Chipping lessons with Paul Runyan

Paul Runyan
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?"

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