Sunday, January 01, 2017

Golf's Iron Horse : The Astonishing, Record-Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy

As I was conducting research on my first book,  How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs: A Journey through Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne, Augusta, Muirfield, and More, I stumbled across Ralph Kennedy's amazing life story and decided it was worth fully telling the story of a man who defied fatigue.

So many works of golfing history focus on the greats: the best players, the most prestigious championships, the hardest courses, and the like. Most avid golfers are average players, relishing in the joy of the sport itself. Golf’s Iron Horse, published by Skyhorse Publishing (February 2017) chronicles the previously untold story of Ralph Kennedy (1882 - 1961) an amateur golfer whose love of the game set him on par to play more courses than anyone before.

In a feat that caused the New York Sun to declare him “golf’s Lou Gehrig” Kennedy began playing golf in 1910 and continued seeking out unique golf courses he had not yet played for decades, finishing in 1953. He played golf on 3,165 different courses during his forty-three year love affair with the game. In addition to the 3,165 unique courses he played, the unrelenting Kennedy also played golf a total of 8,500 times over his lifetime, the equivalent of teeing it up every day for twenty-three straight years. By comparison, Lou Gehrig spent seventeen years in professional baseball.

A pencil salesman who traveled the country, Kennedy was a founding member of the Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. Perfect for golf aficionados, Golf’s Iron Horse will inspire every reader to tee off at a new course. The book includes details of the special conditions under which he was able to play the Augusta National Golf Club and the unique circumstances of his visits to Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St. Andrews.

As he was nearing the completion of his long journey Kennedy said about his quest,  “Damn thing began as a hobby forty years ago, now it’s a mania.” Traveling primarily by train and walking every round of golf, Ralph's journey is a look back through golf of an earlier era: one played with sand tees, hickory-shafted clubs named 'Mashie' and 'Spoon', cottonseed hull greens, half-par holes, company-owned courses and stymies.

Ralph saved every one of his scorecards from his long journey, providing an unparalleled record of his quest and an interesting historical record. About one-third of the courses he played are no longer in existence. The variety of courses Ralph played ranged from the worst public and municipal courses up to the apex of the golf world, including Cypress Point, Muirfield, and Pine Valley. He played a substantial number of nine-hole courses and a full spectrum of urban, rural, desert, mountain, parkland, moorland, links, and heathland courses. No course was too insignificant or far away for Ralph to pursue.

A scorecard from 1927 from Ralph Kennedy's historic collection (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)

Ralph was an extensively followed and well-known amateur golfer in his day. He was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post twice and in Ripley's Believe it or Not three times. His full-length article about golf is the only one ever to appear on the subject in National Geographic magazine. Even the learned magazine the New Yorker followed Ralph's progress. Hundreds of newspapers on five continents followed Ralph's journey including the Augusta Chronicle, the Sydney Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Times-Picayune, the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News, the Boston Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Tribune, the Savannah Evening Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Globe and Mail, the Irish Independent, the Havana Evening Telegraph and the South China Morning Post. 

Typical of Ralph's dedication and fanaticism, when he made a short trip to Bermuda he played five courses in the space of fourteen hours. The local paper, the Gazette and Colonist, was impressed with Ralph’s stamina and noted how wind and rain didn’t seem to slow him down. His quixotic journey saw him visit all 48 states and all nine Canadian provinces as well as a dozen other countries.

Ralph donated all his historic scorecards along with five scrapbooks detailing his journey to the U.S. Golf Association, and newly uncovered research allows me to tell his story, including a surprise twist at the end of his journey. Follow Ralph's journey from the Edwardian Era through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition, the New Deal and many more historic eras and find out what Ralph Kennedy has in common with Bobby Jones, Colonel Sanders, and Clark Gable.

Banff Springs in Alberta Canada was among Kennedy's favorites. His scorecard from his 1932 visit there, one of over 300 courses in Canada that he played (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)

An unparalleled run of New York City golf

Ralph lived most of his adult life in Upper Manhattan and as such played a great deal of his golf in New York City, including an astonishing number within the five boroughs. Of the fifty-eight courses that have ever existed within the city limits, Ralph played an impressive thirty-nine of them. Great golf and New York City are not mutually exclusive. The coastal metropolis has the climate, terrain, and—during Ralph’s lifetime—open space for such golf. It is not a stretch to call some of the courses he visited pastoral and peaceful. The fairways and greens he tramped were varied, making for some interesting juxtapositions among the courses in his home city. While some were intensely urban or seriously flawed, an equal number were scenic, isolated, and among the best built at the time. Of particular note are the lost golf courses of Queens, which were designed by architects of the Golden Age working at the peak of their prowess, including those of Seth Raynor, A. W. Tillinghast, Devereux Emmet, and Alister Mackenzie. A full chapter of the book is dedicated to telling the story of golf in New York City and details many of the lost courses.

A lost golf course of Queens, the Bayside Links, designed by Alister Mackenzie

Acclaim for Kennedy's journey

Newspapers and periodicals around the globe cover Ralph's record-breaking feat and many in the world of golf were impressed by his achievement:

"[Kennedy] is worth a number of stories. Few persons achieve their ambitions in this world, and rare one as -- well, you might call it bizarre, as Mr. Kennedy's. Like Alexander the Great Mr. Ralph Kennedy of Winged Foot is looking for new worlds to conquer,”

       - O.B. Keeler, writer for the Atlanta Journal and friend of Bobby Jones

The Times of London wrote about Kennedy in 1951: “Metaphorical trumpets should sound and drums be beaten for such a conquering hero.”

The New York Herald Tribune called Ralph’s accomplishment “the most hopelessly unassailable record in sport.”

The New Yorker said about Ralph “The coziest athletic record we’ve heard of in some time.”

“This is one of the most remarkable performances I have heard of.”

      - U.S. Open Champion and one-time Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club Francis Ouimet

The Dallas Morning News's headline about Ralph Kennedy, “World’s Most Widely Traveled Golfer has made Freak Record.”

The dapper Ralph Kennedy about to board his long flight for his only trip to the British Isles (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)

Praise for Golf's Iron Horse and How to Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs

“John Sabino is the ultimate historian, golf or otherwise. In Golf’s Iron Horse, John has uncovered more factoids and behind the scenes lifestyle moments on hidden golf legend Ralph Kennedy than I could ever dream of finding on Google in a thousand lifetimes. It’s a deep read, this book, but it’s beautifully well-told. I say roll up your sleeves, pop the top on your favorite beverage, kick back to go back in time and prepare to be amazed. There’s a lot going on for sure, but here is the surprise: The way John tells this magical story, you get to go right along with it!”

 –Tripp Bowden, author of the critically acclaimed Freddie and Me: Life Lessons From Freddie Bennett, Augusta National’s Legendary Caddie Master.

“Anyone who loves golf, its traditions, and the experience of travel will have trouble putting John Sabino's book down.”

– Golf Odyssey Newsletter

Click on the book image below to view the book on Amazon (the book is hardcover, 294 pages and contains 78 illustrations and photographs):

Curious to learn if Ralph Kennedy played at your club among his 3,165 course odyssey? Click here for a list of his courses by state, province and country.