Jack McKenna’s home away from home was often a golf practice range.
But his passion was people as much as pitching and putting, and he spent countless hours back in the 1960s and 1970s helping conduct junior golf clinics locally on a volunteer basis.
Mr. McKenna died last November at age 89, and to honor his memory and contribution to junior golf in Chattanooga, Jack McKenna Junior Golf Day is being celebrated on Friday, June 1.
Sponsored by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust, the event will include a free clinic to any junior golfer ages 7 to 17 at the First Tee of Chattanooga Learning Center at 2453 Hickory Valley Road.
The day will start with registration at 9 a.m., instruction from 9:30 to noon, a free lunch, and entertainment by the Dennis Walters Golf Show from 1 to 2 p.m.
Mr. Walters is a physically handicapped golfer who uses trick shots and his dog to deliver an entertaining and inspiring show.
Participants can pre-register and find more information at www.thefirstteechattanooga.org.
Mr. McKenna’s younger son, David, believes his father would be touched by the tribute.
“I think he would really be honored over this,” he said. “He had such a passion for golf and for teaching golf to juniors.”
His other son, Tommy, agrees. “He would be tickled to death knowing they are doing something in his honor for First Tee.”
The event came about after David and Tommy were trying to think of some way to honor their father’s contribution to golf locally.
Tennessee Golf Foundation regional director Dori Paschall was later having some conversations with David and local First Tee board president Mike Jenkins, and the clinic idea evolved.
“They gave me some history about Jack and the types of fun clinics he used to do for free,” she said. “Mike was able to secure BlueCross BlueShield to sponsor a clinic in Jack’s memory.
“And then I thought, ‘Let’s take it a step further and do the clinic with some other fun things.’ So that is when we decided to add the Dennis Walters Show. With the sponsorship from BlueCross and support from the Tennessee Golf Foundation, we are able to have this fun, free golf day in honor of Jack and his style of teaching.”
Many Chattanooga baby boomers remember fondly the junior golf clinics Mr. McKenna used to have, where he tried to teach enjoyment for the game as much as skills.
According to David, the clinics grew out of some lessons he gave informally in their large backyard near the Concord Golf Course in Brainerd.
When the family moved to Valleybrook in the late 1960s and with Tommy and David becoming old enough to start playing golf seriously, Mr. McKenna inquired with pro Ed Myers at the Valleybrook course and learned it did not have a junior golf program. So he offered to conduct some clinics for free.
“It got so big that 120 kids from all around town would come,” David remembered.
In fact, because the Saturday morning clinics caused a slight disruption to an already-busy golf day at the Valleybrook course, Mr. McKenna kindly offered to move them to the Hixson Golf Center in the general area where Ryan’s restaurant is today.
Jim McMurray operated the range and agreed to open the facility without charge. A number of other volunteers also helped, including Bill Brymer, John Richard, Al Stanfield, and others. A special weeklong clinic was also held.
The golfers who participated have not forgotten Mr. McKenna’s unique and enthusiastic teaching method of insisting that golfers go through various steps before hitting the ball, including getting in the proper stance, gripping the club, etc.
“He was really strong on the fundamentals and 10 steps,” remembered David with a laugh, recalling that friend and clinic alumnus Oscar Scruggs still good-naturedly goes through the routine when they see each other.
Mr. McKenna also wanted to make the junior golfers remember that the game was for exercise, as all the golfers would collectively have to walk out in the ball landing areas and pick up range balls in their buckets during breaks in the clinic.
Mr. McKenna would also sometimes show films of the Masters as well as invite trick-shot artists. He also conducted invitational and statewide tournaments that grew out of the clinics.
Also, a number of the top high school golfers in Chattanooga in the 1970s came out of the clinics Mr. McKenna conducted.
Both David and Tommy McKenna have grown to appreciate their father’s interest in helping people with their golf games.
“When I look back, I appreciate it so much more than I did when I was a kid,” he said.
Mr. McKenna was not a club pro or a serious tournament player himself when he did the junior clinics. However, after his automobile industry-related job took him to Raleigh, N.C., in 1976, he actually became quite an accomplished golfer.
And after he retired and moved back to Chattanooga a decade or so later, he went through the lengthy process of becoming a PGA pro. As a result, he began offering professional teaching lessons.
While his credentials changed, his compassion for helping people never did.
“The reward wasn’t monetary, it was the happiness from helping someone learn something,” said Tommy, who remembers having to get up earlier than he wanted as a youth to head with his father to the clinics.
He added that his father helped all kinds of golfers. He remembers young touring pro Paul Apyan saying how much he appreciated Mr. McKenna’s help, as did senior golfer Ed Brown, who made a touching comment about Mr. McKenna at the time of his death.
“He said that had it not been for my dad, he would have quit playing golf 30 years ago,’ said Tommy. “It makes you feel good to know he had an impact on people.”
And it was likely the junior players of long ago on whom he had the most positive influence.
“His main focus for the majority of his life was helping juniors,” Tommy said. “He was never happier than when a bunch of kids were around him.”