Interview with Golf Historian, Kevin Kenny

Like so many things, the internet is both a curse and a blessing. One way that it’s been a blessing to me has been through its power to introduce me to colleagues and associates I would never have met without this virtual world. Kevin Kenny is one of these. He is a writer, a historian and a kindred spirit.

We both love golf enough to write about it, and that’s saying something. I’m grateful he’s been willing to answer some of my questions about his work.

Paul Cervantes

What was your life’s work before you started to write about golf?

Kevin Kenny

I was involved in a family retail shoe business in Dublin for 28 years. After that, I became a mature student and did three degrees in Scotland (where we lived for a time) in history and politics. Then when we came back to Dublin I taught Social Science with The Open University (a UK based distance-learning institution) for 14 years. 

Paul Cervantes:

What was your first golf book and what about the subject motivated you to devote an entire book to the subject? Also, how long did your first book take to write?

Kevin Kenny

My first book was American Golf in the Great Depression: The Pros Take to the Grapefruit Circuit. I think I got my interest in this area from studying American history when I was a mature student. It took me about a year to write it.

Paul Cervantes:

Did you find that writing your golf during the Great Depression book motivated you to write more about American golf as opposed to golf in general? What was it about American golf, or American golfers, that caught your interest and sustained it?

Kevin Kenny

Yes, writing about golf in the 1930s started a chain. So, that led me to write a book on Ralph Guldahl whose career I felt had not been properly recognised. And in both of the first two books, I came across Fred Corcoran who was one of the instigators of the LPGA tour and that led me to write about Patty Berg. As to why American golf history and not golf in general- I always felt that there were so many stories in US golf- so many characters- so many wonderful players- it seemed natural to research American golf history.

A further point about my interest in US golf history. In the early 1960s, when I had started golf, my father began to receive golf journals from his sister in America and here I first came across the wonderful writings of Herbert Warren Wind. And we received a copy of Bobby Jones’ Golf Is My Game- for me the best golf book ever. All of these whetted my appetite for American golf history.

Paul Cervantes

I read Golf is My Game long ago. I like to tell people who’ve never heard of Jones about his life even more so than his golf. There’s a kind of magic to his life and education, as it blended with the greatness of his play, I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to see again. He was, of course, a different kind of amateur than those we have today. What parts of Golf Is My Game resonated most for you when you first read it? What are its most enduring messages for you today?

Kevin Kenny

I think Jones conveys an awful lot of common sense about the golf swing and he had an interesting take on putting which he suggested should be a slight slicing action. Not sure too many of today’s gurus would agree with that. But, what resonated with me most were his recollections of his career which his great friend O.B. Keeler divided into the seven lean years and then, gloriously, the seven fat years. His descriptions of his many great rounds, especially playing golf under pressure, were wonderful. And he wrote a short love story to St. Andrews and what it meant to him. Just a wonderful and moving book…

Paul Cervantes

Another player from the mid-1930s you’ve written about is Ralph Guldahl. What made him the greatest player of his era and why was his reign so painfully short?

Ralph Guldahl circa 1937

Kevin Kenny

For about three to four years, Ralph Guldahl was as good as any player in the world and maybe better. He won successive U.S. Opens in 1937 and 1938 and he won the Masters in 1939. In addition, he won three successive Western Opens, which was as prestigious as the Masters at this time. For this brief period, no other player could match him. Why he lost his game in the 1940s is one of golf’s mysteries and I try to tackle this in my book. Theories range from him writing an instructional book which caused him to think too much about his game — to his wife being tired of the travel involved. Remember, one of the perks of being a U.S. Open champion is that you got to play numerous exhibitions for $300-400 a time. But this took its toll and often he would be on the road for a few weeks at a time. Or maybe he just lost his desire. I became interested in him when writing about the Great Depression. I wondered why we did not know more about him, considering his outstanding record.

Paul Cervantes

That brings me to John J. McDermott, an American golfer we’ve both written about, me in a fact-driven fictionalization and you in biography. What about McDermott got you interested enough to write a book about him? Also, what surprised you most during your research? Finally, are you considering any new projects?

Kevin Kenny

I have a friend in Florida called Marty Kavanaugh- a retired pro and PGA Hall of Famer. He spoke to me a few times about John J. McDermott and suggested it was a subject worth researching and that is how I got started. What surprised me most? Perhaps how young he was to achieve what he did. To become one of the best, if not the best at 19, 20, 21, 22 years of age shows an incredibly strong mind. Hogan’s best period was when he was around the 40 mark. No- I have no plans for any other books- four is enough, but I look forward to reading your next one. Thank you Paul, I have enjoyed this.

Interview with Golf Historian, Kevin Kenny

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