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

February 18: Another clear day

Today was another exceptionally clear day. It was also an uneventful day save for the lunch get-together with my siblings. That started the day off nicely. I got to hear about what they were reading and about how their book clubs worked, in terms of what kinds of things they talked about.

There was also some chat about our upcoming family reunion in July. Eureka! continues to have Lady Face Blind Ambition for $4 so I couldn’t resist having one (and then another one). These kinds of family outings don’t last too long, no one’s prone to linger or talk about anything too amusing, so I was on my way home by 1:30, just in time for a quick hike.

Like I said, it was very clear day. Lots of folks were heading out at once so I decided to take a connector trail towards El Escorpion. Once there, I picked up a trail that I was pretty sure would link back to the Victory side. I was right, but the last third of the trail was brutally steep. Had it not been for the light, cooling breeze it may have been too much. But I made it and then found my way to Bible Rock before heading back to the main trail and my car.

Those two beers were not my friend on this hike, but I was happy to have made it out for a couple hours.

I’m getting a little antsy about the book. It’s feeling ripe and ready to publish. I’m ready to move on but circumstances won’t let me quite yet. It’s also a time of anticipation. There are always technical issues, most commonly with the EPUB or MOBI files used for the the Amazon Kindle Version.

It’s rather like the feeling of dreading impending traffic that you know you’ll hit, simply because you’re in a hurry. It makes you wonder why you’re in a hurry and then you remember.

There’s time enough but none to waste.

Tonight’s writing soundtrack is another LP. This time it’s an oldie and a scratchy one at that. It’s Paul Desmond’s That’s Jazz. It’s from 1961 and it’s pretty much the epitome of California Cool. Desmond’s playing is impeccable as always. There’s never been anyone better at this kind of stuff. His tone and articulation were effortless and he was rhythmically faultless and nimble to boot. Still, in some strange kind of way this LP reminds me that I really don’t much care for jazz anymore. The best jazz was universally played in the past and if you can’t find a reason to look ahead toward even the possibility of new and better days, a genre can really become mundane. It’s always amazing to me that these straight-laced looking guys like Desmond and Bill Evan were relentless self-abusers, Desmond with booze while Evans favored heroin and later cocaine. It makes their music perfect time capsules of another era when jazz was perfected and before its inevitable entropic decline.

Thanks for reading.

That was Jazz
February 18: Another clear day

February 17: Busy, like the old days

Today was busy like the old days. Things rapidly came together with a new client and I had to do a phone interview and write a follow-up memo. It doesn’t sound very time consuming (it is). It also doesn’t sound especially interesting but, again, it is. Many of our clients are desperately ill. I describe myself as the tip of the arrow since I’m often the first one to really get to know a new client and their history, as well as their family.

Much of what I do is about sizing up the client in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, as it was today, it’s about getting a sense of the client’s vitality, especially his memory and mental sharpness. The client has faced a terminal diagnosis and has undergone a very risky surgical procedure with chemotherapy to follow. It is not an easy time in the life of the client or the family. The first time I spoke to this client (after his diagnosis but before his surgery) he sounded fantastic. Rather than sounding anything like a typical 80 year old he sounded 60…maybe even younger. I knew that 4 weeks after his surgery he would sound like a completely different person, and he did. But, he’s a tough guy and shows no inclination to going gentle in to this or any good night. He’s an easy guy to root for.

Recapitulating a long phone call like that is tricky. It’s a memo that’s likely to be read in haste even though it was written with great care. That’s just the way things work in this business; the best of efforts are not always appreciated for what they are, yet it’s still critical that one’s best effort is put forward. This being anything but my first rodeo, I am Ok with all of that. I sleep well knowing we’re on the right side of the cases we pursue and that there’s not a long line of people who can do what I do in quite the way I do it. All of my work today was done in no more than 3 hours but it felt much longer and took a good deal of starch out of me. There’s no getting used to speaking to the very ill shortly after a diagnosis. Feeling like an interloper or an opportunist is easy. Finding a way to always be regarded as a positive force during a very negative time for both the client and the family is an art. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m better than most, or at least I think I am.

I’ve been warned about leaving out the writing soundtrack in my posts. Sometimes I need a soundtrack but occasionally all I can stand are the clicking sound of my laptop’s keys. There’s no real formula to it though I have to say I have a much lower tolerance to audible distractions than I used to. Anyway, tonight’s soundtrack is drowning out the keyboard clicks and that’s a good thing. I’m listening to Empty Hearted Town from Warren Zevon’s posthumous (2007) record, Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings. There are 16 tracks here. Some are a marginal versions of marginal songs but the track I mentioned and Tule’s Blues and Studebaker, among a handful of others, make the collection more than worthwhile. Anyway, thanks for listening.

February 17: Busy, like the old days

February 16: Kinda not so good

Long story short, I did not come up with a workable idea for the ending to the story I’m considering. The fact is I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it today. So, I suppose my progress on the idea is directly proportional to the time expended on the task. I was busy today, at least off and on. The day didn’t feel totally wasted but except for going to the post office I was at home and working in my office from around 9 until 3. At 3 a friend of mine called and we met for a while.

That was a relief; it’s hard to spend much more time than that indoors.

Then came dinner and then came the last episode of the first part of season 4 of Ozark. It’s not my favorite show but I would say that the fourth season is the best so far. My sense is that they divided the fourth season into two parts to finish out the series this year but what the heck do I know?

I don’t have any great ambitions for tomorrow but I am hoping to be outside more. The weather is supposed to be good, if good is defined as clear and mild. There’s wind forecast for Friday. Here’s hoping they missed on that one.

Today I finished my various Crosby-Nash, CS&N, CSN&Y and Stills-Young Band LPs (Buffalo Springfield was last week). That was a relief. The three-LP CS&N Carry On present particular trouble, though I’m not sure why. I was just scattered enough mentally that I keep losing track of what I had uploaded and what I hadn’t. The cherry on the sundae was me forgetting about one side entirely and letting the record spin for hours after it was done. Nice.

Great for the record and for the stylus of the EVO 3…not.

Anyway, tomorrow’s another day. In the meantime, tonight’s writing soundtrack is another LP, Deep Sea Diver’s Impossible Weight. I really like Jessica Dobson’s voice and playing. Not every song on this record is as raw, elemental and powerful as the last one, Run Away With Me, but they’re all good enough for me to enjoy. Anyway, check out that orange vinyl and Jessica’s signature!

How the heck do you beat that?

Answer…you don’t.

Thanks for reading.

February 16: Kinda not so good

February 15: For me, today was Valentine’s Day

I had a wonderful Valentine’s Day (yes, I know it was actually yesterday) for a very simple reason. I was lucky enough to spend some of it with my valentine, at least a few hours of it. She took the whole day off, so from 10 until 3:30 we hiked and talked and enjoyed a gorgeous day. We don’t get many chances to share even part of a weekday so it was an especially rare treat.

The only problem was that our time together was all too short, as it always is.

Our time on the trail gave me a chance to think about the book idea I that occurred to me yesterday. I can see the span of time. I can see some of the interesting events but I can’t really see the story, let alone the all-important ending. My concern is that there might not be a complete story to see. The last thing I want to do is jump into a story without even knowing the ending.

No good can come from that.

So, I’m going to do a little brainstorming about how my new story might end. Since there are biographical elements it’s all too easy to imagine that the story just goes on but that won’t work with a book. If I come up with some ideas between now and tomorrow I am thinking about writing the beginning of the story as tomorrow’s post. If I don’t, I’m not going to start writing. It’s not important for my idea about the ending to be the one I end up using. It’s only important for me to have an idea, even if I eventually change the ending, before I get started.

Ideas come along when they want so this may take a while.

Thanks for reading.

February 15: For me, today was Valentine’s Day

February 13: Sharing an email about history

Today I got an email from a would-be client of mine.

I gave her an assignment a few weeks back with a two-week deadline.

Here’s her email:

Paul

I am so sorry that I have neither followed up (yet) on your wonderful suggestions not let you know. As soon as we’d spoken I did some research into the subject then got stuck with a project I need to finish ASAP. I have to make (within the next few weeks!!) enough content for one quarter from 3 or more text books on the infinite topic of History of Golf.

So, that’s what I’m killing myself doing, especially on weekends. During my work, I was so happy to come across a couple of paragraphs dedicated to your friend (thought to myself – hey I know this guy!!), and excited that it will go into my powerpoints:

In 1911, Johnny McDermott, a brash young pro from Philadelphia was addicted to gambling at golf, ended the foreign and foreign-born dominance of the U.S. Open by becoming the first American-born winner of the event. At age 19 years, 10 months, and 14 days, he is still the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open and the second-youngest ever to win any of the four modern majors. Only Young Tom Morris, who won the British Open in 1868 at age 17, was younger. As if to prove that his victory in 1911 was no fluke, McDermott won the US Open again in 1912 at the Country Club of Buffalo, where he became the first player to shoot a sub-par score in the US Open. Unfortunately he disappeared from the golfing scene as quickly as he had appeared. In 1914, at age 23, he collapsed and suffered a nervous breakdown in the clubhouse of the Atlantic City Country Club where he was the club pro. He never recovered from the incident and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, rest homes, and living with family members in Philadelphia, suffering from a mental illness.

Will follow-up on your ideas soon as this job is done.

Do you go to the Genesis Invitational?

Signed, Would-Be Client

And my reply:

Dear Client

You’re lucky. 

I was about to send you a friendly-reminder email.

Glad you’re busy, hoping you’re not too busy.

Yeah, I got some JJM bio stuff from the USGA’s head historian. Nice guy, tho I cannot recall his name. Oh, yeah, it’s Mike Trostel! Not all of my memory is gone, thank goodness.

What is most interesting about JJM is that there are  NO authoritative contemporaneous accounts of his decline. Some sources include what you have mentioned, others say bad financial decisions preceded his illness and still others point to the trauma of surviving a near-catastrophe at sea while sailing home  to the United States.

I guess this kind of vagueness is an omnipresent feature of most lives, even of some noteworthy folks like JJM. My mother was dead less than a week before her own daughter inadvertently misstated some well-known facts about my mother’s life during a eulogy.

In the back of the church I muttered to myself, “And we wonder why there are so many biographies of the same person.”

Anyway, it’s great to hear from you. 

Please keep in touch and be well!

Cheers.

Paul

The italicized paragraph is about John J. McDermott, a main character in my first novel. I was especially taken that my client presented what she did as authoritative. It may have been, but I doubt it. Whether it was JJM’s life or the life of my mother, people come and go and then we set about to say what happened in their lives. Sometimes we’re right. Other times, not so much. So, the word for the day is humble, as in be humble when citing facts about the lives of others, living or not.

John J. McDermott and one of his two U.S. Open trophies

Another LP is spinning for this evening’s writing soundtrack. It’s my single favorite solo guitar record ever. It’s by one or two-off virtuoso, George Cromarty and it’s called Wind In The Heather. It is a superb pressing with some of the best and best recorded acoustic guitar I have ever heard. I need to add Cromarty to my list of missing musicians.

This is also a rare flood survivor as the stained and damaged cover show. Happily, and I mean very happily, the record itself was spared. I never even had to clean it with the Nitty Gritty. I tried to get a little too arty with the processing on this, but what can you do other than try?

Anyway, thanks for reading.

February 13: Sharing an email about history

February 12: Tower 45

The valley to valley idea is predicated on being able find a way to hike from one valley to the other. One emphasis is on the word hike but the second is find. I knew that fire roads are everywhere in the foothills of Los Angeles County. I’m glad they’re there but hiking on them is more like walking than it is like hiking. And, since they all go somewhere there’s very little duty for navigation. The only question is how far do you want to do in any one direction?

If the challenge is only the hike it loses some appeal. It’s not that far and it’s not that hard. Surely others have done what I propose but I don’t really want to know how they did it since I assume there are a number of different routes, starting points and ending points. But worse, it would shatter the possibility of discovery…maybe the discovery of an error and maybe the discovery of something that works better than what others have done. In this case, crowd sourcing is the last thing I want to benefit from.

So, I am trying to minimize the use and influence of the experiences of others and of maps. A too map and a fire road map would tell the whole story. But as is so often the case it’s not the story that matters it’s the way that it’s told or in the case of the valley to valley hike how it a route is found and how it’s hiked.

The last time I was hiking west from the Victory Trailhead I saw a single tower in the distance. When I got home, I succumbed to temptation and found it on Google Maps. It’s called Tower 45 and it’s said to be a 3.5 hour hike from Woodland Hills and a 3.5 hour hike from the Conejo Valley. That’s useful, but it’s also more than I wanted to know. What I didn’t have to read was the obvious conclusion that Tower 45 was connected on both east and west by a big, wide fire road.

So, I took a little trip today to an area that I suspected was not far west of the tower, east of Westlake Blvd. I took a trail through a local park and caught up with an eastbound fire road. After about a mile and a half it looked like this:

By my reckoning I should have been close enough to see Tower 45, but it was nowhere in sight. The trail toward the right center rose steeply and on another day I might continue on this trail to see if Tower 45 lays beyond. The foothills were plenty tall enough to obscure a tower, even a tall one so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Surprise. That’s part of what I’m trying to preserve. I am hoping to be surprised by. something in the planning of the hike but it’s beginning to seem more and more like all trails will lead to the common. The game’s not done yet. There’s more to discover and more to my study but I can sense surprise slipping away bit by bit.

Tonight’s writing soundtrack is Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session from way back in 1988. And, since I’m listening to this superb record on vinyl it merits a snap of the LP rather than another cover photo.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

February 12: Tower 45

February 11: Am I stuck or?

The year is streaking by and most of my time today has been spent on the LP project and working on my valley-to-valley hiking project. So, I’m wondering if I’m stuck or if things are going exactly as they should? The wind stayed around far longer than usual for this time of year, and then it retreated. Today, by the time I hit the trail, it had to be close to 90 degrees. I shied away from my hill climb. It just didn’t seem like a great idea to throttle my legs on such a hot day. The green of the seasonal grasses are already starting to pale from their original bright green. The oaks that survived the last round of fires are already leafing out. As I’m sure I’ve said before, I am hoping for a least another round or two of rain. Absent that, this will be one of the shortest winters in memory.

On the subject of Cottonwood, my formatter has acknowledged receipt of my manuscript and front matter. It’s all happening now, ready or not. The cover art is still baking in the oven. I’m not worried. I know it will be wonderful but there’s a certain amount of angst about the logistical issues on the horizon. My recollection is that the ebook version of the my first novel was actually more tricky than the print version. Back then, Amazon required a file in their own MOBI format whereas now they use EPUB. Hopefully, this change makes no difference to the formatter. For the print version, all you need is a PDF of the book itself and a precisely-dimensioned JPEG for the cover art. Amazon really has this self-publishing deal down.

We got another chance to share a drink at 1894 this evening. It’s a delightful little spot with a good wine list and a small but well-chosen tap list. Today I had another French Pilsner from Bram’s in nearby Monrovia. I think they must share space with Wingwalker Brewing since they have the same street address. This pils may be the best thing to come out of France since, well, maybe forever. It is crisp and clean yet possessed of a deep, interesting pallet of flavors. Damned if it wouldn’t go perfectly with chips & salsa. What more can you say about a good beer?

Anyway, that’s it for tonight. I hope more happens tomorrow at least between my ears. Tonight’s writing soundtrack is an interesting duet by Andrew Bird and Fiona Apple called Left Handed Kisses from his 2016 record, Are You Serious. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the song that introduced me to Bird, Giant of Illinois. The man is nothing if not varied and versatile in his style and presentation. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him.

Thanks for reading.

Are You Serious
February 11: Am I stuck or?

February 9: Hiking in June gloom?

My planned valley to valley hike grows more complicated by the day. My current concern is about speed, specifically my walking speed. My original assumption was that the hike will be about 20 miles each way. Sure, it could be less but I think all in 20 miles is a good bet. So, for the last week I’ve used my iPhone to track my hiking (as opposed to walking on the street) speed.

And, it turns out that I hike slowly, right around 2.5 MPH versus the brisk 3.5 MPH I can do on a street or sidewalk. Damn those uphill sections of the trail! The problem is that depending on when I do the hike I could run out of daylight hours and that would be bad; I could even miss the cocktail hour, and we can’t have that.

The solution might be June Gloom, those days before the 4th of July when morning hours see a dense onshore overcast spread from the Pacific to the valleys and well after the start of daylight savings time in mid-June. I would have to leave the specific dates of the hike flexible to be assured of hiking on a day with good, deep onshore flow. Even still there’s a good chance the second half of the homeward trek would be pretty warm, since the west San Fernando Valley is typically around 8 degrees warmer than the eastern Conejo. And, the cherry on the sundae is that the whole hike will be into the sun.

No matter, as of this moment June is looking better than March. All those hours of daylight and the chance of overcast until well afternoon is making the hike feel a little more doable than my depressing walking speed made a feel a day ago.

The study continues.

Oh yeah, my writing soundtrack tonight are two versions of Not in Nottingham. The first sung by Sean Watkins on 2015’s The Watkins Family Hour and the second done by Los Lobos from their 2009 record, Los Lobos Goes Disney.

How out of the Disney songs loop am I? I had no idea Not in Nottingham was even a Disney song. It’s pretty damn good song so I bought both.

Thanks for reading.

February 9: Hiking in June gloom?

February 8: A bit more on yesterday’s missing musicians

The trauma of having to write all of yesterday’s post on my phone made me leave a few thoughts out. I was thinking about why John Danley & Brendan Campbell may have dropped out of the music business. At first, I thought that something bad must have happened to each of them, something like a chronic illness. The more I thought about it the more I realized the possibility that both had experienced some bizarre version of what happened to golf professional, Ty Tryon.

Tryon burst onto the PGA Tour back in the early days of the Tiger Woods era. He was only in high school when Callaway paid him a huge pile of money, nothing like the kind of cash Nike dumped on Woods, but we’re still talking about millions of dollars.

Ty Tryon, back in the early 2000s

Problem was that Tyron’s game soon collapsed, completely. Now, decades later, Tryon has become a walking monument to persistence. He’s been reduced to an annual quest just to find professional tournaments where he can tee it up in a so-far fruitless effort to find his long-gone game. Tryon was only 16 years old when he had that brief though profitable look at what the upper echelons of professional golf were like and thought he belonged. And, he has spent many years trying to get back there.

Campbell & Danley never had that look at the top. Oh sure, they made videos, played some live gigs and Campbell even composed and performed some music for a movie. Still, maybe what they saw of the music business simply didn’t make it seem like the kind of place they wanted to devote themselves to, possibly for years, with no guarantee for the kind of success they imagined.

And there’s another possibility I can think of; that one or both of them loved music, but didn’t love music as a profession. That’s how I like to imagine Campbell & Danley. I hope that wherever they are, and whatever they’re doing for a living, both continue to enjoy their rare musical gifts. And, should one or both of them decide they’d like to have another crack at the music business, I’ll be ready to enjoy their work once again.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

February 8: A bit more on yesterday’s missing musicians