Kings Of The Hill

July 21, 2013

FROM LEFT: Kennie Denmon Jr.; $10 a man; a view of downtown Kansas City from the golf course.

When Kennie Denmon Jr. took up golf in 1966, he did nothing for two years but hit shag balls in city parks and ball fields, because he didn't want to embarrass himself when he went public with his game. His goal was to be a factor at Swope Memorial Golf Course

, on a wooded hill in the largest park in Kansas City, Mo. "If you wanted any kind of reputation as a black golfer," he told me during a recent round, "you had to come up to the Hill." When he finally felt ready, he persuaded a friend to go with him, but on the first tee the friend was so nervous he took more than a dozen practice swings, then topped his ball.

"Everybody laughed," Denmon said, "and I decided that, no matter what, I wasn't going to top my ball, too. So I teed it really high." He swung hard and held his finish, and as he looked up the fairway for his drive a veteran said, "You'd better move. It's going to hit you on the head." The regulars in those days included money players known locally as "vultures," and for a couple of years they picked up Denmon on their way to the course, to make sure he'd be there. "When they stopped calling," he told me, "I knew I was starting to get good."

Swope Memorial was redesigned by A.W. Tillinghast in 1934. It's less than 6,300 yards from the back tees, but it's a real Tillinghast: Sam Mann, a regular, described it to me as Bethpage Black scaled down to human proportions. On the Hill, Mann is known as "Rev." New players sometimes assume that the nickname comes from his habit of using liturgical terminology after hitting bad shots, but Mann actually is a reverend. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, and for 40 years he was the pastor and one of the few white members of a Methodist church in downtown Kansas City.

Until 1950, black players in Swope Park were only allowed to play a lesser course a mile away, at the bottom of the hill. Then four members of the all-black Heart of America Club (after which the lower course was later renamed) left their green fees on the counter and teed off, despite the superintendent's threat to have them arrested. When the police didn't appear, other players followed. Kenneth Krakauer, in When Golf Came To Kansas City, writes that for several tense weeks white players vandalized black players' cars, but that the white players eventually calmed down (with the help of parking-lot guards). The two groups got along but didn't mingle much until the 1970s, when black players began doing well in local tournaments and white players decided they'd better get to know them. Once that happened, Denmon said, everyone stuck to golf, and race—"the elephant in the room"—was never mentioned. For decades now, the regular gang has been mixed.

In the old days, all the best black players in Kansas City were Swope regulars—including, eventually, Denmon. Some became legends. A player named Tommy Williams once asked Denmon, "What if I take a 5-iron and a wedge, and putt with the wedge, and shoot under 36?" Denmon took the bet, and Williams shot 35. Paul Arceneaux never felt comfortable playing in city events, which were mostly white, but he won five consecutive tournaments on the black pro tour known as the Chittlin' Circuit, and he had 21 holes-in-one. "Paul was one of the best putters I ever saw," Denmon said. "If he didn't make it, he lipped it, and he could do things other players wouldn't even think of. He'd be in the trees with no way out, and he'd say, 'I wouldn't want nobody else to have this shot but me.' Then he'd put it on the green."

Bill Redmond, known as Turk, was a mediocre chipper but could putt from anywhere. In a four-ball match once, on a par 3, he pushed his tee shot into the rough well to the right of the green. Between his ball and the hole were a cartpath, a tree, a bunker and a steeply sloping putting surface, and after studying his lie for a while he asked Denmon, his partner, to have a look. "When my ball gets to the green," Redmond said, "what's it going to do?" Their opponents—one of whom had a three-foot birdie putt—fumed, assuming this was gamesmanship. "But Bill putted from behind the tree," Denmon said, "and when his ball started rolling down the green I thought, My God, it's going to go in." It did, and the opponent with the birdie putt was so flabbergasted that he smacked his ball into the trees and walked in.