Chances are that of all the golfers you know or play with, none have actually teed it up on the PGA Tour. The three gentlemen mentioned in this article have all played many events on the PGA and PGA Champions Tours. Two of them were tour members and one actually won a PGA tournament.
Sam Adams, Bill Kennedy and Bobby Bray, all with East Tennessee ties, have been golf professionals for an average of forty years each. Back in the day on tour, in PGA events and practice rounds, each experienced brushes with greatness. All three had the great opportunity, as golf pros, to play with PGA legends and Hall of Famers like Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, Miller, Trevino, Watson and many more. Sam, Bobby and Bill excelled in junior golf and became great amateurs in their home state. Each had illustrious careers as golf pros, teaching the game of golf and helping others improve their games. These three men have very interesting stories to tell and all golfers will enjoy their tales from “back in the day.”
SAM ADAMS played on the PGA Tour after graduating from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. Sam was a NAIA collegiate All-American and played on the PGA Tour from 1971 to 1978. For three or four of those PGA Tour years, Sam was the only “lefty.” He was the first American “lefty” to win a PGA Tour event! A real trail blazer. (Phil and Bubba should thank him.) Sam won the Quad Cities Open in Des Moines, Iowa in 1973 by shooting back-to-back 64s on Friday and Saturday. In Sunday’s final round he birdied 17 and 18 to win the tournament by three shots. This tournament is now called the “John Deere Classic.”
In 1974, Sam was paired with Arnold Palmer for the first time at Rio Pinar Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. at the Florida Citrus Open which later became the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament at Arnie’s Bay Hill course. On the first hole, Arnold started with a double-bogey on the par five. He finished the round with a 67, playing “lights out” the remainder of the round after the dubious start. Sam said an Orlando sportswriter wrote in the local newspaper the next day that on the first hole Arnie must have been nervous to start since he was playing with Sam Adams for the first time ever.
At the 1974 Eastern Airlines Open at Doral in Miami, Sam played with Jack Nicklaus. A Japanese company furnished Sam with their Skyway golf balls and midway through the round, Jack asked Sam what kind of balls Sam was playing with? After Sam told him, Jack gave Sam a sleeve of McGregor golf balls to try. Sam proceeded to birdie three of the next four holes. After that, Sam turned to Jack and said, “So it is the ball, not just you.” Jack had a good laugh.
After his last year on tour, Sam returned to Boone and helped build Roan Valley Golf Club which is now RedTail Mountain in Mountain City, Tenn. He has been the pro there ever since it opened in 1982. Sam won the Tennessee PGA Senior Player of the Year in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and has a Tennessee PGA Lifetime Achievement Award. Sam still lives in Boone and crosses the Tennessee border, driving the few miles into Tennessee where he is a fixture at RedTail Mountain.
BILL KENNEDY has lived in Newport, Tenn. for 11 years now. He grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., making quite a name for himself as one of the best junior golfers in Florida. Many great golfers come from that state. In 1962 and 1963, at 20 and 21 years old, Bill was the youngest golfer on the PGA Tour. According to Bill and the other two men featured in this article, it was very hard to make a good living on the tour in the sixties and seventies. The money was not good unless you finished first or second in a tournament. Conditions of the courses could be challenging. A personal sponsorship was hard to come by and the equipment, the balls and clubs especially, were light years behind the equipment of today by technological standards.
Bill’s assistant pro career began under Bob Toski who won several times on the PGA Tour in the 1950s and became one of the game’s great teachers. Toski started the Golf Digest Schools. Bill also assisted under Jack Mackie, whose father was the second president of the PGA of America. With such great tutelage, Bill turned out to be a pretty good golf pro himself, with stints on Florida’s east and west coasts. He has almost 50 years as a golf professional under his belt.
As a young man in his twenties, Bill was told by Toski, “I’ve got a guy coming down to play. Can you take him out and play with him today?” Bill did. The “guy” was Gene Sarazen.
In 1972 and 1974 Bill was the PGA Player of the Year in Florida. He accumulated 18 chapter wins in South Florida and 11 PGA Section wins all over Florida. On the PGA Tour Champions (formerly known as the PGA Champions and Senior PGA Tour) tour recently, Bill played a couple practice rounds in Ireland with one of the nicest guys he says he’s ever met - Gary Player. When the Senior PGA Tour went to Japan in 1992 to play in their biggest tournament, Bill was paired with Arnold Palmer. Bill said the crowds were tremendous. Arnold made a big impression, like so many others have said, and that once you met him, you feel as if he is, and always will be, your friend. Over the years, when Bill and Arnold crossed paths, that was the case. Arnold wanted to know how Bill was doing.
One of the best golf shots Bill ever witnessed was at the Senior PGA Championship at PGA National in West Palm Beach, Fla. In the third round, Bill was playing with Lee Trevino. On the 17th hole, a par-three, Trevino missed the green and his ball ended up in extremely thick rough between a bunker and the green. A little over 20 feet from the pin, the ball was hidden. Trevino opened his wedge and came down hard, popping the ball straight up. The ball plopped down on the fringe of the green and trickled downhill about 20 feet and into the hole. Lee said to Bill, “If you’d given me a four before that shot, I would have taken it.”
Bill Kennedy made the cut five consecutive times in the nineties when he played the Senior PGA Championship. Bill has held over 15 course records, was voted Golf Pro of the Year in Florida and has 13 career holes-in-one.
BOBBY BRAY was one of the longest drivers of the golf ball in his era. In all the tournaments he played in his prime, he does not remember too many who could out-drive him. Bobby had a tremendous wedge game, too. Good enough to shoot 60 twice and 61 several times. In his lifetime, Bobby recorded 17 holes-in-one. Guess his iron play wasn’t too bad, either.
Bobby had an illustrious 40-year career as the golf pro at the Country Club in Morristown, Tenn., where he is from and still lives. He played college golf at the University of Tennessee. The life of a golf pro, working 70 to 80-hour weeks, left him little time to prepare, travel and get ready for PGA Tour events. He had to qualify and had no sponsorship help. Bobby did play in 20 PGA tournaments and he played with the likes of Fuzzy Zoeller, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino and Bruce Lietzke. Bobby tells of the time he played with Tom Lehman at the Memphis Open at Colonial Country Club (now the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind). Bobby pulled off a memorable shot. On one par four, he found that his drive ended next to a tree. He took his 8-iron and goes lefty, turning the club over, hits the ball and, 135 yards later, the ball rolls to the green.
A golf legend in Tennessee, Bobby won PGA section championships in 1982, 1989 and 1998. He won the Tennessee State Open in 1974 and Senior section championships on 1999 and 2003. Bobby appeared in the 1999 Senior United States Open. He has played with Lee Trevino at La Quinta, Cal. and Johnny Miller at Pebble Beach. In state competition, Bobby defeated several players who went on to play on the PGA Tour. It is said that back in the day, this man could really play. But over his 40-plus year career as a golf pro, probably his biggest enjoyment is the number of people he’s helped along the way. Over 100 of Bobby’s students have gone on to play collegiate golf. Even now, you’ll find a few of them on pro tours. Many more casual golfers benefited by learning the game from him. Bobby is a recipient of the Tennessee PGA Lifetime Achievement award.
Sam Adams, Bill Kennedy and Bobby Bray grew up in a different era in the game of golf. Much has changed since they started their careers in the 1960s and 1970s. Each has lived fulfilling lives, making many friends along the way and what they’ve accomplished is pretty amazing.