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British Open

American Pioneer

As one of the first Americans to venture to St. Andrews, Johnny Bulla almost came home with a couple of claret jugs

July 14, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Plenty is written about those golfers who have won the British Open. Here's a story about someone who almost did. On the Old Course. Twice.

Johnny Bulla was runner-up in 1939, in the last Open before World War II, and he tied for second place in 1946, the first one after it was over, an era when few Americans even bothered to cross the Atlantic to compete in the championship.

Bulla was born in 1914, two years after Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. He didn't collect tournament trophies like his famous contemporaries; in fact, Bulla only won once on tour, at the 1941 Los Angeles Open. Still, he was a pioneering pro with a quick and inquisitive mind, as interesting as he was friendly, a man with a profound sense of fair play.

It was Bulla who in 1944 encouraged promoter George S. May to integrate his Chicago tournament and he was paired with the first black entrant. Bulla was a pilot and also the first pro to endorse golf equipment that wasn't sold at pro shops -- balls sold at Walgreens. As a born lefty, Bulla was forced to be a right-hander. He became a student of "handedness," and in his 40s became a very good southpaw golfer, shooting in the low-60s several times.

The son of a Quaker minister in North Carolina, Bulla believed that things which happened in life (or golf) wasn't luck but destiny. "I don't believe in luck," Bulla told me once. "I believe in fate." It was Bulla's destiny to come tantalizingly close to winning the claret jug seven years apart at the Home of Golf.

Bulla went to the 1939 championship as a gift from Charles Walgreen, after he helped the drug store king mop up on some golf bets. Bulla traveled to Scotland on the S.S. Transylvania, a ship that would be torpedoed by a German submarine off Northern Ireland the following year after being enlisted in the war effort.

He got over his seasickness to qualify successfully, then was given a true taste of British weather in the first round, when he shot a 77 in heavy wind and rain. "I'll never forget it," Bulla said. "I hit driver, driver, 3-iron to the par-4 16th hole."

Bulla had the long game to handle the elements -- his 1939 and 1946 Opens were defined by long and straight driving -- but putting was a different story.

His excellent ball-striking often was sabotaged by poor putting. While golfers of the mid-20th century had to use their hands on the slow greens, Bulla's stroke was particularly wristy and inconsistent, in part, he believed, because he wasn't allowed to be a left-hander. "I don't even write left-handed," he said during an interview in the 1990s. "I went to school and they broke me. Hit me with a ruler. I stuttered for two years and stayed in the first grade for two years. It broke my natural way, but you would be surprised how many people are set back."

Bulla tried several putters on the Old Course's vast greens in 1939 after the putter he took overseas was ruled nonconforming by the Royal and Ancient Golf Association, but there wasn't much magic in any of them, particularly inside 10 feet. As the United Press reported of his final-round 73, "All through the round he alternately kissed the club when he holed out the long ones and threw it off the green in disgust when he missed the short ones, including a four-inch job on the morning round. Once, after missing a putt, he shouted: 'I'm going to have to get a pilot's license for this thing, because it's always flying.'"

Despite his trouble on the greens, Bulla, an early starter in the fourth round, appeared to have been good enough to win. In addition to wondering if his 292 total was good enough, Bulla's wife, Pauline, was expecting their first child back in the U.S. "When she went in the delivery room, the radio was saying I had won the British Open," Bulla recalled. "When she came out, I had finished second. It was July 7. We named him Robert, after Bobby Jones."

Englishman Dick Burton needed to shoot a one-over closing round to tie Bulla. He shot a 71 to win by two.

Burton was back at St. Andrews in 1946, and so was Bulla. This time Bulla's close pal Snead was among the tiny American contingent. Bulla and Snead had roomed regularly on the road in their early years on tour, and they were again at St. Andrews. Decades after they shared a room, Snead remained incredulous at how quickly Bulla could fall asleep. "He didn't snore," Snead said, "but he could get in bed, pull the sheet up, run his hand over his face, and the second time he did that, he was out. I never met another man like that. It was like a switch, and he was gone."

While Bulla had been to the Old Course and knew what to expect, Snead was unimpressed by its rough appearance. "He hated the course. Complained the whole time, until he won it," Bulla said. "Then he shut up."

Bulla might well have denied his buddy a victory, despite a disastrous turn on the Road Hole in the first round, when he made an 8 on No. 17, had his putting not remained suspect. He three-putted the final three holes to give Snead, playing behind him, some breathing room.

The final hole was particularly painful. Bulla executed an artful approach to the flagstick located just beyond the Valley of Sin. But he knocked his four-foot birdie try a foot by the hole and missed the comebacker, closing with a 79 to Snead's 75 and sharing second place with Bobby Locke, one of the all-time great putters. "For two nights, I couldn't sleep," Bulla said. "I'd wake up, thinking about it. After that, it didn't bother me."

Bulla, who played in seven British Opens, didn't miss one between 1946 and 1950, and he came back for an encore at St. Andrews in 1955, finishing T-37. "They never gave me much credit for revitalizing the British Open," Bulla said before his death at 89 in 2003, "but I consistently went over when not many Americans were going. I always felt like I helped keep it alive."

As long as Bulla was alive, he tried to help golfers enjoy the game, and he loved talking about his time. He never forgot those days on golf's ancestral land when his putting went south, but long ago forgave himself for them. "If I had been destined to win those tournaments," he liked to say, "I would have won them."

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