month, Golf Digest photographers Dom Furore, Steven Szurlej and Sports Illustrated photographer Fred Vuich visited Kamsler and presented him the award, along with a tribute video to his career created by PGA of America.
During a round at the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in the mid-1970s, Leonard Kamsler, the renowned golf photographer, was trying to get a shot of the famously irritable tour pro Bruce Crampton. Things weren’t going well. “Crampton hated photographers,” Kamsler recalls, “and he was onto me.” So Kamsler went a few holes ahead and found a tee box with a clean background—the perfect spot. “Problem was, I had to make myself invisible. I spotted one of those cardboard garbage cans, cut a hole in it with my keys, put it over my head and waited. Crampton came through, and I got the picture. It ran in Golf World.”
Just another day in the life of the “Dean of Golf Photographers,” as Kamsler has come to be known. From his first assignment for Golf Magazine in 1959 (shooting a caddie camp) to 40 straight years covering the Masters to sessions with the top players and personalities in the game over the past five decades, Kamsler always got the picture. On Tuesday, the PGA of America announced that Kamsler, 84, will receive its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in Photojournalism.
A native of Raleigh, N.C., Kamsler had two main interests when he graduated from Duke in 1957: magic and photography. He moved to New York City, and two days later got a job with Marilyn Monroe Productions, assisting a well-known photographer named Milton H. Green. “I worked for Milton for about a year, then went into the Army for six months—I was not a great soldier. After that, I started freelancing, and very quickly got that first job for Golf Magazine. Funny how that happened, because I was not a golfer. Forty-five years later, I was still shooting golf, but I never played a single round.”
Kamsler took assignments in other fields as well, working for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice and the Harlem Globetrotters. He even shot for country-music labels and medical journals. But golf was the constant. Known for his innovative techniques, he brought high-speed stroboscopic photography to golf in the 1970s using a Hulcher camera, developed to analyze football plays. Kamsler retooled his Hulcher to shoot 100 frames per second, more than 200 images for a single swing, and the frame-by-frame swing sequence was born.
“Leonard would see a new technology and find a way to apply it to golf,” says Dom Furore, senior photographer for Golf Digest. “And he always shared what he learned, always helped the other guys. Leonard got to the top without sharp elbows.”
Some highlights from Kamsler’s remarkable career, in his words.
Of course, I shot Jack Nicklaus many times over the years, but two stand out. Keep in mind, Jack never liked doing pictures. One time at the 1983 Open at Oakmont, I was after him to get a swing sequence. He finally said OK, and to meet him on the practice tee, which was raised and great for hitting toward the camera. I got out in front of him, and he hit one right at my camera lens. If it missed by six inches, I’d be surprised. I was a little shaken, and by the time I checked my gear and looked up, he was gone. That was it—one ball. He knew we got it.
At another Open, my assignment was to capture how long players were standing over the ball. My editors had figured on average it was six seconds. So the idea was, get one shot when the player stepped in and another six seconds later. Fast players had already hit the ball, but others were still waggling. I was shooting from a TV tower behind one of the tees, and it was going great until Jack came along. He was one of the slower guys, so on my second click, he stopped and looked up at me. The Nicklaus look. I remember getting chewed out by Jim MacKay of ABC Sports. But Jack never held a grudge.
I first shot Tiger the week after he turned pro, at the Quad Cities event. As you can imagine, everybody was trying to get Tiger that week. Butch Harmon, who I’d done a lot of shooting with, was with Tiger, and he talked him into doing it after the round. It was a day from hell, starting at 8 a.m., planning for every possible obstacle and finally getting the shots as we lost the sun. I got two drivers and an iron shot, with the Hulcher. Then the light was gone, couldn’t get another shot. Sometimes you know when you’re getting something really good. When I pushed the button on that first driver, I knew it was special.
One year at Augusta I was out following Tom Weiskopf. We knew each other from the time he was a rookie, always got along. He was coming down one fairway, hitting his second shot, and wherever it went, he sure didn’t like it. He went into a fit, threw his club, cursing, and I leaned on the button—wurrrrrrrrr. He looked right at me, and I had nowhere to hide, there was nobody else around. And he said, “Oh, Leonard, I thought we were friends.” Tom was famous for those outbursts, but still, I felt like a pig. I gotta say, that was a great picture.
Greg Norman was tough, but always very good to me. One time a writer and I went down to his home in Hobe Sound to shoot a bunker story in his backyard. We were supposed to shoot in the afternoon, and the writer said he was going over to interview Greg and that I should sleep in. Well, at about 9 o’clock, the phone rang. Greg was upset about something the magazine had written, and he wasn’t going to do the shoot. So I went to the house and hung around a while, but it wasn’t looking good. Finally, I said to Greg, “I’m sorry you’re not going to do it, because you’re wearing a great shirt.” He was; he had on a blazing red shirt. He paced around me four or five times, and finally smiled a little and said, “How long you reckon this will take?” We shot the story, and it ran on the cover. I knew he did that one for me.
My editors sent me out once to shoot Ben Crenshaw, who was a sweet man but going through a slump. The idea was to shoot him sitting on his bag looking dejected. Ben was a good friend, and we had done a lot of stuff together. I knew I could follow him around for 20 years and not get that picture, so I said, “Ben, could I get a shot of you sitting on your bag?” And he said, “Sure, Leonard.” I had him look left, look right, then look up, down. When his eyes went down, I knew I had it. I felt terrible about that shot, and I pleaded with the editor not to use it. “It’s not an honest picture,” I said. I’m happy to say, that one never ran.
One of the more interesting celebrity assignments I got was to shoot Jack Nicholson playing golf. For the opener, I had an idea to have him hold a golf ball up to one eye like a monocle and give us that big grin. He was wearing a golf hat, and I wanted to get a better look at his face. I took a few shots, then asked him to tip the brim up a bit. He did, but it didn’t really move, so after a few more clicks, I reached over and nudged it up myself. He jumped up and said, “Nobody touches my hat! We’re done.” I think it was his way of saying I’d gotten enough. I still had to follow him on the course, but after a few holes, one of his handlers came up to me and said I had to leave. Luckily, I did have enough. And I understand he really liked the portrait.
Of course, everybody always wanted a sequence of Hogan, but he didn’t like anyone shooting his swing. After he retired, he came back and played a Champions Tour event in Houston, so I got an urgent call to go out and try again. The first couple days I showed up first thing, but Hogan never came to the practice tee. By mid-week, I asked one of the guys in the bag room why Hogan never hit balls before his round. He told me he did hit balls, at another area on the property. So the next morning I schlepped the Hulcher out, through the woods, to this remote spot, and sure enough, there was Hogan with his caddie. But as soon as he saw me with the camera, he put his club in the bag and off they went. That was the closest I ever got to getting Hogan, but I’ve done OK.
More of Kamsler’s Best Work
Our visuals editor, Ben Walton, went through a selection of Kamsler’s photos available from Getty Images, and identified several of his favorites, some of which appear above, and the rest you can see below.