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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kennishaw "Niblick" Taylor Looks back on 100 Years of Arizona Golf

"Call me 'Niblick'," the old man said, rising from the table to greet me. He was thin as a twig and looked as if he would be blown away by a decent gust of wind. Then again, he was a hundred and four years old.

Kennishaw "Niblick" Taylor was an Arizona golf legend who spent much of his life barnstorming around the state and playing exhibition matches and performing trick-shot demonstrations. He never golfed a PGA sanctioned tournament and has been mostly overlooked by history. This is his story.

Niblick Taylor (far right) caddying at the San Marcos -1913

When I was asked to do a story about a hundred years of Arizona golf for the state's Centennial, I began researching the topic and the name of Kennishaw Taylor caught my eye. I began to ask some old-timers about Taylor and learned that not only was he still alive, he still lived here in the desert he loved. After some fast-talking and palm-greasing, arrangements were made for me to meet the legend in a coffee shop in Apache Junction.

"You can only believe about half of what I say," the old man told me, a twinkle in his ancient eye. "The hard part is I don't remember which half is the truth..." So began our interview. I could find very little recorded history regarding Taylor, who at various parts of our interview claimed he was the founder of Taylor guitars, Taylor-Made golf clubs and the father of Andy Taylor, "the famous sheriff from the TV". Even the photograph Niblick Taylor showed me of himself as a boy caddying at the San Marcos golf course in 1913 didn't ring true. If the photo had indeed been taken in 1913 as he claimed, he would have been 5 years-old. The boy in the photograph looks a few years older than that. Could he have simply gotten his dates wrong, or was he pulling my leg?

"Where did you get the name 'Niblick'?" I asked. The old man leaned back and smiled. His cocoa was cooling - he said drinking it too hot made him anxious. "Well, before your time and all your fancy names for golf clubs - like '9-iron' and '8-iron' and '7-iron' and so-forth, we had a set of logical names for the clubs - each name was standard and all clubs conformed to this naming convention. We had 'Mashies' and of course 'Mid-Mashie' and 'Spade-Mashie', as well as the 'Mashie-Iron'. There was the 'Jigger' and the 'Brassie' and the 'Spoon'. We also had a 'Brassie-Spoon' and a 'Cleek', but I don't want to confuse you. The 'Niblick' was the equivalent of what you would call a '9-iron' in today's fancy terms. There was also a 'Mashie Niblick' and a 'Pitching Niblick'." Taylor sipped his cocoa. "That was back when things was simple... Anyhow, I once holed out a shot from behind a tree, in thick rough, standing in a puddle of water, with a horse and cart standing in front of the green. With my Niblick. They started calling me "Niblick" after my amazing shot and the name stuck. Of course, I practiced that shot all the time, so it was nothing new for me, but the rest of the gang thought it was pretty amazing."

I asked Niblick how golf had changed in Arizona over the last century, trying to keep the interview on course. "Well, for one thing, you don't have to run from Apaches," he said. He tore a square from his toast and dipped in into the cocoa. Then he let go of the square and it sank to the bottom of his cup. He didn't seem to mind. "Why, I remember once I was on the last hole of an amazing round - back then the fairways was dirt and the greens was oiled sand - I was on the verge of shooting a 54. I lined up my putt and was preparing to knock in an 8-footer for the record-setting score, when all of the sudden we heard this whooping and hollering - it was a small war party of Apache Indians coming over the rise to get our scalps! We ran to our horses and beat them back into town, but needless to say, I never finished the round and my 54... Well..." The old man stared at his cocoa.

"Who was the most famous person you ever golfed with?" I asked. Niblick smiled. "I took Bob Hope for six thousand dollars at the Phoenix Country Club in 1947... I beat the hell out of Chico Marx when he refused to pay up on his losses, once. He bet I couldn't hit a golf ball teed up on a four-foot pole from ahorseback 250 yards...Threw the little bastard around the clubhouse at the Biltmore and threatened to break his piano fingers with a Spade Mashie..." Niblick leaned in conspiratorially. "I had sex with Carole Lombard at the Biltmore, too - one night by the pool. Her husband was passed out drunk in a chair right next to us." "You mean Clark Gable?" I asked. Niblick thought for a moment. "That might have been his name..."

"What is your favorite memory of this last century of golf in Arizona?" I asked. The old man was tiring. His cocoa had gone cold and now he was simply dropping little torn squares of toast into the cup and watching them sink. He gazed wistfully at the toast-filled cup. "Carole Lombard..." "Besides Carole Lombard," I prodded.

"Well," he began, gesturing out the window at the ramshackle Apache Junction buildings lining the trail. "Before all this, a man really had to want to golf. There weren't golf courses on every corner, they certainly weren't green and beautiful - they were mostly dirt - and it was devilish-hot most of the year." We both looked at the cocoa - the toast had swelled up in the cup and now oozed over the rim like a muffin-top. "You had to ride in a hot coach or on the back of horse for twelve or fifteen miles through dust with barely a marked road just to get to a golf course." Niblick picked up a spoon and began to gently dig at the cocoa-toast. He spooned a bit into his mouth. He pointed the spoon and leveled his eyes at me. "Back then a man had to really want to golf."

He turned back to his cup and I rose to go. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Taylor."

"Call me Niblick," he said.

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