By Sean Fairholm
Darrell Kestner has been fortunate enough to have memories any golfer would be willing to trade in their clubs for. It’s part of what comes with the territory when you play two seasons on the PGA Tour, and later compete in 11 PGA Championships and eight U.S. Opens to become the only PGA club professional post-World War II to tee it up in major championships across five different decades.
There was the time at the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness when Kestner, about to start a practice round with a fellow club pro, noticed a large swarm of fans congregating around the tee box and starting to line the fairway. That’s when Arnold Palmer walked over and asked for a game.
“After about 14 holes, I’m hitting a putt and I see his shoe tips underneath my visor,” Kestner recalled. “He’s standing right there on top of me and I hit a 15-foot putt and it goes in. I look up and he’s staring right at me and says, ‘Hey kid, never lose that putting stroke.’
“Yes, sir, Mr. Palmer.”
A day later, Kestner holed a 5-wood from 222 yards on the 13th hole for the first albatross in tournament history. The King gave him another compliment and a trademark thumbs-up.
By virtue of his outstanding longevity, continued passion for teaching, prosperous mentorship and unrelenting adoration for the game, the 67-year-old Kestner is worthy of the loftiest of accolades.
Or there was another time a decade earlier at the 1983 Hanover Westchester Classic when Kestner got into the field as an alternate and found himself in a threesome with reigning Masters champion Seve Ballesteros and the current leading money winner, Peter Jacobsen.
“I saw Seve hit it as good as I’ve seen anybody hit it, ever,” Kestner said. “It was impossible for me to imagine anyone who could hit the ball that well. But the very next day, he hit it all over the lot. I mean he was duck-hooking shots, slicing shots, missing greens. He hit six greens in regulation after hitting 17 the previous day. And while he couldn’t hit a green, I hit 17 greens in regulation myself.
“He shot 68 that second round and went on to win the tournament. I shot 71 and missed the cut.”
Kestner could go on telling stories for longer than it would take a foursome to finish a round on a packed Sunday morning. In addition to his major-championship experience, he has authored an unparalleled playing career at the club professional level, winning the 1996 PGA Club Professional Championship, three Metropolitan Section Player of the Year honors, two National Senior Player of the Year awards, five Met PGA Championships and three Met Opens.
It’s Kestner and then everyone else when it comes to modern-era club professionals competing on the course.
“His short game is PGA Tour-quality in my eyes,” said Jack Druga, the head professional at Shinnecock Hills. “To be able to maintain his game all of these years, I would be hard-pressed to find another club pro who has a playing record equal to Darrell’s. We always joke that if you are playing in a tournament where he’s in the field and you beat Darrell, you have a pretty good chance of winning.”
It would perhaps be appropriate for Global Golf Post to name Kestner this year’s Pro’s Pro – a title bestowed on the most influential and passionate PGA professionals in golf since 2015 – based on his playing status alone. However, it’s not really necessary.
By virtue of his outstanding longevity, continued passion for teaching, prosperous mentorship and unrelenting adoration for the game, the 67-year-old Kestner is worthy of the loftiest of accolades. Throughout his 32 years as director of golf at Deepdale Golf Club, a small private enclave just off the Long Island Expressway in New York, Kestner has earned a deserved reputation for performing to the highest standard in each category of his job, an endeavor few in the PGA professional ranks can claim.
“He’s more popular now than the first day he started,” said Charlie Robson, the former longtime executive director of the Metropolitan Section of the PGA. “Anybody who has gotten to know him immediately realizes that there is a lot more to him than being a good player. If he shot 85 every day, I think he would still be successful.”
From an early age, Kestner took a liking to golf. Growing up in southern West Virginia, he nurtured his short game at a par-31, nine-hole course owned by U.S. Steel where all but one of the par-4 holes could be reached off the tee. When he went to high school, Kestner played sparingly and spent most of his time working in coal mines around his hometown. In time he learned that swinging a golf club trumped swinging a shovel.
Kestner’s first gig in the game was working in the bag room at the Dick Wilson-designed Fincastle Country Club in Bluefield, Virginia, just across the border from his home state. It led to a bevy of assistant pro jobs, starting in Florida at Sugar Mill Country Club in New Smyrna Beach, and continuing in the northeastern United States at a handful of prestigious clubs. Among them were Fisher’s Island, Century, Winged Foot, Westchester, Leewood, Sunningdale and Hay Harbor.
“At each place I went, I learned some invaluable lessons on how to take the profession seriously,” Kestner said. “Whether it was Bob Watson at Westchester or Nelson Long at Century or Tom Nieporte at Winged Foot, every head pro I went to gave me a deeper understanding of how to deal with members and how to run a golf shop.”
Amidst his education, Kestner struggled with being almost talented enough to make a living on the PGA Tour. On two occasions, in 1981 and 1983, Kestner made it through Q-School and played a full season, immediately losing his card both times.
“I might have been good enough to get lucky for one week to get through the Q-School but I wasn’t good enough to play against those guys every week and keep my card,” he said.
The consolation may have been better. Kestner jumped at the chance to become the head professional at Deepdale in 1989, another Dick Wilson course with small targets that Kestner relished.
Deepdale has a small, high-profile membership with a particular set of needs and desires, both of which have evolved in the three decades Kestner has been there. He’s embraced every element of that challenge, earning the 2017 PGA Professional of the Year award for good reason.
“He has a membership where someone may call him at 10 a.m. and say that they are coming out to Long Island and need a lesson at 11 a.m.,” Robson said. “And he’s the kind of guy who, if he had other plans, he would figure out a way to make it work.
“He’s pulled out of tournaments on many occasions just to give lessons with members. He’ll tell me, ‘Charlie, if I can’t give them a lesson now, then they are going to be traveling for two weeks on a golf trip and I’m not going to be able to help them with their games until they come back.’ He really cares that much. It doesn’t get much more genuine than that.”
And as a teacher, Kestner has learned from the best. For years he taught alongside Jim McLean at Doral in Miami, being mentored by both McLean and the legendary Jim Flick. It was Flick who gave Kestner the nickname “Package” for his ability to be the total package as a golf pro.
For all his teaching prowess – Kestner’s past students include Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite and Nick Price – his mentorship is mentioned in the same breath as that of Bob Ford, the longtime pro at Oakmont and Seminole. Whether it has been leading Matt Dobyns, a current top player and fellow PGA Professional champion, to Fresh Meadow or Jim Morris to venerable National Golf Links or Michael Breed to his career as a social media and television star, his list of former assistant professionals is long and noteworthy.
“Nelson Long always taught me that you can’t be everywhere and do everything all the time, so you have to hire good people around you,” Kestner said. “To this day, that’s what I get the biggest thrill out of as a pro, seeing my guys go on to bigger and better things.”
“By the numbers, I’m getting up there pretty good. But I don’t feel 67. I still want to get out there and compete. I still want to teach.”
On the merchandising side of the business, Kestner has enjoyed working with his wife, Margie, on a daily basis as she keeps track of inventory and manages much of the shop. Anyone who speaks about Kestner inevitably mentions Margie as an enduring reason for his success.
“She’s the woman behind the man,” Robson said.
Kestner’s time at Deepdale is on its last few holes. He is trying to figure out how much longer he should stay.
“By the numbers, I’m getting up there pretty good,” Kestner said. “But I don’t feel 67. I still want to get out there and compete. I still want to teach.”
How his career ends will have little bearing on the enduring legacy he has built. Kestner is a generational talent, a name immortalized in the club pro ranks forever.
“I think the golf professional world will always remember him for his ability to do every category of his job well,” Druga said. “Yes, he was the best player the Met section has ever had. But then you add in the teaching and the mentoring and the willingness to educate … I don’t ever recall him saying no to someone who asked him for help.
“His legacy is quite simply: all of the above.”