From the Desk of John Dechant: Paul Runyan–A Pro’s Pro

John Dechant is the author of several books, including Scoreless: Omaha Central, Creighton Prep, and Nebraska’s Greatest High School Football Game (Bison Books, 2016). His writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and the Golfer’s Journal. He is the president of the publishing firm Legacy Preservation. His newest book, Little Poison: Paul Runyan, Sam Snead, and a Long-Shot Upset at the 1938 PGA Championship was published in April.

A day after painting his Mona Lisa, Paul Runyan, the undersized golf pro with the big heart and even larger array of short game shots, was back on the practice tee at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, New York, giving golf lessons, just like it was any other weekend morning.

There he was, golf’s latest major champion, his name emblazoned in banner headlines on newspapers from coast to coast, fresh off his greatest triumph, having thoroughly beaten heavily favored Sam Snead, teaching Metropolis members about grip, stance, pivot, and shot selection. He hadn’t even had enough time to deposit his $1,100 winner’s check into his bank account. Heck, the ink on that check was barely dry. Surely, he hadn’t found the time or energy to read through all the congratulatory telegrams that had sailed in over the previous 24 hours—never mind trying to answer them all. And who knows if the engraver had finished etching his name onto the Wanamaker trophy, although it’s hard to imagine Runyan leaving Shawnee Country Club—the site of his victory—without allowing professional golf’s governing body time to make his achievement permanent.

That scene from 1938 is one of many that I attempted to capture in my book Little Poison: Paul Runyan, Sam Snead, and a Long-Shot Upset at the 1938 PGA Championship. It’s one of my favorite Runyan moments and one that’s especially relevant this week, as the PGA Championship beckons at Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course near Rochester, New York, about 70 miles from Park Country Club in Buffalo, where Runyan captured the first of his two PGA Championships, four years before he conquered Snead.

It’s especially relevant because of Runyan’s longtime membership in the PGA of America, an organization that exists to grow interest and participation in golf. The organization is alive and well today, with its membership nearly 30,000. And joining 120 of the world’s best touring professionals this week will be 20 or so club professionals, whose primary occupation is teaching the game. For those 20, who qualified via the PGA Professional Championship, this will be a special week. But it’s not a normal week. Normal weeks for those 20 look a lot more like Paul Runyan’s typical weeks in the 1930s, giving lessons from dawn until dusk to beginners, aspiring competitive golfers, and folks who simply took up the game to fit in socially. In many ways, these club professionals are the backbone of the golf business.

At one point in the 1930s, Runyan reportedly gave more lessons annually than any other top-flight competitor in professional golf, however anecdotal and unscientific such a claim may have been. At $4 per hour, those lessons generated a significant portion of his annual income. It would take something like 275 golf lessons to match what he earned winning a major championship. That’s a lot of sweat equity.

And then almost like magic, he and his wife Joan would hop a train or cram into his six-wheel Buick and head for a golf tournament, maybe at Pinehurst or Augusta or Merion, ready to compete for the top prizes in golf. Runyan had somehow cracked a code. He found a way to turn his practice tee into his own personal training ground, even if the members at his clubs had no idea he saw it that way. He skipped the booze, the pricey card games, and the late-night carousing. He treated his body like a well-tuned engine. And quite often, at least by golf standards, he found success.

In those days—the 1930s, 40s, and well beyond—he was hardly alone. That was the job description. The best professional golfers worked country club jobs for a good portion of the year, then would tour the country like a traveling circus for weeks at a time, stringing together as many competitive starts as their home clubs would allow, supplementing their income and playing for legacy. There was no $20 million pot of gold at the end of it; if you were lucky, maybe the club manufacturer whose goods you represented would cut you a bonus check for $1,000 or the membership at your club would pass the hat as a reward. During the Great Depression, you’d take whatever you could get.

“Why Paul Runyan?” That’s probably the question I’ve gotten most often in the brief time Little Poison has been published.

“Well…,” I’ll begin.

There are many reasons. But let’s start with the anecdote about the little man back at work on the lesson tee the morning after scaling his profession’s highest mountain.

“That story,” I’ll say. “It lured me in.”

Cover photo courtesy of Jeff Runyan.

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