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Always a Pro, Len Kennett Lifts an Aging Course to Above-Par : Golf: The USC star’s lifelong love of the game can be seen in help he gives young players and the care he extends customers at Lakewood Country Club.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most mornings, before the dew has evaporated from the tees and greens at the Lakewood Country Club golf course, Len Kennett can been seen scurrying inside the pro shop that bears his name.

As tall, lean and energetic as he was more than 40 years ago when he putted his way to stardom as a member of the USC golf team, Kennett runs shops at Lakewood and the Los Verdes Golf Course in Rancho Palos Verdes. His presence at Lakewood since 1979 has been credited with restoring some luster to the aging 6,941-yard course, which weaves north of Carson Street among elegantly landscaped homes and south of it alongside the McDonnell Douglas aircraft plant.

“Since Len has been here, he has brought a much more professional attitude to the place,” said Bill Todd, a retired physician who sits on a golf course advisory council made up of area residents. “He treats all the players--the golfers--like good customers, not just like someone who is doing the county a favor.”

For 12 years--even on Sundays and Christmas--early-rising, coffee-swilling golfers have paid greens fees and grabbed score cards at the Lakewood pro shop, their spikes scraping the worn concrete path that leads to the first tee. Inside, where golf bags and clubs are displayed, Kennett is usually stocking merchandise or working behind the counter. A resident of Long Beach, he makes it a habit to know patrons by their first names.

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“What I do is a labor of love,” he said one recent morning while sipping his daily half-cup of black coffee in the clubhouse coffee shop. It was 8:30 a.m., and Kennett had been at the course since 6. “This game gets to you. Once the bug bites, it doesn’t let loose.”

Kennett has always been a sucker for a good cause, and young golfers have always drawn his interest. Recently, he was honored by the CIF Southern Section as its golf professional of the year.

For more than 40 years he has given free group lessons, and he sponsors a pair of youth tournaments each year. Last June, he put on a 36-hole scratch tournament for amateurs so they could experience what Kennett calls “tough-guy golf. The way it used to be.”

“For good young players, there are no really good tournaments for them to play in,” he said. “So many of them turn pro because there is so much money to be made, but many of them shouldn’t.”

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Kennett is also credited with promoting local professional events. On Monday he plays host to the first round of the $5,000 Len Kennett Putting Contest, which concludes Aug. 17. It will be held as part of the 20th Queen Mary Open, a 72-hole affair to be held Aug. 15 to 18 at Lakewood and Skylinks, a course near Long Beach Municipal Airport.

It is the charity aspect of the Queen Mary Open--proceeds go to help abused children--that delights Kennett the most.

“He does as much for golf as anyone in the Southland that I can think of,” said Doug Ives, who runs Golden State Golf Tours.

Kennett won’t reveal his age, saying with a snicker, “I’ve voted a few times.” But golf has always played the major role in his life.

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In Arcadia during the Depression, Kennett made 75 cents a day as a caddie “for all those rich doctors” at the Santa Anita County Golf Course. To make extra money, he collected range balls--by hand--at night without the benefit of lights.

When he was not working, he was playing golf, and in his heyday, he said, “I could putt with the best of them.”

In 1950, as a senior at USC, he won the prestigious Southern California Intercollegiate Tournament. He turned pro later that year and by 1952 purchased his first pro shop, at a Marine Corps course in Oceanside.

In 1957, Kennett became the head professional at the San Gabriel Country Club. Then, in 1964, he beat out 100 bidders and won the contract to run the pro shop at newly constructed Los Verdes, a wind-swept county course atop the Palos Verdes Peninsula with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean.

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It was at Los Verdes that Kennett showed his keen business skills--gleaned not so much from college as from the simple rule he learned in his youth: “If you take care of your customers, the business will take care of itself.”

That meant drawing the wrath of some of his fellow professionals.

In the mid-1970s, Kennett became one of the first to regularly discount merchandise, eschewing the unwritten rule that pro shops should have a minimum profit margin of 35%. Larger wholesale discounters quickly joined the trend, changing the nature of golf sales forever.

“Len is a very successful, shrewd businessman,” Ives said.

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In 1979, Kennett was enticed by county officials to make a bid to run the Lakewood pro shop, which had been closed for some time. At that point, the county was struggling to keep the course open. Only two others bid.

Even with the additional revenue generated by the opening of Kennett’s shop, the Lakewood fairways were hard, brown and in need of repair through most of the 1980s. Kennett, however, saw potential in the course.

“It’s a magnificent layout,” he said. “The conditions haven’t been so good here in the past, but it’s so good to see it come back in the last 12 months or so.”

The fairways appear a bit more lush now. Todd said the advisory council recently paid for a fountain that was installed in the lake that borders the 2nd and 10th fairways. And Kennett said his revenues from greens fees, cart rentals, the driving range and equipment sales are 15 times what they were when he opened.

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Unlike many other course operators, Kennett prohibits golf pros who work for him from giving private lessons--at $20 an hour--while on duty in the pro shop.

Said manager Tom Petersen, a six-year employee: “Len makes you work a 40-hour workweek. He really teaches you the business.”

Some pros at other courses might squawk about such a policy, but there does not seem to be much complaining around the Lakewood course.

“They’re a good bunch of guys,” Kennett said of the dozen pros who work for him. “Most of them have stayed with me for some time. Some have been with me for 10 years. That’s unusual.”

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Todd said Kennett has “a steadying influence on people. He has a nice knack of not making anyone mad.”

Teaching pros need only to gain the confidence of their students, Kennett said. “A pro doesn’t have to be a par smasher, but he must be able to demonstrate excellence.”

Kennett has parlayed his lifelong love of the game to his benefit. He is a partner in the well-known Shamrock golf club manufacturing company, which he bought for a bargain a decade ago when it was about to fold. In addition, he runs an international travel service for golfers who want to play some of the best courses in the world.

“Golf is the game of a lifetime,” he said. “Age doesn’t stop anyone from playing well.”

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