Paul Runyan (1908–2002)
Paul Runyan is a household name in Arkansas golf history. He won the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championship twice, in 1934 and 1938. At the diminutive size of 5’7″ and 125 pounds, Runyan earned the nickname “Little Poison” both because of his stature and because of his style of play—producing only short drives but relying on tremendously accurate freeway wood play.
Paul Scott Runyan was born in Hot Springs (Garland County) on July 12, 1908, to Walter and Mamie Runyan; he had an older brother, Dixon. His father was a farmer who also worked at the Majestic Hotel across the street from Hot Springs Country Club. Despite numerous chores, Runyan escaped to the golf course, where he made money caddying and assisting players beginning when he was thirteen. He played four holes of golf every morning on his walk to school and five holes on the way home. He recognized early on that he would have to have a good short game to be competitive—and he made it his specialty. Byron Nelson called him the finest chipper he had ever seen.
Runyan left Arkansas early, serving as an assistant to Craig Wood at Forest Hills Golf Course in White Plains, New York, in 1921. He became a professional golfer at the age of seventeen, competing against his teachers and many of his heroes.From 1930 to 1941, he won twenty-nine PGA Tour titles and finished second or third forty-two times. He played on the prestigious Ryder Cup Team twice—1933 and 1935—and led the tour in earnings in 1934 with $6,767. Golf’s first David vs. Goliath story happened in the 1938 PGA tournament, with Runyan defeating Sam Snead eight and seven in the thirty-six-hole final. Even though Snead was out-driving him by as much as fifty yards, Runyan kept hitting fairway wood approaches inside of Snead. On the par fives, Runyan overcame Snead’s power with a genius short game to record six birdies. Snead was quoted following the match as saying, “I don’t suppose anyone got more out of their golf game than Paul Runyan. He could get that ball up and down from a manhole.”
Runyan’s consistent play on the PGA Tour earned 170 top-ten finishes in thirty years. As a member of the Senior PGA Tour (now Champions Tour), he won back-to-back Senior PGA Championships in 1961 and 1962.
Runyan was also one of the finest teaching professionals in the United States and was a member of the elite Golf Digest editorial staff. He pioneered putting and chipping techniques that have been utilized around the world. Beginning his teaching while at the peak of his career, he continued as an instructor even when he was in his nineties. One of his students, legendary teacher Phil Rodgers, revamped the short game of Jack Nicklaus with techniques taught by Runyan. In 1983, Runyan wrote The Short Way to Lower Scoring, published by Golf Digest.
When the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame was established in 1994, Runyan was the first unanimously chosen member. His many honors include induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame, as well as receipt of the PGA’s Distinguished Service Award. “Through necessity, I began my lifelong devotion to the short game,” Runyan recalled at his World Golf Hall of Fame induction, “searching for shortcuts that would somehow let me compete, and hopefully excel, in a world of stronger players. I have taken some pleasure out of being the little guy who has beaten the big fellows and I would like to be remembered as the best of the truly light hitters.”
Runyan was married twice. His first wife, Joan, was also known for her small stature as she accompanied him on tours; they had two sons, Jeff and Paul. After she died, Runyan married Berniece Harbers in Santa Cruz, California, on July 2, 1983.
Runyan died on March 17, 2002, after giving a short-game lesson near his residence in Pasadena, California.
For additional information:
“Hot Springs Native, PGA Pro, Dies at 93.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. March 18, 2002, p. 3C.
“Little Poison.” Time, July 25, 1938. Online at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,883038,00.html (accessed April 9, 2020).
“Paul Runyan.”World Golf Hall of Fame. http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/paul-runyan/ (accessed April 9, 2020).
Jay N. Fox
Arkansas State Golf Association
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 04/09/2020