Tour and News

Chipping lessons with Paul Runyan

Photo: Photo illustration by SI imaging; Bettmann/Corbis (Runyan); Robert Beck (paragliders); Stock4b/Getty Images (PDA)

Why are you haunting me?"

I pressed my hands to my forehead and dropped to my knees on the neatly trimmed grass. The voice in my head responded with a cackle, "You have to ask?"

I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. My partner, Gary, and the two Irish golfers were staring at me with undisguised pity. I had just stubbed a chip for birdie that, had I merely gotten it close to the hole, would have given me a tap-in 4-for-3. But just as I was taking the club back, I had smelled baking brownies and felt a puff of warm, moist air on the back of my right hand.

Could you chip under those circumstances? Could you get your ball onto the green and rolling toward the hole with a ghost pacing behind you? Could you ignore a strange voice in your head ("Keep those treacherous, jumpy hands out of the stroke!") or a ball that seemed to be moving as you addressed it? I think not. You'd be like me, muttering something about having the chipping yips and forking over six dollars at the end of every high-stakes match.

But who could I talk to? My wife, Pat, was neither a golfer nor a ghost buster, and the teaching pros I consulted were useless. The minute I mentioned that my chipping was haunted, they nodded thoughtfully and passed me on to the assistant who sets up the range-ball pyramids and pours ice in the coolers.

"I don't even know whose ghost I'm dealing with," I told Dr. Kline at one of our weekly sessions. "I think he's ... short."

Then one night I awoke with a start. "Poison!" I gasped, practically tumbling out of bed in my excitement.

"Don't do it," Pat murmured, burying her face in the pillow.

"No, Little Poison!" Throwing on a robe, I ran downstairs to the computer and typed in the name of an online travel agency. I entered some dates, clicked on coach and in the destination box I typed san diego. A few minutes later, with my ticket booked, I went to Google and entered paul runyan. The first search result, a Wikipedia entry, began, "Fellow golfers named him Little Poison, primarily because he didn't drive the ball very far...."

"Gotcha," I said.

few days later, the ghost of Paul Runyan watched me hit chip shots from the fringe of the 17th green at La Jolla Country Club. "The less hard you have to hit it, the more accurate you'll be," he said, holding a club up to my shoulders to make sure I was squarely aligned. "You want no sidespin on the ball and as little backspin as possible. You want it to roll free of English." As he stepped away, I took a little flick at the ball with my five-iron. The ball hopped onto the green and rolled as true as a marble on a ramp. "Get in the hole!" I urged, but the ball stopped a few inches short, right in the jaws.

"That's the way to lag it," Runyan said. "My temperature doesn't go up one iota if I'm dead in the center and one inch short."

I looked up. "That would be what — room temperature?"

He made a face. "Very funny. But you're getting it. As long as you have the right club and trust the style, you should be able to hit it close every time."

There was no mistaking Runyan's voice. It was the scratchy Arkansas twang that had been echoing in my cranium for years. His appearance, though, was a surprise. I had expected the range-pro Runyan of the 1980s, a bespectacled old man in a bucket hat, long-sleeved polo and polyester pants. Instead I got the Tour-star Runyan of the 1930s, a tiny stick figure of a man in flannel slacks, dress shirt and tie. His dark hair was wet-combed off a high forehead, giving him a dashing appearance.

Summoning Runyan's ghost for a short-game lesson had been easy enough. I drove up into the hills above downtown La Jolla one afternoon, parked my rental car in the club lot and got my golf bag out of the trunk. Pausing for a moment to take in a spectacular view of the shimmering Pacific, I turned away from the clubhouse (I was sneaking on) and scampered down a steep slope into a landscaped defile. I walked to the nearest green, threw a few balls down on the fringe and began chipping with an eight-iron. Or, to be precise, I began chili-dipping, shanking and blading with an eight-iron.

"This is hard to watch," came a voice from behind me. Startled, I turned, and there he was: the alltime short-game wizard, the World Golf Hall of Fame member who won two PGA Championships and 26 other PGA events with a pea-shooter long game and a pool hustler's temperament.

"Hey," I said, "you've been haunting me." I smiled and shook his hand.

What followed was a chipping lesson, and if you want to know the particulars, you can dig up an old copy of Runyan's 1979 book, The Short Way to Lower Scoring. He adjusted my grip, moved the ball back in my stance and got me pinching the ball against the turf with a stiff-wristed putting stroke. In a matter of minutes I was chipping the ball consistent distances with various irons.

I shook my head in wonder. "Is that all there is to it?"

Runyan gave me a withering look. He yanked a nine-iron from my bag and walked to the hole. Raking a ball into position, he set up about four feet out, leaving another ball directly in his path, six inches from the cup. "Ever play a stymie?" he asked. He gave a little flick of the wrists and chipped his ball over the blocking ball and into the hole on one hop.

"Wow," I said. I recognized the shot from old newsreel footage. "That's one of the tricks you used to beat Sam Snead at the '38 PGA."

He smiled. "I had more than a hundred shots I could play around the greens. Pinch it, clip it, hook spin, cut spin, taking two or three feet off the roll. I had all those shots. And I needed them, because I couldn't drive the ball more than 230 yards in my prime. I was hitting four-wood into greens that most pros could reach with short irons." His smile broadened. "Snead said I could get up and down from a manhole."

I nudged a ball into position with my foot and made like I was going to try the stymie shot with my eight-iron. "Don't!" he said. "You'll probably take a chunk out of the green."

I laughed and straightened up. "What about today's players? Are Tiger and Phil as good as you were around the greens?"

"Tiger, definitely," Runyan responded. "He has more than a hundred shots. And somebody like a Garcia or an Olazabal, they're as good or better than the guys I played against." He waggled my five-iron. "There's a big difference in clubs and balls, of course. Fifty years ago you found a wedge you liked and you had that wedge for life. Now a Mickelson has 13 wedges made every year. One for every month and one to practice with."

"Why is that? Sharp grooves?"

"Yep. Golf today is more of a spin game than a control-your-rollout game. The rough is thicker, the fairway grasses shorter. The greens, there's no comparison. They were very slow in my day, which is why we all popped our putts. It was a resistance stroke, like you'd tap a nail."

He snapped his fingers. "How about a little game?"

"A game?" I looked around. The sun had dropped behind the hills, casting cool shadows across the valley floor.

"Five holes. You pick any one club you like, I'll use this" — he held up an old persimmon four-wood which had materialized out of nowhere — "and I'll give you two, no, three strokes a hole. But you have to win every hole, or I win the match."

I recognized his proposition as a classic sucker bet, but I decided to string him along. "What can we possibly play for? I'm a struggling sportswriter and you're a...."

"If you win," he interrupted, "I'll stop haunting you when you chip. If I win, you have to go to Phil Rodgers and tell him that I beat your ass."

Phil Rodgers? I knew that the former touring pro lived in the San Diego area, and I knew that he and Gene Littler had been Runyan's students in the '50s and the '60s, when Runyan was head pro at La Jolla.

"You don't know the story?" Runyan's ghost scratched his nose. "We used to play a one-club match here at the club. And Phil got so good with a five-iron that he could beat anybody over five holes, me included. So to make it fair, Phil said he'd play with a sand wedge, because he could hit that club 185 or 190 yards, blading it. And I told a bunch of members that I could beat him with a four-wood. I was a magician with that club."

He stared affectionately at the sole plate of his four-wood.

"Well, damn it, I lost the match. Phil was a sly s.o.b., and he put a long shaft in his wedge so he could hit it farther, and he ground down the face so it was flat like a putter. He wound up making a 15-footer for par on the final hole. Beat me by two."

Grimacing, Runyan dropped a ball on the collar. "Where I lost it was on the second hole. Tried to make my ball carom off a bank and around a bunker." He took his stance and made a swaying, lunging pass at the ball, which shot out over the valley in a looping hook before lighting on a fairway mound and kicking down into a sand bunker. "Just like that."

He stared. "It was a dumb shot. Couldn't get out of that bunker with a four-wood. Made double bogey." Runyan frowned, and I got the sense that he — a ghost — was still bothered by that bad shot, even though it had happened in a friendly match with a beloved pupil. "I was kind of perturbed with Phil," he conceded. "I wanted to play again, but he wouldn't. Wasn't going to risk losing a rematch. So I didn't speak to him for, I don't know ... a year?"

The two of us stood there for a moment or two, admiring the pink clouds of sunset. "O.K.," I finally said, "I'll play you three holes. Terms as you described. I'll use my five-iron."

He nodded his assent and dropped another ball on the grass. "We can play from here to 18 green," he said. "You go first."

I pulled the five-iron from my bag, gave it a couple of waggles and bent over to place my ball on a tuft of grass. "Just one thing," I said. "Why have you haunted me all these years?"

He chuckled. "You've heard the expression, 'He must be turning in his grave?'"

I winced. "My chipping is that bad?"

"You'll get better." He gave me a reassuring wink.

I settled over the ball, took a three-quarter swing that was practically Littleresque and smacked a beautiful draw up the hill.

"Uh-oh," Runyan said. "I could be in trouble." But as it turned out — and as I told Phil Rodgers a few days later — he wasn't.

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