Hardly anyone wanted Johnny Bulla to win the 1941 Los Angeles Open at Riviera.
Bulla, his fellow players asserted, had committed an egregious crime. Three years earlier, he had befriended Charles Walgreen, founder of the Walgreens drugstore, and agreed to an endorsement deal to promote the store’s discount golf balls that were sold over the counter to the public for 25 cents a pop.
It came at a time when golfers – and all athletes, for that matter – virtually never ventured into the space of commercial partnerships. Pro golfers were to play equipment sold exclusively in golf shops. Competing with a bargain ball sold outside the pro shop system while earning money for such a thing bordered on blasphemous.
The PGA of America tried to blackball Bulla at every step, going as far as barring him from the 1941 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Wilson Sporting Goods threatened Sam Snead, a close friend of Bulla’s and a Wilson staff member, with termination of his contract should continue to spend time with Bulla. The PGA threatened Snead, too. He stuck by his friend and held off punishment. But it didn’t stop the animosity from raining down on a perceived turncoat.
In that 1941 L.A. Open, Bulla’s only PGA Tour win in a lengthy career, the hate reached a level that is unthinkable today. During the third round, one of his playing partners walked up to a ball in the fairway, looked down to check the brand and then walked away, presumably because that wasn’t his ball.
It was the equivalent of the hidden ball trick in baseball. Bulla hit his approach assuming it was his Walgreens Golden Crown ball, but that wasn’t the case. He incurred a two-stroke penalty because of the trickery but still won by two strokes over Craig Wood.
Bulla ventured over to the British Open in 1939 at St. Andrews and stunningly hit every fairway in both 36 holes of qualifying and 72 holes of tournament golf. His driver is still on display in the R&A Golf Club Museum.
“Every inch of a player has got a logo now,” Bulla’s son, Robert, told the Beaver County Times. “In those days, that was not the thing to do. Walgreens was going to sue (the PGA) for antitrust, so they backed down. The manufacturers really put pressure on the PGA. The PGA really did a number on (Bulla), basically destroyed a lot of his records.”
Johnny Bulla’s name is mostly forgotten in golf history, especially because some of his tour accomplishments were essentially whitewashed. But what he did for the game, and the defiant way he did it, makes him one of the true hidden gems in an era of golf dominated by players like Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff and Lloyd Mangrum.
Bulla was born in Newell, West Virginia, in 1914 and raised in Burlington, North Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister who never forgave his son for pursuing professional golf and refused to speak with him for doing so. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, the powerful Bulla was a natural southpaw but learned the game right-handed due to a dearth of left-handed equipment. He would go on to putt left-handed at certain points of his career, although those switches were mainly because his putting abilities were so abysmal. The legend is that his ambidextrous skills led him to break par from both sides of the ball.
In the early 1930s, Bulla finished high school and then hitchhiked from North Carolina to Chicago in search of work. He became the head pro at Woodridge Country Club in 1934 and began on the PGA Tour in 1937.
Those who saw Bulla play in person call him one of the straightest drivers of the ball from that era. Bulla ventured over to the British Open in 1939 at St. Andrews – this coming at a time when few Americans played the event – and stunningly hit every fairway in both 36 holes of qualifying and 72 holes of tournament golf, much of which was played in disastrous weather. His driver is still on display in the R&A Golf Club Museum. The feat wasn’t enough to win the tournament, though, as Bulla four-putted the 17th hole and three-putted the 18th hole that morning and held the lead until England’s Dick Burton, playing in the final group of the afternoon, came in two strokes lower at 2-under 290.
Losing by small margins was commonplace for Bulla. He finished second in the 1946 Open Championship and 1949 Masters, both to his pal Snead. He had 12 top-10 finishes in major championships, most of them coming in the years immediately following World War II. Bulla had at least one top-five result in all four majors. It is also believed that he played in 40 consecutive L.A. Opens and made the cut in every U.S. Open that was played from 1939-1953, though he and several other players were disqualified in the 1940 U.S. Open for starting before his final-round tee time in trying to outrace a thunderstorm.
He was a strong player who could have won far more without a balky putter, but Bulla’s real influence came in other areas.
In being the first pro to endorse merchandise sold outside the golf shop, Bulla helped open the possibilities for tour pros to exclusively play golf for a living because of the added income. While Gene Sarazen was the pioneer for long-term endorsement deals by signing with Wilson in 1922 and maintaining that relationship throughout his life, Bulla laid the foundation for a star like Arnold Palmer to earn endorsement deals outside the golf shop. After his Walgreens endorsement, where he played the brand’s more expensive Golden Crown ball but openly promoted the brand’s cut-rate “Po-Do” ball, he would go on to sign with Sears for a club, balls and clothing partnership. Sales in Sears golf product went from $1 million to $6 million in a year as Bulla became a spokesman for the brand, but the tour worked diligently to limit his access to tournaments and generally make his life as miserable as they could.
It didn’t bother Bulla too much. He was a high-energy person, the type of guy who finished his whole meal before the rest of the table had buttered their bread. Despite his father’s deeply religious background, Bulla’s beliefs strayed far from the traditional. He was a devout disciple of Edgar Cayce, a notorious psychic known as the “the sleeping prophet” who incorrectly predicted the formation of fictional Atlantis and that a California earthquake would send the entire state sinking into the Pacific Ocean.
Like Cayce, Bulla also held an unshakable belief in the concept of reincarnation and predetermined fate. In his mind, everything in life was already planned out and humans had no ability to change future events. When fellow players tried to console him after his close call at the 1939 Open, Bulla showed little emotion and told everyone it was destiny. He was also convinced that he was a doctor in a past life. While in Chicago, Bulla would sneak into the Northwestern University library in an effort to become an amateur chiropractor. There are unsubstantiated claims that Bulla worked on the backs of Jack Nicklaus and Corey Pavin, in addition to trying to help any golfer, grounds crew member or course employee who had a limp and needed realignment.
When Bulla started something, there was little chance of convincing him to stop.
“You either agreed with Johnny Bulla or you were wrong,” longtime friend Tom Lambie told the Beaver County Times.
As for the tour and fellow players openly shunning him, Bulla felt he was right – and history proved the accusations against him were ridiculous – but he moved on with his life without consternation. The one thing that nagged at him was missing the Ryder Cup team when he deserved it.
“It made me a better person,” Bulla told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “You know, the only thing we really do in this life is learn. We all learned. … I overcame it. Golf outgrew it and so did I.”
Bulla had another connection to Palmer that he is known for. It is widely believed that he was the first tour player to pilot his own plane to tournaments, as Arnie later did, at one time using a Douglas DC-3 army transport plane, which was nicknamed “The Golfer,” to roam across the country. Hogan, who learned to fly in the army, was often a co-pilot on those trips. It was not uncommon for Bulla to be the pilot on a flight with Nelson, Snead, Hogan, Jug McSpaden and other top players with their wives shuttling from stop to stop on tour. According to an October 1945 article in the Eugene Register-Guard, the pros collectively chipped in money to purchase the plane with the idea that Bulla could fly them. The plane was made available through the “surplus commodity board” after the war had just ended.
Bulla had been a pilot prior to that purchase as he both flew himself to tournaments alone and was a commercial pilot for Eastern Airlines during the war. He also co-founded Arizona Airways, a small regional outfit in Phoenix that would later merge to become Frontier Airlines. (This was the first Frontier Airlines, which collapsed in 1986, and not the second Frontier Airlines, which formed in 1994 and is still operational today.)
Although Bulla can come off as a zany, unpredictable character, he was also widely considered a progressive, kind-hearted person well ahead of his time. Maybe the best example of that was in 1944 when the PGA Tour played in Chicago and George May decided to integrate his tournament for the first time. Ted Rhodes – a pioneering Black player who came before the likes of Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Calvin Peete – qualified for the tournament, but the other players in the field were not willing to play with him. Bulla jumped in quickly, becoming the first known white golfer to agree to a competitive tour round with a Black player.
“I look at Johnny like he was the Pee Wee Reese of golf,” Rev. Peter Walsh said during Bulla’s eulogy in 2003, alluding to the prominent Jackie Robinson supporter who pushed for his teammate’s breaking of the color barrier in major-league baseball.
A celebrity of sorts wherever he went, Bulla’s ability to make friends was benefited by his staunch belief in equality. When he would play tournaments in Chicago, the transcendent Black boxer Joe Louis would often babysit his son Robert – the name Robert coming from another friend, Bobby Jones.
“Nobody ever really bothered me,” the younger Bulla would later joke to the Beaver County Times.
Bulla moved his family to Arizona in 1946 and spent most of his life in the valley. From 1947-74, Bulla won 16 Arizona PGA Chapter or Southwest PGA-sponsored state majors, including five Arizona Opens and 10 chapter and section championships. He competed well into his later years. His last win came at the age of 71 when he captured the Southwest PGA Section Senior Championship. He is a member of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame and Arizona Golf Hall of Fame. He also has a Southwest Section award named after him, the honor given annually to an individual who displays exemplary talent on the course over the course of his career.
When he wasn’t playing, Bulla kept plenty busy. He became a golf course architect and designed Orange Tree Golf Club (Scottsdale, Arizona), Thunderbird Country Club (Heber Springs, Arkansas), Pagosa Springs (Colorado) Golf Club, Desert Hawk at Pueblo West (Colorado) and several others. His eyesight failed him later in life because of macular degeneration, but Bulla continued to walk five miles per day, giving occasional lessons and telling stories at Ocotillo Golf Club in Chandler, Arizona.
He was happily married to his wife, Pauline, for 58 years and had three children and seven grandchildren at the time of his death. His nickname was “Papa.” When he passed away at the age of 89 due to complications from colon surgery, stories were told about Papa’s enduring message to each of them: “Think about the next shot, not the last.”
And, no matter what, do not base your opinions on what everyone else around you is doing.
“He was a wonderful person and a good man,” Byron Nelson told Greensboro.com upon Bulla’s death. “He was always changing things, always doing things differently. If everyone was eating ham and eggs, he was the one who didn’t eat ham and eggs.”
That’s what made Johnny Bulla great. He was a man of firsts, a true original.
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