They laid Johnny Bulla to rest on Tuesday following a ceremony at All Saints Episcopal Church in Phoenix. He was 89, but such an ornery rascal I never thought he’d go.
More than 300 people attended the celebration of Bulla’s life, and it was a spirited one. No wonder the stories from various members of the golf community flowed nonstop.
Actually, I thought I had heard most of the tales about "Boo Boo," as his good buddy, the late Sam Snead, referred to Bulla. As it turns out, there were a whole lot more.
For instance, did you know Johnny Bulla’s driver, the one he used for a runner-up finish in the British Open in 1939, remains on display in the British Museum of Golf at St. Andrews? Unbelievably, Bulla used the club during the entire 36 holes of qualifying and 72 holes of that tournament, and not once did his ball find its way into the ubiquitous pot bunkers on the Old Course. It’s got to be a record.
According to Peter Longo, the trick-shot artist who was one of Bulla’s closest friends, Johnny was known as one of the straightest drivers in professional golf. To his chagrin, however, he also was known as one of the worst putters.
"That same British Open that Johnny drove the ball so well, he had one of his most unfortunate finishes ever because of his putting," Longo said. "He four-putted the 17th hole at St. Andrews for a double bogey, and then threeputted the 18th for a bogey. If he had just two-putted those last two holes, he would have won the Open by a shot.
"But it never bothered Johnny one bit. He always believed that everything was already laid out, already planned. He’d tell me, ‘That’s destiny!’ And he believed it."
The British Open eluded him twice that way, and he also was the runner-up in the Masters. In fact, in nearly 30 years as a touring pro, Bulla’s only win came at the 1941 Los Angeles Open. Still, he won a truckload of titles, like a record 40 PGA section championships and 14 Arizona Opens, a mark that will stand forever.
The playing field, however, was not really what Johnny Bulla was all about. Chiefly, he was a pioneer who became the first pro to fly his own plane from tournament to tournament, and the first pro to endorse golf products outside the pro shop. He also was the first pro to play with a black man (Ted Rhodes) in a PGA Tour event.
The latter achievement was especially eye-opening to the Rev. Peter Walsh, who delivered Bulla’s eulogy.
"I look at Johnny like he was the Pee Wee Reese of golf," said Walsh, noting that Reese was Jackie Robinson’s staunchest supporter when Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
Truth is, every pro should salute Bulla, who also broke the endorsement barrier by being a spokesman for Walgreen golf balls, which was unheard of at the time. He took major grief over his decision to go outside the PGA’s closed shops, to the point where the PGA tried to expel him from its membership.
But that’s when Snead stepped in. The PGA came to the game’s biggest player of his time and told Sam he needed to distance himself from Bulla or he would be booted, too. Snead stuck by Bulla, the PGA backed down, and today we have players’ bags commercialized like billboards thanks to a rebel named Johnny.
Yes, Bulla was something. Born in North Carolina, he was a self-taught player who shot 60 at the young age of 20. Just as incredible, he was ambidextrous and could break par from the right or left side. Bulla’s last win came at age 72 — seventy-two! — when he captured the Senior Southwest Section of the PGA Championship. He could have played longer, but his eyesight failed him.
Just as impressive, Bulla was a leader among men, and hung out on a regular basis with such legends as Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and, of course, Snead. Johnny was "the man," piloting those icons of yesteryear all across America as they barnstormed to raise money for the war effort. And even though Bulla was adamant about not smoking or drinking, he remained the life of every party thanks to a keen sense of humor.
Following his retirement from the tour, Bulla became a golf course architect, designing such courses as Paradise Valley, Orange Tree, Leisure World, Thunderbird and several others in Colorado. He also dabbled in equipment, which is when he became a close associate of PING founder Karsten Solheim.
Bulla’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge also led to a career as an amateur chiropractor. Longo recalled Johnny got his "unofficial doctor’s degree" by studying for long hours at the medical library at Northwestern University in Illinois. An amazing feat, Longo noted, especially since only doctors have access to that library. "I asked Johnny how he got in, and he said, ‘I told them I was Dr. Bulla,’ " laughed Longo, noting that Jack Nicklaus and Corey Pavin were among those who received treatment from Doctor John.
It was a perfect life with the exception of Bulla’s falling out with his father, Longo added. "His dad was a Quaker minister, and he never forgave Johnny for being a golf pro, something his father thought was frivolous," Longo explained. "Johnny did finally make up with his mother before she died, but his father never spoke to him after that."
Bulla wasn’t overly religious, but he was loving. That was apparent when his three children and seven grandchildren talked about "Papa." They spoke fondly of the plethora of jokes he told them over the years, and how he taught them the subtleties of giving and receiving "unconditional love."
I’ll always remember Johnny as someone special, a person I was lucky enough to cross paths with. We had some wonderful conversations — he talked, I listened — at his little home at Ocotillo Golf Club in Chandler, where he was revered as the "professor emeritus."
He never did make big money in golf like the players of today; he never complained about it, either. His lifestyle was simple and modest, but because of his relationships with family and friends — and because he dared to live life to its fullest — Johnny Bulla died a rich man.