Kelly Knievel is famous for being the older son of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, who died in 2007 at the age of 69.
But Kelly doesn’t want to be famous.
He just wants to be the kind of nondescript guy who is rarely noticed in the grocery store or the movie theater. “I don’t get recognized, nor do I want to be,” he said. “I never wanted to be famous. My dad’s famous, and I’m content to leave it that way.”
What Kelly really wants – though generally he won’t admit it – is a measure of respect on the golf course. So, at 59, there’s something of a war inside his head. One voice keeps insisting, “Be aggressive, make that 40-foot birdie putt,” while a second voice implores him to “shut up and be satisfied with a bunch of pars.”
The quiet guy usually wins this confrontation, and that’s how Kelly ended up in the field for the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, which starts Saturday in Durham, N.C. There were 21 players in a qualifier near Boise, Idaho, but only one qualifying spot. Kelly shot even-par 72 at Ridgecrest Golf Club and tied for medalist honors. In a sudden-death playoff with Scott Vermeer, he birdied the fourth hole and that was that. It will be his second appearance in a USGA championship, the other coming in the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Kelly’s history is simple enough. At 21, he boarded a Greyhound bus, the kind his father jumped over, and headed to Butte, Mont., which had been the home of several generations of Knievels. At 22, he moved to Las Vegas. He’s still there, overseeing publicity, intellectual property, trademarks and memorabilia for the Evel Knievel estate.
In his crazy 20s, what Kelly didn’t do was play golf. From 22 to 30, he gave up the game entirely.
As a young boy, he had been introduced to golf by his father. At first, they played a nine-hole course. Kelly would remember those days fondly, somehow recognizing that the romance of golf never left. It just took a vacation.
In the world according to the Knievel clan, fast and furious behavior often was considered normal. “My dad was the boss,” Kelly recalled. “There was no dealing with him. He was in charge of his own ship.”
So Kelly, besides joining his father in a few stunt shows, would jump on his motorcycle and try to soar over whatever obstacle was in his way. Frequently he would crash, and just as frequently he didn’t like it when he crashed. So he left the motorcycle tricks to his younger brother Robbie, and moved on.
At 30, Kelly returned to golf with a vengeance. Here’s the highlight of the Kelly Knievel golf journal for the last 25 years: Some 20 years ago, he won the Las Vegas City Championship. This was a big deal because several golfers from the UNLV golf team played in the tournament each year.
He kept entering national events, always testing himself. Along the way, he collected three of the infamous “blackball” letters from the USGA. Basically that meant that three times he posted an 18-hole qualifying score that was not within 10 strokes of the course rating. Each time he was required to write a letter substantiating his golf ability.
“That was a wake-up call,” he said. “Those (officials) meant business. I knew I had to start playing better. After I got the first letter, I won the Las Vegas City.”
“I’ve been competing against (Brady Exber) for 20 years. I love competitive golf. I’m happy to play against the best players.” – Kelly Knievel
This year, Kelly captured the Nevada State Senior Championship. He remains something of a vagabond golfer, “playing all over but not joining any club. I think I played 30 different golf courses this year.”
In between the ages of 30 and 59, he developed a friendly rivalry with his buddy Brady Exber, a noted Las Vegas competitor who counts an R&A Senior Amateur title among his victories. “I’ve been competing against him for 20 years,” Kelly said. “I love competitive golf. I’m happy to play against the best players.”
Asked about his golf equipment, Kelly snorted his disregard for some conventional clubs, although he clearly regards irons as the most important weapons in his bag. “I use Titleist AP1,” he said. “If I miss a shot, I want the ball to be on the green. I want the most forgiving clubs I can find.”
And how about a caddie? “I have enough trouble with my own brain let alone getting involved with some caddie. Of course, I might be easier to get along with if I won 100 tournaments.”
Or a teaching professional? “I’m self-taught. That’s good enough for me.”
Or his father’s golf game? “I wouldn’t call my dad a golfer. I would call him a gambler.” Maybe so, but Evel Knievel often carried a handicap that dipped as low as 4 or 5.
And golfers who may not play by the rules? “If I’ve got a bet with a guy and he wants to waive this rule or that rule, I have a strategy. On the green, if I have a 10-foot putt or something like that, I’ll just pick up my ball and say, ‘I don’t like that rule, either.’ ”
Evel Knievel probably would laugh at that one. Time for a victory lap.
Kelly Knievel, shown with some of his father’s memorabilia, oversees Evel Knievel’s estate. Photo: Randy Shropshire, Film Magic via Getty Images
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