Golf’s Iron Horse Book Review

Golf's Iron Horse ReviewGolf’s Iron Horse Book Review

Golf’s Iron Horse: The Astonishing, Record-Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy
Grade: B
Teachers’ Comments: A fascinating story, but the recitation of courses got a bit tedious.

From 1910 to 1953, pencil salesman Ralph Kennedy put together one of the most astonishing records in the history of sports: playing 3,165 unique golf courses. His two thousand golf courses played in the United States represented more than half the country’s total. Kennedy also collected 300 in Canada, and played courses in a dozen other countries. In all, this founding member of Winged Foot played 8,500 rounds of golf in his lifetime. That’s the equivalent of a round a day for twenty three straight years.

Even more astonishing, from my point of view: he saved a card from every one of those courses, with a signature to attest that he had indeed completed the round.

Kennedy’s golf journey is recounted in the biography Golf’s Iron Horse: The Astonishing Record-Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy, by John Sabino. The title is a reference to baseball’s Iron Horse, Lou Gerhig, whose 17-year run with the Yankees occurred in the midst of Kennedy’s golfing binge. In fact, Kennedy, who achieved a significant degree of notoriety with his streak, was dubbed “Golf Iron Horse” by none other than the New York Times.

Ralph Kennedy was 28 when he first took up a golf club, playing at Van Cortland golf course in the Bronx. He was, as so many of us are, hooked from the start, playing many courses in the New York area, and on his travels as a pencil salesman. In 1919, Kennedy met an Englishman named Charles Leonard Fletcher, who claimed to have played 240 courses. Kennedy took that as a challenge and the hunt was on. Kennedy, who was the star salesman for the Eagle Pencil Company, leveraged his work travel to play more courses. And, as his fame grew — he twice made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post — the company encouraged him. It was, after all, good publicity.

In what turns out to be a fairly quick read (for 300 pages), Sabino tracks Kennedy from course to course around the country and indeed, around the world. While I do not think Sabino mentions all three thousand courses, at times it feels like it.

Two things save Golf’s Iron Horse from being a tedious list of courses. The first is that Sabino is a light, and descriptive writer. Of Kennedy’s visit to a Peruvian course, he writes

To say the course had no grass is not an exaggeration. Surviving period pictures of the course show a bleak and desolate environment; in the distance, behind the golf course, are bare mountains, and beyond them, oil tanks. The scenic beauty of Pebble Beach it was not … The course presented a host of challenges for the vacationing golfer with sands blowing and shifting and penal holes.

That certainly paints a picture of an exotic golf course to me.

The other saving grace is that Sabino intersperses Kennedy’s golfing tale with the history of the era. Indeed, Ralph’s 43 year golfing journey also is the story of the growth of the United States through industrialization, The Great War, The Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, Depression, World War II  and postwar prosperity. Here’s a passage in the chapter on one of Kennedy’s trips during the Depression:

The Joplin newspaper contained an extensive listing of radio broadcasts planned for the day, as well as a large selection of used cars, including a Chrysler sedan for $350 and a Ford sedan for 4100. A more prominent portion of the newspaper was occupied by local dealers who listed their offering prices for corn and livestock. The same day it reported the news of Ralph’s exploits, the front page noted that there were four different bank robberies around the country in Nebraska, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Ohio. …Stirred by the Great Depression and Prohibition, it was a period when bandits were idolized … The taxis the Kennedys took on their trip through the region were of similar vintage to the old-style sedans that the notorious couple (Bonnie and Clyde) drove, with side running boards.

Also interspersed in the account are updates on the progress of the other sporting “Iron Man.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Lou Gehrig’s 1931 playing tear continued: on September 1st, he hit his third grand slam in four days and his sixth home run in as many days … When the season ended on September 27th, the Iron Horse had played every game of the season, the sixth year in a row he did so, and finished with 184 runs batted in. Ralph had an equally impressive year: he played 160 additional golf courses, or almost one every day.

Kennedy’s story also is the story of the development of the game of golf.  Sabino writes of how Kennedy’s equipment changed, and of the creation and loss of so many of the courses he played. He notes that thirty percent of the courses Kennedy played now are gone, including dozens in the New York City area. New York City’s golf courses, in fact, rate an entire chapter. New York golfers will no doubt be fascinated to learn that underneath the expressway they are sitting on in a traffic jam there used to be a golf courses.

A great many of the courses Kennedy visited seemed to be nine hole affairs. Nine holers were more pervasive then than now … perhaps we should bring them back. I also was fascinated by the continual reference to company owned courses. It seems that many businesses in those days — from timber companies to factories — maintained courses for their employees’ entertainment.

Although Kennedy kept meticulous records of his golf outings in the form of signed score cards, I am somewhat skeptical of the seriousness of the golf. In some instances, Kennedy reported to have played three or more courses in a single day — all walking. A great many were nine hole affairs, but even so, when travel time (given travel conditions at the time) between courses is taken into account — and the need to eat, etc. — I wonder whether he actually played golf, or just raced through the course to add another to the tally. Here’s one of his binges:

One of his more eclectic accomplishments for the year (1930) was setting a record by playing golf in four different counties on the same day. He chose Arkansas as the venue, and followed the meandering path of the Arkansas River southward on February 13th, playing the Clarksville Country Club, The Russellville Country Club, the Morrilton Country Club and the Conway Country Club, all nine-hole courses. His plans were thrown into disarray when his train was thirty minutes late on the last leg to Conway.

That sort of “record” seems to me more akin to goldfish swallowing or pole sitting or some other 1920s sporting fad than to a guy playing golf.

Finally, I’ll note that just as Lou Gehrig had his Cal Ripken, Kennedy’s record too would fall. It seems likely that Jack Redmond, a travelling professional trick shot artist, surpassed Kennedy at some point. Redmond had accumulated 2,800 courses by 1950, and played another twenty years beyond that. Like Kennedy, Redmond saved his cards and donated them to the USGA golf museum.

Still, Golf’s Iron Horse is a terrific snapshot of a bygone era of golf, and a fun “beach read.”

Recommended.

The Golf’s Iron Horse Book review was first published April 25, 2017.

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