Dan Cullen was one of the most fascinating and endearing characters to grace Australian golf. Sadly, the PGA of Australia life member and decorated war hero passed away on Australia Day at the age of 101.
Cullen made his name as a player, club professional, teacher and administrator. He holds the distinction of being the oldest qualifier in the history of the British Open, competing in 1977 at the age of 64.
His bravery as a Lancaster bomber pilot during World War II has been recognised at home and abroad. (Cullen received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion d’Honneur Medal in France).
He flew more than 30 missions over Europe where the chances of surviving were said to be less than one in four. On one particular bombing run over Friedrichshafen in April 1944, Cullen narrowly escaped a shell attack by the enemy that crippled his aircraft and wounded the crew. He piloted the badly damaged plane back to base in England.
That provides a segue to the widely circulated exchange between Cullen and Bernhard Langer [below]. As the story goes, the pair was enjoying each other’s company when the two-time Masters champion asked, “Dan, have you ever been to Germany?”
Cullen is said to have looked at him, smiled and replied laconically: “Only at night, Bernhard.”
That retort has been the source of much mirth within the PGA fraternity. It’s apocryphal and has developed a life of its own. There are a number of variations in which the circumstances and protagonist vary.
In one version, Langer was making a presentation to Cullen at a German Senior Masters. But the timing doesn’t make sense given the age difference between them (43 years).
Another relates to a BMW corporate day. Afterwards at dinner, a visiting executive complimented Cullen on how well he played for his age.
Then he asked if Dan had ever been to Germany. To which he replied, “Yes, but only at night.”
Dan Cullen Junior was of the understanding the story emanated from a seniors’ pro-am at a private club on Sydney’s north shore. The event was sponsored by a large/multinational German company. First prize in the pro-am/raffle was a trip to Germany.
During the presentation, the CEO greeted Dan and asked if he had ever been to Germany. Despite the discrepancies, it hasn’t prevented the story from being retold many, many times.
“It’s sort of lost in translation and time. I don’t want to spoil the story,” says Dan Jnr. And that was a prevailing sentiment among people contacted for the story. But what really happened?
Did Cullen actually say that to Bernhard Langer? “I think it happened, but not in the way it’s been portrayed,” says PGA professional Tommy Moore, who established the golf heritage movement in Australia. “It’s a story that happened a long time ago and it’s been embellished ever since.”
Moore thought it could be traced to an off-the-cuff moment at a social function after golf. He recommended giving Frank Phillips a call.
From his home at Moss Vale in the NSW Southern Highlands, the two-time Australian Open champion is adamant he knows the truth. The 83-year-old Phillips says Cullen told him the story a couple of times.
“It was a cocktail party at an embassy and he sat next to the German ambassador. And the German ambassador said to him, ‘Dan, have you ever been to my country?’
“Dan said, ‘Oh yes, but only of a night time, Sir.’
“I’m absolutely certain about that. That’s what he said to him. I think the German twigged pretty quickly.”
It’s fair to say a bit of poetic licence has been taken since the exchange occurred in the 1950s or 1960s.
That Cullen was a very humble man who underplayed his many achievements gives some explanation as to why the anecdote is so fondly – and frequently – recalled.
Adds Phillips: “He had the driest sense of humour of anybody I’ve ever heard. An amazing man, really.”