BLOOMINGTON — Go out to The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course or Prairie Vista Golf Course most days during the week and there's a former PGA member out there playing.
Let Art Runyon explain.
“Preachers Golf Association,” said Runyon, smiling, “of Central Illinois Conference of United Methodist Church. They told us we had to have it all in there otherwise it was illegal to use PGA. It disbanded, but we're trying to get it started again using a different name, like 'Old Preachers Never Die.'”
The Rev. Art Runyon is 90 years old and will be at The Den or Prairie Vista until the snow is on the ground and both courses are officially closed. Of course, he'll still be coming to Prairie Vista to have coffee with his buddies until the snow melts and then he'll be back out swinging.
Runyon said he played his first round of golf about 70 years ago at Saukie Golf Course in Rock Island, his hometown. He continued to play after coming to Illinois Wesleyan in 1948 and has done so, well, religiously, at all his church stops, including from 1964-70 when he served as pastor at the United Methodist Conference office in the Twin Cities.
Tom Runyon, one of Art's six children, remembers his father's ritual in the 1960s at Highland Park Golf Course.
“We would have to take turns getting up in summer time. We got to go caddie for Dad as he played and started in the dark,” said Tom Runyon, who lives in Lafayette, Ind. “By the time we were done, it would be light. We would come home and go back to bed, and he would go to work.”
When Art Runyon retired from his pastoral duties in 1993, he and his wife, Mary, moved back to Bloomington-Normal. Runyon has been a regular at the Bloomington city courses ever since.
What's been the attraction about golf for so long?
“You don't have to have a team. It's an individual game, and I'm an individualist,” said Runyon. “I play whether there's anyone else to play or not. I play with Dick Wagner twice a week and play by myself twice a week. So what? The Ryder Cup, they think it's a team game, but it's an individual game. You're an individual on a team.”
Runyon prefers to walk, but recently has suffered from foot problems and needs to take a cart. Ask him what his score was for his 9-hole hole day and you're surprised by the answer.
“Thirty-four putts,” he said.
Tom Runyon laughed at his father's answer. “That's all he counts anymore,” he said.
“When I was secretary with the PGA, we awarded a prize for fewest number of putts,” said Art. “I won that prize more than anyone else. With the PGA, I averaged 31 putts for the season.”
Art Runyon has achieved a golfer's dream, a hole in one, twice. He did it the first time on No. 17 at The Den in 2011 and then the next year at No. 5 at Prairie Vista.
Of course, Runyon is like any golfer. He gets upset when his shots don't go where he wants.
Many golfers might utter a word you're not supposed to say in church. Runyon said he prefers to “just let it roll off,” or what you would expect from a pastor.
His son had to interject after just playing that day with his father.
“Usually you say your name out loud in disgust, 'Arthur!' or something like, 'I know better,'” said Tom Runyon.
Mary Runyon passed away in December 2016. None of Runyon's children (his oldest son died in 2008) live nearby with a daughter in Effingham the closest.
While his immediate family (which also includes 15 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren) might not be close, his “family” at Prairie Vista and The Den keep an eye on Runyon, especially when he goes out and plays by himself.
Runyon chuckles when he sees a course worker sent by Nancy Nelson, the golf operations manager for the City of Bloomington, headed his way.
“I say, 'Nancy, it was only an hour ago I left there.' She'll say, OK, I just forgot the time you teed off,” said Runyon. “Every time I see someone coming in a cart I say, 'I'm all right.'”
Tom Runyon and his brothers and sisters are glad their father is being looked after.
“Being we are so far away, to know that Nancy and whoever, Tim Kerfoot or guys who know him, do keep an eye out for him, that's a comfort,” said Tom.
Runyon remembers paying 25 cents for a nine-hole round in Palmyra in the early 1950s. While the cost has risen substantially, Runyon said a lifetime devotion to golf is well worth it, especially now.
“It keeps me young,” he said. “When I can't play golf, I won't be around very long. The best thing to do is get up, grab breakfast, grab your clubs and go to the golf course.”