Little Poison

Paul Runyan, Sam Snead, and a Long-Shot Upset at the 1938 PGA Championship

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Pub Date 01 Apr 2023 | Archive Date 31 Mar 2023

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Paul Runyan—the Arkansas farm boy who stood five feet, six inches and weighed 130 pounds—shocked the golf world by defeating long and lean, sweet-swinging Sam Snead in the finals of the 1938 PGA Championship, thus earning the nickname “Little Poison.” Runyan did more than beat Snead: he shellacked him as decisively as David toppled mighty Goliath. His resounding victory was so convincing, so dominant, that even Snead had to shake his head when it was finished and wonder how the porkpie-wearing, pint-sized golf pro had gotten the better of him in the thirty-six-hole final. One bookmaker made Snead a 10-to-1 favorite before the match. Despite Snead’s physical gifts—he routinely outdrove Runyan by fifty yards or more—Snead was no match for Runyan, the underdog victor in one of golf’s four major championships.

Little Poison is the story of a man who made a career out of punching above his weight on the golf course. Runyan won twenty-nine PGA tournaments between 1930 and 1941, as well as another major championship in 1934. Runyan served in the navy during World War II, joining Snead and other prominent professionals who played exhibition matches to entertain troops and help raise money. After the war he played sparingly—but successfully—and focused on his career as an instructor, teaching his revolutionary short-game techniques. Little Poison follows Runyan throughout these stages of his life, from anonymity to stardom and into golf mythology.

At the heart of Runyan’s story is his Depression-era grit. He believed passionately that proper technique and relentless hard work would outlast talent and brawn. Americans who emerged from the Great Depression likely had a little Runyan in them, too, making him the perfect sports hero for the era. His story began not on the immaculate fairways of a country club but on a farm in Hot Springs, Arkansas, near a golf course with oiled sand greens. A disadvantage, some would say—but not Runyan. On those sand surfaces he developed a sustainable technique that became the bedrock of his hall of fame career.

Paul Runyan—the Arkansas farm boy who stood five feet, six inches and weighed 130 pounds—shocked the golf world by defeating long and lean, sweet-swinging Sam Snead in the finals of the 1938 PGA...

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I as an avid golfer and history buff found this book a great read and welcome addition to my history of golf quest! The success of the “little guy” against the titans of the sport was warming and I reveled in the history of the golf professional prior to the modern day PGA events we enjoy today. The struggle of these forerunners playing for minimal purses shows the dedication required to advance their dreams! Read how it all began with a few exciting twists included.

I have received a free copy of this book. Opinions expressed are my own.


Spencer Birt

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Professional golfers who have been known as long hitters during their time, from Harvey Penick to Tiger Woods, are also popular in both galleries and the press. However, those who are great at other parts of the game that overcomes their lack of distance off the tee are not as well known. That is the case for Paul Runyan, who is the subject of this excellent biography by John Duchant.

The title is a bit misleading, as this book is not just about the 1938 PGA Championship. In that tourney, that was when Runyan rose from relative obscurity (even though he had already won one major tourney in 1934, also the PGA Championship) to defeat Snead 8 and 7 in match play. That was the largest victory for any PGA Championship winner when that tourney was decided by match play until 1957. It was such a surprise that Runyan even kept the sign with the score to show that he did indeed win with that big a margin.

While there is some material on Snead in the book, including his gracious handling of the defeat, this book is primarily about the life of Paul Runyan, and it is a fascinating life and read. Every aspect of his life, from his upbringing to his many jobs in golf (caddy, fitting clubs, club pro) to his time on the PGA tour to his business life after his career came to an end. There were a couple of events he played as a senior member who was invited (the Senior/Champions PGA tour was not yet established) and while he showed flashes of his excellent game, he was content with working in the game.

His personal life is well documented in the book as well, including his two marriages in which he loved both of his wives and was widowed twice. Other highlights include how he gained his nickname of “Little Poison”, the excellence of his short game that gave him his wins and his overall positive aspect of his life. For readers who wish to learn more about this little-known Hall of Fame golfer, this is an excellent source of information on him.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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