By Brian Keogh
They called him “Little Poison” but to Paddy McGuirk, the ever-friendly professional at County Louth, he looked just like any other visiting American octogenarian – small, tanned and impeccably dressed.
“Are you the pro here?” the mysterious visitor enquired, poking his head round the door of Paddy’s shop.
Paddy replied that he was, in effect, the club professional.
“Well I thought I’d better come in and introduce myself,” said the visitor. “I’m an old, weather-beaten American pro – Paul Runyan’s the name.”
“Those were his exact words,” recalled Paddy, the memory still vivid in the memory bank. “We had a bit of a chat but you would never have thought that he was a Major champion, he was so unassuming and small.”
The Corey Pavin of his day, Runyan had won the US PGA championship twice in the 1930s and was one of the few survivors who played in the first Masters Tournament in 1934, finishing two shots behind Horton Smith in a tie for third.
He competed in an era that featured Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Sam Snead, and he held his own with a magical short game that frustrated the big guns and earned him his nickname.
Herbert Warren Wind, one of golf’s most distinguished chroniclers, wrote of Runyan in his classic ‘The Story of American Golf’: “Paul Runyan was the shortest hitter of the pack, but what he lacked in distance off the tees, he made up in the accuracy of his long approaches.
“He could sweep a spoon shot closer to the pin than his opponent’s five iron and on the greens he could be murderous. He was a dapper dresser, and it took some believing when you heard he was only a few years away from milking cows on his father’s farm in Arkansas.”
He won 26 times on the PGA Tour. But his most stunning victory came in 1938 when he thrashed Snead 8 and 7 in the 36-hole final of the PGA Championship.
He was just one of thousands of golfers to visit Ireland that year - by Paddy’s reckoning, it was some time in the mid 1990s.
By all accounts, Runyan had played Ballybunion the day before he arrived in Baltray and although he was in his eighties at the time, he easily broke his age at the wild Kerry links.
What he shot that day at Baltray nobody knows, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he enjoyed a glass of stout and sampled the famous hospitality in Baltray’s famously welcoming clubhouse.
Of course, Runyan was not the first American to sample the delights of links golf in Ireland with Tom Watson's regular visits to Ballybunion playing no small part in his five Open Championship victories.
Others, such as Mark O'Meara, Payne Stewart, Davis Love and Tiger Woods followed in his footsteps, taking on such links gems as Waterville, the Old Head, Royal County Down, The European Club and Portmarnock.
Yet those links tests, wonderful though they might be, make up just a small part of what golfing Ireland has to offer the 21st century traveller.
Even Woods can attest to that fact having taken on the Jack Nicklaus designed Mount Juliet Conrad, one of almost 400 parkland courses, in the 2002 WGC - American Express Championship.
"It was my first competitive trip," Woods recalled. "I had a great time. You know, I played extremely well. Those are probably the best greens that I have ever putted on. On top of that, the weather was great, too.
"The fans were ecstatic, they were happy. They were so enthusiastic about us being there and playing that I was kind of used to it already. Being there and fishing there before the British Open, I've kind of gotten used to how Americans are received when we play all around the country, preparing The Open Championship. We were always received extremely well, and gracious. Just had a great time. It was just an extenuation of that.
"It's been fantastic. Every time I get a chance to go there before The Open Championship, going out fishing with Mark and Cookie, the rest of the guys, whether it's down in Waterville, around Dublin.
"We've had some of the greatest times just happening out and just fishing, just basically getting away and just relaxing. I think it's certainly helped us to succeed in The Open Championships, that we've gone in with a fresh mind. We got accustomed to the time zone change as well as playing some links golf, but basically go to The Open Championship fresh. The years that I've gone there, I've really played well in The Open Championship."
Mount Juliet ranks right up there amongst my own personal favourites alongside The Heritage in Laois and older tests such as Mullingar, Carlow, Hermitage and Headfort New just outside Navan.
Yet there are so many new parkland courses nowadays that keeping track of them is almost as difficult as playing a downhill pitch over a yawning bunker.
The Montgomerie Course at Carton House is a parkland with a links feel while Christy O’Connor Jnr’s fabulous design at Palmerstown House just outside Naas is possibly the best new course built in Ireland over the past decade and a worthy venue for this year AIB Irish Seniors Open.
Runyan never got the chance to play O’Connor’s PGA National Course at Palmerstown House or the wonderful links at Ballyliffin in Co Donegal, which has been improved by six-time Major champion Nick Faldo.
“It is my hope that people will one day talk about Ballyliffin in the same breath as Ballybunion and Royal Portrush,” Faldo says. “It could be that special.”
Then again, as Runyan found out, Ireland has many special places and the fun is finding them yourself by popping into that pro’s shop.