Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Thwarted advice to a beginning golfer
My good friend J-B wants to take up golf.
Even Surgeon General's warnings - golf promotes bruxism; shanking is karmic payback - couldn't sway him.
I recommended two books: Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf and Paul Runyan's The Short Way to Lower Scoring - and assumed each would be easy to find.
Hogan's is. Runyan's is not. In fact it's so out of print the cheapest used paperback costs $55, a hardcover, $90.
But Runyan's book is head, shoulders, and ankles above every other book on the short game!
It's been said that all philosophy is just "footnotes to Plato." Runyan's book came out in 1979, and every one since - from Dave Pelz's tomes, to Stan Utley, to Dave Stockton - are footnotes to Runyan.
Stockton's latest, Unconscious Scoring talks about "effective loft" and "chip like you putt" and chip with the toe deep: all from The Short Way.
No bowler makes all strikes. So they learn the shots and techniques to "cover their spares."
No golfer hits every green in regulation. They must get up and down - cover their spares - to keep a round going. The point of the game, as Shivas Irons tells young Michael in Golf in the Kingdom, is "tae scoor" - put the ball in the cup as efficiently as possible.
San Diego golfers have always been renowned for their short games: Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Mickey Wright, Phil Rodgers (who in later years taught rival Jack Nicklaus how to do it right), Craig Stadler, Scott Simpson, and short-game maestro Phil Mickelson.
One reason: they honed their skills at Presidio Hills, a par 27 pitch and putt in Old Town.
The other reason: From the mid-Fifties to mid-Seventies, Paul Runyan was head pro at La Jolla Country Club.
He was five-foot-seven and weighed 130, with a wallet full of skins money, that is. Pros gave him his nickname, "Little Poison" (borrowed from baseball player Lloyd Waner) because he was one of the shortest drivers on tour yet won two PGA championships and two money titles by pitching, chipping, and putting like a demon
"Through necessity," he wrote, "I began my lifelong devotion to the short game, the searching for shortcuts that would somehow let me compete, and hopefully excel, in a world of stronger players."
He knew he'd miss greens, in part because he couldn't reach some, and learned to relish the challenge of making pars from scary places.
One time on a long par four - some way the 18th at Merion - he laid up off the tee. He pitched to the women's tees and still made four on the hole.
"Don't let the bad shots get to you," he writes. "Don't let yourself become angry. The true scramblers are thick-skinned. And they always beat the whiners."
Runyan's isn't just the best book on the short game. Like Hogan's its the best at describing how the shots feel. Also like Hogan's, artist Anthony Ravielli did the micro-precise drawings.
I will lend my copy to J-B, even though it's so earmarked and annotated it looks like the scratchings on an Egyptian stele.
I will also urge he learn the game the way Runyan taught it: from the cup outwards. And will cite myself as an example.
I took up the game almost 40 years ago to the day. My first round (I counted every stroke) was 133. I went back the next day and played so slowly two members of our group went on ahead. My remaining partner was an old gent who had a wooden-shafted putter and an obvious love for the game. I shot 134.
After, he said: "you're coming late to golf. Friend of mine, teaching pro, says golfers learn the game backwards, from the tee to the green. Paul says find out how to score first."
"Paul" was Runyan.
"My suggestion," the man said: "hit full shots at a driving range, but find a short par 27 course. Learn to putt, chip, and pitch - and don't play another big round until you can break 30 regularly."
I took the man's advice. Many months later I played a full round of golf at San Juan Hills, San Juan Capistrano - only the third in my life - and shot 85.