Joe Kirkwood Sr.: First Australian PGA Tour Winner, Trick Shot Performer

Golfer Joe Kirkwood Sr.

Joe Kirkwood Sr. was the first Australian winner on the PGA Tour and won more than a dozen times in the 1920s and 1930s. But his bigger claim to fame is probably that he was the first golfer to gain fame (and lots of money) by doing trick shots.

Full name: Joseph Henry Kirkwood Sr.

Date of birth: April 3, 1897

Place of birth: Sydney, Australia

Date and place of death: October 29, 1970 in Burlington, Vermont

Joe Kirkwood's Pro Tour Wins

Kirkwood is credited with 13 wins in tournaments now counted as PGA Tour events:
  • 1923 California Open Championship
  • 1923 St. Augustine Open
  • 1923 Houston Invitational
  • 1923 Open Championship of Illinois
  • 1923 Kansas Mid-Continent Pro Championship (tie with Walter Hagen)
  • 1924 Texas Open
  • 1924 Houston Open
  • 1924 Philadelphia Open Championship
  • 1924 Corpus Christi Open
  • 1930 Long Beach Open (tie with Olin Dutra)
  • 1931 Southeastern Open
  • 1933 North and South Open
  • 1933 Canadian Open
In 1920, before leaving his home region, he won three times: the Australian Open, New Zealand Open and New Zealand PGA Championship. In 1922, Kirkwood won in Great Britain at the McVitie & Price Tournament.

Kirkwood In the Majors

Kirkwood's best finish in a major championship was fourth, which he recorded three times in the British Open: 1923, 1927 and 1934. He had eight Top 10 finishes total in majors, but none in the U.S. Open. In the PGA Championship, Kirkwood's best showing was a loss in the semifinals in 1930.

Popularizer of Golf Trick Shot Performances

Kirkwood "earned more fame as a trick-shot artist than as a top golfer," Peter Alliss wrote in his The Who's Who of Golf. Kirkwood, Alliss related, "once holed in one after hitting his shot from a watch face" that had been affixed to the clubface."

That was just one of the 29 career aces with which Kirkwood is credited.

Kirkwood was a force on the PGA Tour in 1923-24, and that earned him a spot touring internationally with Walter Hagen. Hagen and Kirkwood went on several tours together, first in 1924. Kirkwood would warm up the crowd with trick shots, then the two would play an exhibition match.

Some of those trick-shot performances were filmed and shown in the United States in the newsreels that played before the movie began. It was through those newsreels that Kirkwood's fame as a trick-shot artist grew.

Kirkwood also toured with Gene Sarazen.

In a New York Times article after his death in 1970, Kirkwood, the article related, "learned that hitting golf shots in a different or trick way proved entertaining to wounded service men." That was during World War I, before Kirkwood left Australia. During World War II, Kirkwood frequently put on trick-shot shows for the wounded of that war.

Some of Kirkwood's best-known tricks were hitting multiple balls in a row very quickly without looking at them; hitting multiple balls simultaneously by holding two or even three golf clubs in his hands at the same time; and hitting two balls, one immediately after the other, making one ball slice and the other ball hook.

He also did a routine that started with him missing the ball, then just barely topping one, then catching more of the next but still topping it, and so on, until ultimately arriving at the perfect shot.

Kirkwood Still Holds a PGA Tour Record

In 1924, Kirkwood won the Corpus Christi Open by a whopping 16 strokes. At that time, only one other golfer had won a PGA Tour event by that wide a margin. Since that time, two other golfers have also posted 16-stroke wins, but nobody has yet beaten that mark.

Which means that Joe Kirkwood today still shares an all-time PGA Tour record. (J. Douglas Edgar, Sam Snead and Bobby Locke are the others who won by 16 strokes. Tiger Woods has come closest since, winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15.)

Kirkwood's son Joe Kirkwood Jr. was also a PGA Tour player, and in the 1948 U.S. Open, when Senior was 51, both made the cut. They were the first father-son duo to make the cut in a U.S. Open, and the only ones until Jay Haas and Bill Haas did so in the 2004 U.S. Open.

When Joe Kirkwood Jr. won the 1951 Blue Ribbon Open, the Kirkwoods became just the third father-son pair to both have wins on the PGA Tour.

More About Joe Kirkwood Sr.

Kirkwood learned golf in, of all places, the Australian Outback. At age 10 he went to work on a sheep ranch in the Outback, and his boss was a golfer who introduced him to the game.

He emigrated to the United States in the early 1920s and lived there for the rest of his life.

When Kirkwood won the 1923 California Open Championship, he became the first Australian to win on the PGA Tour. Kirkwood was a force on the tour his first two seasons, winning nine titles in 1923-24. He won three consecutive weeks in 1924 at the Houston Open, Texas Open and Corpus Christi Open.

But as his trick-shot fame grew, he focused more on that part of his career — probably because he was making more money that way. Most tour golfers at that time had second jobs as club pros because tournament money wasn't very high.

Kirkwood and Hagen played roles in popularizing the wooden golf tee in the form by which it is still made today. They were paid by a dentist and golfer named William Lowell to use his "Reddy Tee," a wooden tee painted red. It exploded in popularity and wooden tees became the standard for golf.

Kirkwood was known as one of the best dressers of his tour era. Hagen once called him "the Beau Brummell of the golfing fraternity."

Kirkwood first shot his age when he was 63 and recorded a round of 62. He spent the final nine years of his life as the head pro at Stowe Country Club in Vermont's ski country. He was particularly known there for his work with junior golfers. Today, the Kirkwood Memorial Golf Tournament is still played every June at the club as a fund-raiser for junior golf programs.

Kirkwood's son, Joe Jr., became an actor and starred in a series of movies as the fictional comic-strip boxer Joe Palooka. ... Joe Sr.'s "as told to" autobiography, titled Links of Life, was published posthumously in 1973.

Photo credit: National Photo Company Collection [Public domain]

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