Born in Sydney, Australia, Kirkwood left home at age ten to work on a sheep station in the Australian Outback, where his boss introduced him to the game of golf. He developed his skills to the point where he could compete in his country's most important golf tournaments. Kirkwood won the Australian Open in 1920 and in that year's New Zealand Open he astounded the golfing world with a victory that surpassed the previous tournament record score by twelve strokes.
Kirkwood's success led him to England and Europe where, in his first competition, he defeated the great Harry Vardon. He began playing on the professional tour in the United States in 1923, winning that year's Houston Invitational, and was the first Australian to win on what became the PGA Tour. In 1924, he was one of the top-ranked golfers on the tour with five victories, three of which were consecutive. Kirkwood remains co-holder of the record for the widest winning stroke margin in PGA Tour history, set at the 1924 Corpus Christi Open in Texas. That year he also teamed up with Walter Hagen to begin travelling around the globe putting on golf and trick-shot exhibitions, newsreels of which were sent back home to be shown in cinemas around the U.S.
Kirkwood's best performance in a major championship was a third place finish in the PGA Championship in 1930, a semifinalist in the match play competition. He finished fourth in the British Open on three separate occasions. In 1933, he won the Canadian Open. He was apparently the first-ever golfer to tee off from the howdah atop a domesticated elephant, which he first did (and was photographed doing) at Royal Calcutta Golf Club in Calcutta in 1937, and soon after in other clubs in India, and later in Africa.
Over his lifetime in golf, Kirkwood is credited with scoring twenty-nine holes-in-one, two of which came in the same round. In his later years, he retired to the mountain resort community of Stowe, Vermont in New England, where he was the local teaching pro at the Stowe Country Club. The club has held the Joe Kirkwood Memorial Golf Tournament annually since 1967. Notably, Kirkwood's skills remained at a high level for most of his life and at age fifty-one, in 1948 he and his son Joe Kirkwood, Jr. both made the cut at the U.S. Open, the first father and son to do so and a record tied only in 2004. When his son won the 1951 Blue Ribbon Open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they became the third father-son winners in the history of the PGA Tour, which by 2010 still has only seven such pairs of winners. One of Kirkwood's most remarkable feats was playing a round of golf at 10-under-par 62, "breaking his age" at the age of sixty-three.
Kirkwood died at age 73 in 1970 in Burlington, Vermont. He was elected to the American Golf Hall of Fame at Foxburg, Pennsylvania. His autobiography, as told to Barbara Fey, was published posthumously in 1973 under the title Links of Life. In his honour, the annual winner of the Australian PGA Championship receives the Kirkwood Cup. He is buried in the West Branch Cemetery in Stowe.
47th Annual- Joe Kirkwood Memorial Tournament - 6/26-29
The Joe Kirkwood Invitational is one of New England's longest running and finest amateur four-ball events. The event honors former Stowe Country Club Pro Joe Kirkwood spent the last years of his life in Stowe and was a big proponent of the game of golf, especially with the youngsters; fittingly, the Joe Kirkwood Tournament benefits the Stowe Junior golf program and has been integral to introducing thousands of children to the life enhancing principles found in the game.
For more information and to register the Kirkwood mailing list, please visit www.kirkwoodgolftournament.com/
Tell your story of hardluck shots,
Of each shot straight and true,
But when you're done remember son –
That nobody cares but you!
- Joe Kirkwood 1897 - 1970