On Nov. 20, 2012, Long Beach resident and longtime golfer Len Kennett added the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to his already extensive list of accolades, which include All-American Golfer Award at USC, winner of the 1950 Southern California Collegiate Championship, recipient of the Southern California PGA’s Distinguished Service Award, CIF Southern Section’s Golf Professional of the Year Award, and 1998 inductee into the Long Beach Golf Hall of Fame. Beyond his own career, Kennett is also known for his contributions to junior golf, in particular, the Len Kennett Junior Golf Championship, now going into its 58th year.
Kennett discovered golf at a young age.
“I got into golf because I was 13 and they built a very nice golf course near my house in Arcadia,” Kennett said. “I was in my 9th grade Latin class, when the guy in front of me said, ‘I made a dollar yesterday.’ In 1940, that was a fair amount of money. He explained that if you went over to the new golf course and carried a guy’s clubs around for a while, he’d pay you 75 cents. If you were on your toes, you’d get a quarter tip. So I said, let me at it!”
It wasn’t long before he was bitten by the golf bug. “Once the bug bites, it really gets you. You watch guys you’re caddying for, and think, ‘Hey, I ought to try that myself.’ That’s the way it started,” Kennett said. “It’s a challenging game, a bit like bridge. Bridge is a hard game to do well at, so there’s a lot of pleasure in doing well. Golf is not unlike that.”
He honed his skills throughout high school and, after a brief stint in the Marines, continued playing at USC, which he attended under the G.I. Bill.
“My senior year, I was captain of the Trojans, and I won the Southern California Intercollegiate, which at the time was the premiere golf championship in the state of California,” Kennett said. “I was also selected to play in the East-West matches. That was exciting. Then I got back from Nationals and knew I had to go to work.”
Back then, as Kennett explained it, pro golf wasn’t as lucrative as it is today. He could make more money pumping gas, selling insurance, or teaching golf lessons for $2.50.
A golf-professional friend of his got him a job as an assistant at a golf course. It was around this time that his friend Paul Runyan, who was a professional at a well-known golf course in Pasadena, invited him to team up to offer kids free golf lessons.
“I only got one day a week off, but I did it,” Kennett said. “I’ve been offering kids free lessons ever since.”
“I have always felt that if you found the right club for people, they’d play better,” Kennett said. “It was something that I spent some time on for myself, and it seemed to help. I helped others do the same thing.”
Then in 1955 he began the Len Kennett Junior Golf Championship.
“There aren’t really many good tournaments for junior golf players,” he said. “I make sure to greet each kid and tee them off like you would at any other golf tournament. Golf is a good game for them. The game has honor, and it teaches character. It’s also a good family game. There are very few games that a 10-year-old will play with his parents, so it has the ability to bring families together.”
He and his wife Marie, who will be celebrating their 61st anniversary on February 10th, lived in Oceanside until 1957, when he was selected as the head professional at the San Gabriel Country Club.
“I stayed at the San Gabriel Country Club until 1964,” he said. “The smog was getting pretty bad up there, so the county decided they were going to open the Los Verdes Golf Course in Palos Verdes. I applied for the job on a bid and stayed there 34 years.”
The Lakewood Country Club golf course was in danger of being shut down when they called in Kennett in the late 1970s.
“Lakewood had run into trouble,” he said. “Their sprinkler system was bad; they were talking about subdividing it and selling the land. They asked me to help, so I managed it as well as Los Verdes. I stayed there for 22 years.”
He helped fix up the golf course and then started giving away free golf lessons to kids again. He announced the free lessons in a local daily newspaper, and they immediately became popular.
“The kids started going, and the parents followed,” Kennett said. “Then I put on my junior golf tournament for kids between 9 and 17. Tiger Woods played in one of the tournaments. Visitors would come and see Lakewood, and they’d say, ‘Hey this isn’t so bad.’ We finally got the clubhouse open and it’s been going ever since.”
The octogenarian father of two daughters and five grandchildren retired when he was 75. Nonetheless, he still gives free golf lessons for kids as well as veterans. He also helps organize his junior golf championship every year. On July 2, 2013, he’ll be on the first tee from 6:30am until 3pm, greeting each kid and teeing them off in official fashion.
“Len is a brilliant golf mind, visionary, retailer, and mentor, but he’s an even better human being,” said Jorge Badel, Senior Golf Director for Los Angeles County Dept. Parks and Recreation. “He taught me as much about life as he taught me about golf. He had a profound impact on all Southern Californian golfers– juniors, women, and seniors– both professional and amateur. That’s a pretty wide swath.”
For Kennett, it was just all in a day’s work.
“It sounds a little corny, but I worked because I was interested in what I was doing,” Kennett said. “I made a living at it, but I didn’t really do it for money. I did it because I liked what I was doing.”