No player in the history of golf was a more feared little man than Paul Runyan. His career was the fulfillment of his goal to be the best truly light-hitting player who ever lived.
Slight at 5-7, 125 pounds, Runyan could produce little power with a swing that featured a pronounced sway-in tournaments where his drives were measured, he barely averaged 230 yards off the tee. But Runyan was deadly straight, a tremendously accurate fairway-wood player and reliable with the irons. Around and on the greens he was an absolute a genius. Throw in killer instinct and Depression-bred toughness and you get the golfer known as “Little Poison.”
“Don’t let the bad shots get to you,” said Runyan. “Don’t let yourself become angry. The true scramblers are thick-skinned. And they always beat the whiners.”
Between 1930 and 1941, Runyan won 29 times on the PGA Tour. In 1933, he racked up nine victories and, in 1934, he won six more and captured the money title the first year such records were kept with a total of $6,767.
"I've taken some pleasure out of being the little guy who has beaten the big fellows.”
He also won the 1934 PGA, beating Craig Wood on the 38th hole. Four years later at Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa., he won the PGA again, defeating Sam Snead in the final, 8 and 7, in what has become golf history’s definitive David vs. Goliath story. Although Snead was outdriving him by 45 yards and more, Runyan kept hitting his fairway-wood approaches inside of the stronger man. On the par 5s, where Snead figured to have a decided advantage, Runyan zeroed in from inside 100 yards to birdie six of the seven that were played.
“This isn’t golf, it’s magic,” said Snead at one point during the match.Later he would write, “I don’t suppose anyone ever got more out of their golf game than Paul Runyan. He could get the ball up and down from a manhole.”
During that 1938 PGA, Runyan was 24 under par for the 196 holes he played, including 64 consecutive holes without going over par. He felt he was at his best in match play, in large part because his style of play wore down opponents psychologically, and because of his own nature. “You are in for the fight of your life,” he said. “It is just instinctive that I fight.”
Runyan was born July 12, 1908, in Hot Springs, Ark. His father was a farmer who assigned his son plenty of chores, but the young Runyan soon gravitated to the town golf club across the road, where he discovered he could make more money caddying and working for the pro. He also became consumed with the new game.
“I had to work for it,” he said. “I was not a natural. All the kids in the caddy pen beat me, until I just dug it out and became better.”
Paul Runyan continued to give golf lessons up until his death in 2002 at age 93.
Runyan was made an apprentice at the club and would play four holes on the way to school and five on the way back. He recognized early that he would have to have a good short game to be competitive, and he made it his specialty. Byron Nelson chose Runyan as the finest chipper he ever saw, and his wrist-free stroke is a staple of the short-game method that Runyan later imparted to Gene Littler and Phil Rodgers.
“Through necessity, I began my lifelong devotion to the short game,” he wrote, “the searching for shortcuts that would somehow let me compete, and hopefully excel, in a world of stronger players.” Runyan ultimately came to regard his short game as an offensive weapon for defeating the course and demoralizing an opponent.
Runyan was tenacious, cocky and indomitable. As late as 1951, he was one shot from the lead in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills after three rounds before finishing tied for sixth. He won the U.S. PGA Seniors’ in 1961 and 1962. Runyan, who was equally renowned as an instructor, passed away at age 93 on March 17, 2002.
“I’ve taken some pleasure out of being the little guy who has beaten the big fellows,” he said. “I would like to be remembered as the best of the truly light hitters.” He is.