NEWTON, Kan. – When Ken Towns arrived in Wichita on his way to the final U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Sand Creek Station Golf Course, located about 35 miles north of the city, he was struck by the number of public courses in the area.
They must have about 20 courses in the greater Wichita area, said Towns, 86, who flew into the heartland from his home near Sacramento, Calif. And they’re all probably in great shape. Nowadays, if you don’t maintain the course, you’re in no competition.
When I was younger, we used to play the courses the way they were. The equipment that takes care of golf courses makes all the difference now.
Towns’ heyday was the 1949 U.S. Amateur Public Links, which he won at Rancho Golf Course in Los Angeles, just down the coast from where he lived in San Francisco. To win that championship, Towns, who was 21 at the time, had to win eight matches in six days.
During his visit to Sand Creek Station, where he watched some players from Northern California, Towns recalled that his most difficult match was the 36-hole semifinal against Philip Kunkel. Towns won, 1 up, partly due to the Rules at the time, which allowed stymies, in which a competitor’s ball could obstruct the path of his opponent’s ball on the green.
On the 36th hole, Towns’ birdie putt stopped eight inches from the hole, directly between Kunkel’s ball and the hole.
There was no way he could make the putt, said Towns, who went on to defeat William Betger, 5 and 4, in the 36-hole final.
Towns, who discovered golf at age 10 by caddieing at Beresford Country Club (now Peninsula Golf And Country Club), played even better at the following year’s Public Links, held at Seneca Golf Course in Louisville, Ky. But after winning three matches, he was defeated in the fourth round, not so much by another player but by the weather.
We were from the West Coast, so the heat and humidity were new to us, said Towns, who was traveling with fellow San Franciscan Ken Venturi. We were staying at the Brown Hotel, and it was so hot that Ken and I took turns sleeping in the bathtub.
[In the fourth round], I was 3 up with four to go and lost. I just ran out of gas. I couldn’t hit the ball; I couldn’t get it off the ground.
Towns only played in two Public Links Championships, but they formed the foundation for a lifetime of golf that has produced countless memories. After a three-year Army stint, Towns turned professional and tried the vagabond lifestyle for several years, driving across the country and chasing $50 checks for a 30th-place finish.
In 1957, Towns regained his amateur status and went to work in the printing business.
A friend of mind offered me a job I couldn’t pass up, said Towns.
Seven years later, his friend and boss became his sponsor for another try at the PGA Tour.
You want to watch something tough, said Towns. Try to watch these guys try to qualify on Monday. You couldn’t make a hell of a lot of money unless you were a good player. I was a medium player.
To illustrate his point, Towns reached down to pick up a newspaper that was lying next to him on the seat of the golf cart on which he was sitting. He picked it up and turned it upside down.
This was the only way to find my name, said Towns, running his finger from the top (bottom, actually) edge of the newsprint, stopping a couple of inches from the edge, as if he had found his name.
Oh, there you are, he said in a sarcastic tone. You’re not too far from the top.
In 1967, Towns got off the road a second time and became a club professional, first in Tracy, Calif., then in Truckee, Calif. In 1988, at the age of 60, Towns took his third stab at competitive golf, this time on the burgeoning Senior PGA Tour.
That was like flushing money down the toilet, he said. Every week, there were 144 people trying to qualify for three spots.
Now, at 86, Towns plays for camaraderie and the love of the game. He is a living embodiment of TEE IT FORWARD, enjoying his twice-weekly rounds from the forward tees and shooting his age nearly every time he plays. He first shot his age when he was 65, and posted a 73 last week at Lake Wildwood Golf Course.
Towns received bad news a couple of months ago when he found out that his wife, Daphne, no longer could play golf due to health issues. Playing with family and friends always had been a key part of Towns’ life.
My three sons play, but they all have jobs and families so we don’t play that often, he said. I had 10 grandchildren; now I only have nine. If something else doesn’t get you, cancer will.
Sitting under the Kansas sun, 65 years, thousands of miles and thousands of golf shots removed from the victory that so influenced the trajectory of his life, Towns was wistful about the end of the championship that was a springboard toward his life in golf.
At the same time, he celebrated every competitor in the field, and felt it would be unfortunate that current and future generations of young golfers wouldn’t have the opportunities he received by winning this championship.
When you look at it, he said, you’ve got 300 million people in the U.S. and you end up with 156 here. Well, that’s a very minute percentage. Just getting here is an achievement. Then who knows? One of them could go out and shoot a 66 or 67 today, and it could turn his whole trip around, and maybe his whole life around.
I shed a few tears the other night [during the pre-championship dinner at which USGA President Tom O’Toole Jr. eulogized the championship]. I think it’s fulfilled my life with a lot of positives. Winning this really meant – means – a lot to me.
Hunki Yun is the director of strategic projects for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.