Paul Runyan was ‘Little Poison’ in competition, but a gem on the lesson tee to generations of players
Paul Runyan didn’t have a slingshot to take down Goliath. Instead, he had a lethal short game, earning him the nickname “Little Poison.” In 1934, the 5-foot-7, 130-pounder defeated his former employer, Craig Wood, in 38 holes at the Park Club of Buffalo to win his first of two PGA Championships.
Four years later, as summer humidity gripped Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pennsylvania, Runyan faced Sam Snead, who out drove him by an average of 75 yards in the PGA Championship finals. Preparing himself for the grind by taking two cold baths a day, Runyan coolly downed Slammin’ Sam, 8 and 7. It was the most lopsided title match ever in the event conducted at match play, and throughout that week, Runyan was 24-under-par for the 196 holes he played. He made one bogey in his final 70 holes and birdied six of the seven par-5s that were played.
Even with these victories, the best of Runyan’s legacy came later and off the course. The native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, had a teaching and coaching acumen that attracted many premier professionals to his lesson tee, including Gene Littler, Phil Rodgers, Frank Beard, Jim Ferree and Mickey Wright.
Runyan wrote an influential book outlining his short-game methods, The Short Way to Lower Scoring. In 1998, he received the PGA Distinguished Service Award, given during the PGA Championship at one of his former places of business -- Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington. He played nine holes on the PGA course the day of his celebration. And in 2000, Runyan completed the annual Par-3 competition the day before the Masters—at the age of 91.
Said Runyan, “I’ve taken some pleasure out of being the little guy who has beaten the big fellows.”
With a ready smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he lit up like a candle when asked to recall legendary players of generations past. In 2001, this PGA Historian was the last journalist to interview him at his son’s home in Palm Desert, California.
There were tales big and small, including one about golf hustler Alvin Clarence Thomas (a.k.a Titanic Thompson), who Runyan said found a patch of grass from an impossible sidehill lie to make perhaps the greatest up and down par save to win a sizable cash bet.
In 1990, Runyan was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame. He spent the final two years of his life teaching at The Golf Center of Palm Desert.
He had moved to the desert, and in with his son and daughter-in-law, following the death of his wife.
Runyan gave lessons until the end. He passed away on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2002. He was 93.
Runyan’s final formal lesson was on March 8. A day later he drove his golf car to the clubhouse, waiting to meet anyone in need of a tip. On March 11, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Alona McFarland Hudgens and her friend, Roxanne Davis, both of Palm Desert, met Runyan for what would be his final formal lesson on March 8.
“My late husband and I had lived at Sahalee (Country Club) and I had never gotten to meet Paul,” said Hudgens. “My husband had raved about how great a teacher he was. Roxanne and I had a wonderful lesson. We really got a kick out of him. He said he enjoyed teaching women more than men. When we were about to go, he asked, ‘Will you be coming back for the short game lesson?’ We had planned to be there.”