When I was a little chipper — about 8 years old — I decided to take up golf.
The lessons learned then have carried over the past 50 years.
I bring this up because one of the giants of golf not just in my hometown of Independence, but Kansas, passed away on Monday.
Mr. Dave Dennis, the 1950 and 1951 Kansas Amateur champion, died at the age of 88. It was Mr. Dennis — I never called him Dave in my life because of the respect I always had for him — who helped start me in golf along with Lew Boys, Glenn Hybarger and Gib Layton.
To the junior golfers growing up at Indy Country Club — the Palmer brothers, Billy Buser, Fred Knuth, Marty Searcy, Craig Dancer, Bear Webb, Steve Layton, Robin Wohltman and others — Mr. Dennis was a god.
He was one of the renowned golfers in Kansas history. In addition to being the Kansas Amateur champion twice, he was the 1991 World Seniors Champion. He was a graduate of the University of Kansas, where he played both golf and basketball. He was inducted into the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Independence Community College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010, where he attended prior to completing his education at KU.
He was a prominent Independence businessman, as he operated an insurance company that has been a town staple for years and his son, Bo, has helped carry on the tradition. I grew up with Bo, and his sisters Debi (who was in my class in school and still a dear friend as we have our 40th class reunion in June) and Judi, and the Sell and Dennis families were very good friends. In fact last June, Mr. Dennis was one of my father’s honorary pallbearers.
He also served the community by being on the USD 446 school board, was a charter member of the Independence Optimist Club (along with my father) and served as an elder in our church, the First Presbyterian Church.
Mr. Dennis, Odie Wilson and Don Dancer were like the Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player of Independence. Mr. Dennis was Arnie, as he was charismatic, though his swing was far more fluid than The King’s. Wilson was like Nicklaus, as he came along after Mr. Dennis as the challenger to the throne and eventually won the Kansas Amateur title in 1976. Dancer was like Player, underrated but never under-appreciated in my eyes.
Childhood friends Mr. Dennis and Dancer were the runner-up in the prestigious Heart of America Championships in 1964 to future pro Jim Colbert and Matt Taber, but they won the title in 1967 against Ron Schmedeman and Bob Leeper. Among the other players Mr. Dennis and Dancer defeated during their Heart days were future pros Grier Jones and a very young Tom Watson.
It’s remarkable a town of Independence’s size (about 11,000 at the time) could produce such legendary golfers. Mr. Dennis, among others, used to work with the kids at Indy CC back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one reason we always produced such top-notch golf teams during our high school days and a few of my teammates became state champions.
When I would be playing with my teen-age teammates, we’d invariably see the group Mr. Dennis played with. We would always call it “The Big Group” because, for that time, they played for some pretty high stakes, at least as legend has it. Wilson and Dancer seldom played in that group as they had their own groups, but I would watch an awe when Mr. Dennis’ group would be on a hole. I had always wanted to play a round with him when I was a teen, but never got that chance.
But that dream would be realized much later in life. One day when I was visiting my Dad, Mr. Dennis asked if we wanted to join him as he was just out working on his game and not playing with his group. Even though I was in my early 40s at the time, I was like a kid in the candy store.
I’ll never forget that day. I thought I would be so nervous and perhaps shank it around and embarrass myself in front of my hero. It really was like playing with Arnie.
Mr. Dennis was about 70 by that time and while he still played well, he wasn’t what he had been 20 years earlier. That didn’t matter to me, I was just honored to be playing with him.
I shot a 72 on that day, one of the best rounds I’d ever shot at ICC. Mr. Dennis didn’t play his usual game and I know I was about five or six shots better. He didn’t shoot a 64 or 65 like he did regularly in his prime, but it didn’t matter. It was a story I’ll forever be able to tell.
Mr. Dennis was the epitome of class and as a teenager I just thought he was so darn cool because his demeanor never changed. He was always the same — easy-going and so smooth — just like his silky golf swing that has been replicated by his son, himself a scratch player.
Every time I would be in Independence in the summer, Dad and I would run into him at the golf course or downtown at the donut shop, where a big group of them would gather every day — in fact, they had their own designated section. He always said to me, “How are things in McPherson, do they still have those great basketball teams?” Then he would ask what I had been shooting and how my game was. “Are you able to take some of those McPherson golfers?” he would ask.
Mr. Dennis is the last link to the greatness that was Independence golf. Wilson passed away a long time ago at a far-too-young age because of cancer. Dancer, who was my best friend’s father, passed away in 2012.
I can imagine in the coming days, there will be some serious golf being played at Heaven Country Club.