Little Poison by John Dechant: 5*****

He was 95 and at Augusta National for their annual Par 3 tournament prior to The Masters. His playing partners Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw were true gentlemen of the game. Arnold Palmer left the practice area to give him an avuncular hug. Tiger Woods applauded his tee shot, as he watched in wonder. Who was this man? Probably not a name your or even many golf enthusiasts ever heard of: Paul Runyan. Paul Runyan? Who is he and why is he playing the Par 3 tournament at The Masters. Little Poison by John Dechant is this story of a man who was originally nicknamed Peanut due to his small size and yet he reached the lofty heights when, as a 10-1 underdog defeated Sam Snead in the 1938 PGA  Championship.

            Born in Arkansas, Paul Runyan fell in love with golf at an early age and began working as a caddy at a local club come eventually learning how to repair Golf Club and give golf lessons while still in his mid-teens. Golf was not a big money sport as it is now, but it was either golf or work on his parents dairy farm, and for Runyan there was only one answer, and that was become a professional golfer. He worked in clubs throughout the country including a short stint in North Dakota where he quickly realized that the weather there during the winter was not to his liking and quickly came back to his home in Arkansas. This book describes his journey from local golfer to the pinnacle of golfing greatness. We are with him as he it’s anywhere from 600 to 1000 balls a day as he learns to perfect his craft. He’s so much smaller than everyone else that he has to master what’s known as the short game, in other words knowing how to use his irons better than his drivers, how to take advantage of the terrain and potting surfaces to get an edge on all the other professionals who could hit the ball anywhere from 40 to 80 yards further than he could.

            Runyan is a name that I was not familiar with, as a matter of fact many of the names that are in this book are unfamiliar to me. All you do have the glamorous ones, Sam Snead, gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, and Bobby Jones, but Runyan was right there with and could hold his own with them on any given day. By the time the 1930s rolled around he was beginning to play some of the best golf of his career and would now go and play in tournaments in Florida, Texas in California. He won the US open and became a member of the US Ryder Cup team that played in Australia. Despite his success, by the time of the 1938 PGA Championship at Shawnee on the Delaware he was not favored by the oddsmakers.

            The PGA title was Match Play back then, and in none of his matches was he favored, and to be honest his early matches were tight affairs and by the time of the 36-hole Match Play final against Snead he was a 10-1 underdog! But Runyan had a few things going for him, including the knowledge of his body and he knew what he could or could not eat or drink. While not a fitness buff, he kept himself in shape and having grown up in Arkansas he knew how to overcome the heat and humidity that many others wilted under. So that fateful Saturday, Sam Snead did not stand chance. Between short accurate drives, masterful short iron play even out of the sand traps, as well as his wizardry as a putter, it really was no contest and to his day may be the most lopsided PGA Championship match.

            Times change, World War 2 interrupts golf, golf equipment changes and the era of Paul Runyan eventually comes to an end as a top golf professional, but his love the game continued into his 9th decade and that is why we find him playing at the Par 3 Tournament that opens the book. This is a superbly researched book, a book that takes us back in time to an era when golfers wore pork pie hats, sweaters and ties during the tournament, and proves that there were, and still are, David’s who can conquer Goliath’s on the golf course!

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