The golfer who devoured his golf in a 3,165-course meal
Check each week for book reviews at CliffSchrock.com. This week’s book is Golf’s Iron Horse: The Astonishing, Record-Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy, by John Sabino, Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99, hardback, 256 pages.
Some golfers are content to play the same course round after round. A home track is where a golfer can find comfort in the same group, the same friends, the same food and the same shots from hole to hole. That’s one reason a golfer who sticks to one place and gets their handicap from primarily playing just one course doesn’t travel very well when they do go somewhere else.
On the other hand, there are golfers like Ralph Kennedy. Well, not exactly like him. Ralph Kennedy, a founding member at Winged Foot, took it to heart when a fellow golfer told him his golf exploits included playing 240 different courses. Kennedy set a challenge to surpass that by playing as many golf courses in his life as he could. Over a timespan of 43 years, Kennedy ended up playing 3,165 courses in 14 countries, including 48 states and nine Canadian provinces. His total is potentially the world record. His relentless pursuit of an infinite number also gave him a total of 8,500 rounds of golf played, which, if done on consecutive days would mean playing every day for 23 years.
As someone who was once in the position to chronicle incredible golf feats, I know how difficult it can be to believe some of the things golfers say they’ve done. Kennedy, a traveling salesman, did not give naysayers a chance to doubt him. He kept meticulous notes on the courses he played, held onto scorecards on which he’d had a course representative sign their name, and he maintained scrapbooks of his travels. In 1957 he donated the whole lot to the U.S. Golf Association, whose executive director, Joseph C. Dey, had written about him in the USGA magazine.
Dozens of newspapers, magazines and agencies got onboard the Kennedy caravan, including National Geographic, The New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Living at a time when classic bits of Americana were booming all over, Kennedy himself was a huge part of it. His lifespan in golf covered not only the Jones to Palmer era, but his life itself spanned 13 presidents, two world wars and great expansion in inventions, business, the economy and culture.
Such a life could only be brought to illumination by someone who himself knew how Kennedy’s yearning for golf adventure felt. Author Sabino is not only an avid golfer, he’s a lover of the game’s history. He is among an elite group of golfers who have completed the playing of the world’s top 100 courses. When Sabino came upon the Kennedy story while researching another book, he knew he had to write the man’s story. From describing Kennedy’s first golf course love, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, the book is off and running on an incredible journey. "Iron Horse" is a splendid travelogue through one man’s golf obsession and the sport of golf’s evolution from the hickory era to the modern game. We can see Kennedy as the Forrest Gump of golf, hitting upon golf’s legendary places and people on his travels, and its famous courses, traditions, and developments. The anecdotes are incredible: Kennedy playing Glen Garden in Texas at the time two caddies named Hogan and Nelson would have been there, playing Pinehurst in its early years, playing Pine Valley on Halloween 1926, becoming friends with O.B. Keeler, experiencing Winged Foot in its early years, playing his 1,093rd course at Augusta National a few months after it opened in 1933. Oddities in course architecture are noted, such as a hole at Durham (N.C.) Country Club that was a par 3½.
Kennedy’s life is made all the more amazing because he moved about with the crude travel methods of the day, and that his wife, Mary Alice, was often a part of what could have been the ultimate golf widow life.
Sabino does a great job of mixing Kennedy’s life in with the changes going on in the world around him, from the booming 1920s to the Depression to post World War II. There is a fascinating tie-in with Lou Gehrig, the Iron Man of baseball.
Poor eyesight forced Kennedy to play a final round in September 1953. Mary Alice died in February 1960, and Ralph one year later at age 78, but thanks to this book, his story is very much alive.