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Kirkwood, Joseph Henry (1897–1970)

by Brian Stoddart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Joseph Henry Kirkwood (1897-1970), professional golfer, was born on 3 April 1897 at Canterbury, Sydney, second son of English-born parents Thomas William Kirkwood, labourer, and his wife Effie Clara, née Broome, late Hardwick. Educated at Manly, Joe became a caddy at Manly Golf Club and was later apprenticed to D. G. Soutar, the club's professional from Scotland. In 1916 Kirkwood was temporary professional at Brisbane Golf Club, Yeerongpilly, before being appointed the professional at Riversdale Golf Club, Melbourne. He married Maud Lucy Woods on 2 January 1918 with Catholic rites in the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Watsons Bay, Sydney; they were later divorced.

In 1920 Kirkwood won the Australian Open championship with a record (until 1934) score of 290 for four rounds. During a public subscription to help to send him to Britain, he was criticized for his failure to enlist for war service. At St Andrews, Scotland, Kirkwood was in contention for the 1921 Open, but faded to tie for sixth place; he claimed that he had been sabotaged by bookmakers who disrupted his concentration. Next year he beat the best professionals in Britain by an astonishing thirteen strokes in a tournament at Lossiemouth. He again looked certain to win the Open in 1923, but lost by three strokes to finish fourth, and in 1927 tied for third. He never won another major tournament, perhaps because he lacked the necessary temperament, but he was to gain numerous professional titles.

Kirkwood took up permanent residence in the United States of America in 1926 and was increasingly involved in exhibition matches with such players as Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. Attached as a professional to several leading American golf clubs—including Huntingdon Valley Country Club, Pennsylvania—Kirkwood spent much of his time touring the world, giving trick-shot exhibitions. He could play superbly both left and right handed, drive a ball off a watchface (once hitting a hole-in-one while so doing) or off prone assistants' noses, hit two balls at once in different directions, and hit a ball long distances from under an onlooker's foot. He and Hagen travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and the Americas; Kirkwood reckoned that he played on more than 6000 courses. The pair claimed to have popularized the use of wooden tees instead of placing the ball on small mounds of sand or dirt. Their life on tour became legendary, combining Hagen's love of drink and Kirkwood's of women. Kirkwood had presented a cup to the Professional Golfers' Association of Australia in 1922; he returned to Australia in 1928, 1930, 1934, 1937 and 1954; in the 1930s, with Hagen and Sarazen, he attracted large crowds.

Although he transformed himself into a well-dressed, well-groomed and fast-talking showman, with a pronounced American accent and turn of phrase, Kirkwood always introduced himself as an Australian. Among his acquaintances and pupils were W. C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, J. H. Scullin, rajahs and aristocrats. In World War II he was allegedly investigated on suspicion of being an enemy agent—he had taught Japanese soldiers to play golf in the 1930s. He remained an excellent golfer throughout his life and at the age of 63 recorded 62 on a par-72 course, breaking his age for the first time.

Kirkwood had remarried and divorced at least two wives in America: Cathy, and Loretto Hartnett. His somewhat apocryphal memoirs were published posthumously as Links of Life (Oklahoma City, 1973). He died on 29 October 1970 at Burlington, Vermont, and was buried in Stowe cemetery. A daughter and four sons survived him; Joe junior played Joe Palooka in ten films about the comic-strip character.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Hagen, The Walter Hagen Story (Lond, 1957)
  • J. Pollard, Australian Golf (Syd, 1990)
  • C. de Groot and J. Webster, Pro Golf Out of the Rough (Syd, 1991)
  • Golf in Australia, 1920-24
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26 May, 21 June 1926, 21 Nov 1928, 10 Oct 1934, 1 Jan 1985
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1928, camera supplement
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Nov 1930, 15 Oct 1943
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 23 Oct 1943, 7 July 1944
  • New York Times, 15 Nov 1970
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 22 Nov 1970.

Citation details

Brian Stoddart, 'Kirkwood, Joseph Henry (1897–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirkwood-joseph-henry-10753/text19063, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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