Homer Kelley's Golfing Machine
The Curious Quest That Solved Golf
The remarkable true story of a lone genius whose quest to unlock the science behind the perfect swing changed golf forever
In 1939, Homer Kelley played golf for the first time and scored 116. Frustrated, he did not play again for six months; when he did he carded a 77. Determined to understand why he was able to shave nearly 40 strokes off his score, Kelley spent three decades of trial and error to unlock the answer and to recapture that one wonderful day when golf was easy and enjoyable. In 1969, Kelley self- published his findings in The Golfing Machine: The Computer Age Approach to Golfing Perfection.
The bestselling instruction books of the day required golfers to conform their swings to the author's ideals, but Homer Kelley configured swings to fit every golfer. He found an enthusiastic disciple in a Seattle teaching pro named Ben Doyle, who in turn found an eager student in 13-year-old prodigy Bobby Clampett. Clampett's initial success in amateur golf shined a bright spotlight on Homer Kelley and The Golfing Machine, but when the young star suffered a painfully public collapse and faltered as a pro, critics were quick to blast Kelley and his complex and controversial ideas. With exclusive access to Homer Kelley's archives, author Scott Gummer paints a fascinating picture of the man behind the machine, the ultimate outsider who changed the game once and for all of us.
How Hard Can It Be?
The ball sat motionless on a peg in the grass. Behind it rested a polished block of persimmon wood, significantly larger in size and harder in composition than the ball. Jutting from the wood was a long, shiny, silver shaft of steel. Wrapped tightly around the grip at the top of the shaft were the strong hands of a thirty-one-year-old man. He took a practice swing. Then another. Weapon at the ready, target open wide, the ball was his for the crushing.
It would have been a different story had the ball been moving. It was not hurtling toward him at blinding speed. It was not camouflaged, made no evasive movements or attempts to elude. It was not curving or sinking or knuckling about. It just sat there, ready for takeoff.
He had no reason to fear repercussion. What he was about to do was not illegal; in fact, it was encouraged. “Give it a ride,” said one of the three men waiting and watching behind him. The ball was not fragile and would not shatter or explode. It bore no seams or stitches or other impediments to its trajectory. It was neither slippery nor spindly nor oblong nor heavy. It was, in fact, quite light and perfectly round. It did not teeter or totter. It just sat there on its perch, completely obediently. “What are you waiting for?” cracked another of the men.
He was not being timed. The others were not referees or umpires, nor were they there to judge him. His style would not be critiqued; his livelihood could not be jeopardized. They had no motivation or mandate to thwart him. He had nothing that they wanted, and they had nothing to defend. “Don’t mind us,” needled the man who had invited him.
Homer Kelley waggled the club back and forth to loosen up. Taking a deep breath, he raised his club like Paul Bunyan lifting his axe and took a violent lash at the defenseless object.
“If I pay for the lessons, will you take them?” Golfing buddies were hard to come by as America climbed out of the Depression, but the boss also aimed to shut Kelley up. “Silly game,” Kelley would grouse. It was not that he disliked golf so much as he enjoyed pushing the boss’s buttons. “How hard can it be to hit a ball in a hole with a stick?” Kelley’s cocksure derision—despite never once having so much as picked up a golf club—spurred the boss to put his money where Kelley’s mouth was. Offered free lessons, Kelley conceded he had nothing to lose.
“That settles it,” said the boss with a wry, knowing grin. “You will get just as bad as anybody.”
A teaching pro had opened up a little indoor driving range just down the street from the billiard hall where Kelley worked as a cook. A couple of times a week over the course of a couple of weeks, Kelley met with the man before working his shift behind the grill. The pro showed Kelley how to hold the club with an interlocking grip, how to take a stance with the ball between his feet, how to take the club away and turn his back to the target, how to swing through and turn his belly button toward the target, and how to finish with his hands high in the sky. Athletic if not an athlete, Kelley picked it up in short order, and after five lessons the boss arranged a weekend game with Kelley, the pro, and a friend.
The round got off to an inauspicious start. Kelley had never set foot on a golf course, and upon arriving on the first tee he was invited to lead the way. Kelley looked to his left, then to his right, and then back to his left, as if he were about to cross a street.
“Which way do I go?” Kelley inquired.
“At the flag,” said the boss.
Homer instinctively spied the Stars and Stripes flapping atop the flagpole.
“That flag!” said the boss, pointing up a long stretch of mowed lawn.
Kelley squinted at a tiny speck on the end of a stick 453 yards in the distance. As he laid the persimmon wood behind the motionless ball, one thought rang in his head, Swing as hard as you can.
Luckily the stand of fir trees lining the fairway deflected Kelley’s hosel rocket, otherwise he might well have taken out one of the golfers on the adjoining hole and been hauled off for manslaughter before ever getting to hit a second shot.
“How can it be that hard?” Kelley grumbled under his breath as he trudged after his tee shot. Meadow Park Golf Course in Tacoma, Washington, was a perfectly pleasant municipal track. Opened in the spring of 1938, it was less than a year old. A par- 70 measuring just under 6,000 yards, it was intentionally designed to be friendly to even the rankest of amateurs, which Homer Kelley most assuredly was.
The first three holes at Meadow Park carried the three highest handicaps on the course. Unfortunately, Kelley failed to capitalize on even that slight advantage. He made a hash of number one, carding a nine on the par five, however he did not shoot himself out of the match, as his pro, his boss, and the friend fared only slightly better, posting six, eight, and nine, respectively. Kelley got things moving in the right direction; he followed his quadruplebogey at the first with a triple at the second. At the par-three third, he sniffed par but settled for bogey.
Whatever hopes Kelley might have harbored for a decent score were dashed when he put up a ten-spot at the par-five sixth hole. And yet, when they made the turn Kelley’s 58, while twenty-our strokes over par, placed him just two strokes behind the boss and his friend. When they finally put the flag back in the hole at eighteenth, the pro had run away from the others with matching 41s, while the friend limped in at 106 and the boss at 115. Kelley and the boss came to the eighteenth hole tied, but Kelley finished the day as disastrously as he’d started, with a quadruple-bogey nine, finishing with a score of 116.
Kelley had no delusions that he would shoot lights out his first time out, but neither did he envision playing like a one-armed blind man in a straitjacket. He was embarrassed, but more than that he was vexed. Shuffling to the parking lot Kelley carped, “I hit the ball so well at the driving range—why couldn’t I do it on the course?” The boss chuckled at Kelley with a wry, knowing grin.
Kelley did not play golf again for six months. Then, one summer Sunday in July 1939, two friends coaxed him into batting it around Tacoma’s Highland Golf Course. Highland was not a brute of a course by any stretch; at 6,147 yards and par 72 it was slightly tougher than Meadow Park. Like Meadow Park, Highland started out with a relatively easy par five measuring 448 yards. Kelley took his stance and addressed the ball, but instead of telling himself to swing as hard as he could Kelley cleared his mind and smoothed his tee shot into the fairway. His approach came up short of the green, but his pitch tucked up close, and his putt found the bottom of the cup for a birdie four.
“How can that be?” Kelley mumbled to himself as they moved to the next tee. At the par-four second hole Kelley again hit the fairway, then the green, and then two-putted for a par. He bogeyed the third, the number-one handicap hole, then strung together a series of pars at the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth holes. Kelley was looking at making the turn in even par before a bogey at the par-five ninth.
Heading to the back nine, Kelley learned a new Golfing term: sandbagger. He endured no shortage of good-natured ribbing from his friends, who had every reason to be leery of Kelley’s woe-is-me tale from his ghastly first time out on the golf course. He gave them no more reason to believe him on the inward nine, carding par-bogey-par-double-par-bogey-par-par through seventeen holes. Like Meadow Park, Highland closed with a 520-yard par five that was rated as the third-hardest hole on the course. Unlike at Meadow Park, Kelley finished with a putt for a birdie four. The ball took a look at the bottom of the cup but stayed out, and Kelley wound up with a 77.
Kelley asked to keep the scorecard, which he summarily presented to his teaching pro, Al Dunn.
“How did I shoot a 77?” asked a dumbfounded Kelley.
“You must have been more relaxed,” was Dunn’s only explanation.
“No,” Kelley countered sharply. “I wasn’t relaxed. I was such a nervous wreck the night before I hardly slept at all.”
“What was different?”
Kelley pondered the question. Maybe his defenses had been down. Or perhaps he had felt a subconscious relief about not playing with his boss and the pro. It might have been that he felt more at ease with the blue-collar crowd at Highlands, or the fact that almost everything is easier the second time around. The only tangible thing that stuck in Kelley’s mind, however, was the slow, sweeping swing he had used.
“Then stick with that,” said the pro. “It obviously works for you.”
More befuddling to Homer Kelley than how he shot a 77 his second time playing golf was how he wound up flipping burgers in a Tacoma billiard hall in the first place.
Kelley was born August 3, 1907, in Clayton, Kansas, the capital of the middle of nowhere. His father, John Kelley, is listed on Homer’s birth certificate as a retail merchant, twenty-nine years old, originally from Saline County, Kansas. Kelley’s mother, Ida, was a twenty-six-year-old housewife from Ottawa County. The family left Kansas when Homer was five and settled in suburban Minneapolis. Along with his brothers and sisters, Lawrence, Ward, Emma, and Elsie, Homer attended public schools and did all the things that average kids do. He played the clarinet and toyed with the piano. He liked to hike and bike and participated in almost every sport except golf; winter, spring, summer, and fall, indoors and out, he played football, basketball, and softball, did gymnastics, swam, bowled, ice skated, and skied. Tennis was his favorite, but Kelley’s true talents and dexterity resided not in his body but in his mind.
Kelley’s hyperactive imagination and insatiable curiosity were fostered in large measure by his having grown up with Minnehaha Falls State Park right in his own backyard. He spent hours upon hours and entire weekend days exploring the farthest corners of the two-hundred-acre wonderland, which felt like a world removed from his extraordinarily ordinary life next door. After graduating from South High School in 1924, Kelley gave college a try for two years, studying a mishmash of subjects from botany to civics to logic to public speaking. The jobs Kelley worked were as odd as they were mundane:
He wanted more. He wanted out.It would be another four decades before man set foot on the moon, so Kelley settled on the next best place, the one that would get him as far away from Minnesota as humanly possible. "Homer Kelley for years loomed as one of the games last great mysteries, an obscure but important man who reshaped our perceptions of the modern swing. In this substantive and stylish book, Gummer unravels Kelley's elusive personal history and sheds light on his considerable influence. It's a story that will enlighten teachers, enthrall serious players, and entertain golfers at all levels."
-Guy Yocom, Golf Digest
"Scott Gummer has done a masterful job at a daunting task: solving the riddle of the man who solved (he thought) the riddle of the golf swing. Homer Kelley's Golfing Machine is a sad and funny story beautifully told."
-Curt Sampson, Author of Hogan
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: