2002: Amateur - Local legends

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of a golfer named Ken Kellaney. Unless, of course, you’ve had to face him in competition.

Kellaney, 45 of Phoenix, has won every major Arizona Golf Association amateur title and is the only Arizona amateur to hold the state’s Grand Slam.

Accordingly, he’s one of 12 superb amateurs whose accomplishments – which receive little attention beyond their own state borders – are highlighted on the following three pages of Golfweek’s annual “Amateur Golf” special issue.

Kellaney’s resume speaks for itself. He has he has won 10 major state titles: Arizona Amateur (match play), 1991, 1992, 1993; Arizona Stroke Play, 1997, 1999; Arizona Public Links, 2001; and Arizona Mid-Amateur, 2001.

How does a bank vice president find time for golf?

“Well, part of it is Arizona,” said Kellaney, VP at the National Bank of Arizona. “You can play year-round.

“I’m single, so my time is my own. You just find time. You have to be very well-organized to get everything done with the job and keep a top-notch golf game. I love competitive golf.”

Kellaney enjoys golf so much, there’s not a lot of down time between rounds.

“The longest I’ve gone without playing golf is two weeks. That’s kind of a sick mind,” said Kellaney, laughing.

Growing up in Rockford, Ill., Kellaney said it was either golf or swimming when he and his sister went to the country club where his parents were members. His sister went for the pool. Obviously, he took to golf.

“I absolutely loved it since the first day,” said Kellaney, a plus-2 handicap who belongs to Arizona Country Club and Papago Golf Club in Phoenix. “It has been a passion of mine for a long time.”

Kellaney won three consecutive Arizona Amateurs, which required winning six matches each year. His streak of consecutive match-play victories stopped at 19 when University of Arizona coach Rick LaRose beat Kellaney in the second round of the 1994 state am.

The score?

“Don’t know,” said Kellaney. “I wanted to forget.”

LaRose remembers.

“I played very, very well,” said LaRose, in his 24th year as Arizona’s coach. “He played OK. I won, 5 and 4. I had eagle on the first hole. I was 5 under or 6 under and he was a couple under. It was one of those days. He’s a great player.”

According to LaRose, Kellaney ranks among the top three amateurs all-time in Arizona behind Dr. Ed Updegraff (“Greatest amateur ever in Arizona”) and Mark Sollenberger.

“Ken Kellaney came along and in the last 10 years, far and away, he’s the best player. And he’s a great guy,” LaRose said. “He’s always right there.”

LaRose may not have been Kellaney’s toughest opponent. That came off the course. In December 1999, Kellaney was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

“Thankfully, I caught it in time,” Kellaney said.

All of 2000, he took cancer treatments. Four months later, his father, Bob, died of throat cancer.

“It was a reality check for me and priorities in life,” Kellaney said. “You think about what you have done with your life. It was tough at the beginning, but I came out stronger. It’s a real cold slap in the face. Everything is good now.”

Kellaney continued to play golf through the cancer treatments.

“I probably should have stopped playing for awhile,” he said. “But I didn’t want to lose it. I played some not-so-good golf.”

He has bounced back from the health problems that kept him out of the limelight, and LaRose said Kellaney is still the guy to beat.

That was evident last year when Kellaney captured the Arizona Public Links and Mid-Amateur titles.

“2001 was a good year for me,” Kellaney said. “I appreciate playing golf more. It’s a privilege to play good golf.”

Kellaney, by his own admission, doesn’t go too deep with low numbers. His career best is 64, which he has shot more than once.

“I guess I need to shoot lower,” said Kellaney, who also has won three Arizona Four-ball championships (1995, 1998 with Jeff Kern and 1999 with Marty James). “I really never shoot real low or real high. I’m pretty darn consistent. That’s why I win the stroke average (crown). No low rounds to talk about.”

The Arizona Golf Association has awarded nine stroke average titles, with Kellaney winning seven, including six in a row (1994-99) and No. 7 last year. In those seven years, his average has ranged from 70.83 to 72.13.

But like all golfers, Kellaney said it comes down to play around the green.

“I’m always challenged by short game and putting,” said the six-time Arizona Player of the Year (1991, ’92, ’94, ’96, ’99, ’01). “I always need to work on that. That’s so key.”

As for the rest of his game?

“I probably have a real good tee-to-green game,” said the All-Big 10 and honorable mention All-American from the University of Illinois. “I’ve been told I have a very good golf swing.”

When he graduated from Illinois in 1978, Kellaney said he gave little thought to a professional golf career.

“There was only one tour to play,” said Kellaney, who reached the quarterfinals of the 2001 U.S. Mid-Amateur championship. “I didn’t quite have the game. The guys that did turn pro, I’m catching up to them.

“Golf has grown so much. There is so much golf available, my career choice would be different.”

Five years from now, however, a pro career may loom.

“I may try (qualifying for) the Senior Tour,” he said.

With any luck, he’ll be counting his own cash rather than other people’s.

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