Jack Renner is built like a reed, a toothpick, a one-iron. When he sits on his golf bag at the edge of a putting green, he is an angular pile of elbows and knees. His rib cage shows clearly through the back of the pale blue pullover he customarily wears. His face is tanned and as smooth as a child's, but quite unrevealing. At the TPC two weeks ago he missed a six-foot putt at the 16th hole on the last day that knocked him out of a tie with Tom Watson for second place. As the ball slipped by the hole, his skinny body twisted slightly, but his face remained impassive. Not long ago Renner told a golf writer, "My goal is to play 72 holes someday without changing expression. Hogan did it."
Renner also wears a white cap, as Ben Hogan did, and he has been using Hogan clubs since he was 14. Although he turned pro three years ago, he put off signing up with the Hogan manufacturing company until January because, he says, "I was afraid of becoming too closely associated with the name, afraid people might think I was getting up in the morning and kneeling facing Fort Worth."
Still, the white cap does attract attention, even after all the years of Hogan's retirement. At the Los Angeles Open, two codgers perched on shooting sticks were watching Hale Irwin and Tom Purtzer and Tom Weiskopf hit balls on the practice tee. After a time, Renner, who had been sitting on his bag watching Irwin while he waited for a space to open up, stepped into the line and soon was hitting glorious arrowlike irons out to the 175-yard sign, one after another.
Codger 1: "That's young Jack Renner, the kid in the hat. He's the best in California."
Codger 2: "He went east and made a lot of money, I think."
Codger 1: "He's only 18, you know."
Renner just looks 18. Actually he is 22, which makes him the youngest player on the PGA exempt list by more than a year. But he did go east, and north and south last year; and he did win a lot of money—$73,996—which put him 33rd on the tour earnings list. He did it with a very good short game and remarkable consistency for a newcomer, finishing in the money in 21 of 28 tournaments and in the top 10 five times, including a tie for second at Greensboro.
While Renner may not have been the best amateur in California, he was the best in San Diego for quite a while, and San Diego has long had one of the outstanding junior golf programs in the country. "Our city teams were so good that sometimes we'd challenge whole states," says Renner. Chet and Nancy Renner, Jack's parents, were avid golfers who moved to Palm Springs, Calif. from Evanston, Ill. in 1955 after the birth of their first child, Jane, now in her third year on the LPGA tour. "All we wanted," says Chet Renner, who is in his early 60s, "was to move to a place where it never snowed. We hated snow and winter and cold weather. Now I ask myself every day why we did it. I wonder about the effect of the place on the kids. Palm Springs is the most abnormal town of 30,000 in the world. It's just a revolving door, everybody running away from something."
In the summer months when the desert heat was intolerable, the Renner family, which soon included Jack and his younger brother Jim—also a pro now—would move to an apartment in San Diego. There the three children found their way into the junior program and eventually were playing as many as two tournaments a week. Winter and summer, Chet and Nancy would split up the ferrying of the three around Southern California. When Palm Springs was home base and the distances were great, they would keep in touch through messages left Scotch-taped to a green garbage can at a roadside rest area on Highway 395. "Jane might be playing in Oceanside, Jack in Escondido and Jim in La Mesa," says Chet Renner. "So that we wouldn't have to wait until we got home to learn the others' scores, whoever got to the garbage can first would write his score on a piece of paper and tape it to the can."
The school year was spent in Palm Springs, and Jack was a superior student; he never got worse than an A after the fifth grade. He was asked to speak either as class valedictorian or salutatorian—the school never made it clear which—at Palm Springs High School in 1974, but Jack spent his graduation day in San Francisco trying unsuccessfully to qualify for the U.S. Open.
Instead of going away to a hotshot golf college—the normal route toward a pro career—Renner chose to attend a two-year community college in the desert. He didn't play golf there, nor had he in high school, figuring his time was better spent on a practice tee than driving two hours each way to some place like El Centro for a match against somebody who most likely shot 86 on his best day.
At 19 Renner turned pro. At 20 he qualified for the tour. He still has a pleasant innocence about what he found on the road. "I didn't know what to expect when I came out," he says. "I thought there might be more backbiting. After all, the tour is the essence of capitalism, the survival of the fittest. But I've never yet heard harsh words exchanged. I hope golf can stay like this. I hope it never gets like tennis. I'd hate to think I'd ever heckle Hale Irwin over a three-foot putt."
Sometimes Renner talks like a young man with an old man inside struggling to get out: "I want to be as professional as I can. I don't want to cut up in the locker room and act like a grammar school kid. I try to act older than I am." He seems to have a reason for everything he does and his decisions are firm. "Some guys think I'm eccentric, or that there's something wrong with me because I don't chase girls more often. But there's nothing in the world wrong with me. I just don't want to waste my time, or some girl's, on something that will only be one day or one night."
Often when he comes off a golf course, Renner goes looking for a public library in which to spend a couple of peaceful hours. "I like to read better than anything, and about anything. Right now I'm reading Galbraith's book on money. I'm not a voracious reader of fiction, but I probably read more magazines than anyone except the President. It has to do with their availability on airplanes. It is important to me not to be a dumb athlete. I want to be able to talk to my pro-am partners about something other than the speed of the greens."
Renner's ultimate goal is to be, "quite frankly, the best player on the face of the earth." But he has interim goals that he pursues one at a time, methodically, singlemindedly, until he has them nailed down. Last year, his first full year on the tour, he set out to make the top 60 on the money list. By mid-March he was on target, at which point he took stock of himself and decided that right then he needed a rest more than he needed another tournament and a chance to make a little more money. So he went home to Palm Springs and rested and practiced for nine days. When he came back to Greensboro in the last week of March, he was ready to attack again.
The first 60 golfers on the money-winning list are exempt from qualifying for the next year. The difference between No. 60 and No. 61 for a young, little-known player like Renner is the difference between living like a human being and trying to survive in the sweatbox of Monday qualifying—competing on Monday for the privilege of competing again Thursday for the privilege of just trying to make a living. By June, Renner was sure of being in the top 60 and had secured his immediate future.
Greensboro was his best tournament. He shot a 67 on Friday that put him only one stroke off the lead. After the third day he was in a three-way tie for the lead, and on Sunday all he needed was a par at the 18th hole to tie Seve Ballesteros. Instead, Renner hit his approach shot into a bunker, came out to within seven feet of the hole and then missed the putt. He had a tie with Fuzzy Zoeller for second and $22,200, but to an uncaring world he had blown a seven-foot putt on national TV and possibly an invitation to the Masters next week. He would have had that if he'd tied Ballesteros and beaten him in a playoff.
But Renner was by no means disconsolate. With the year hardly begun, he was already well on the way to his goal. Furthermore, he had learned something about how good he was. "I considered it a victory," he says. "I could play on national TV. I could be in contention through a whole tournament and not choke. And I found it was easier and more fun than I thought it would be. I couldn't wait to do it again."
Hubert Green, impressed with Renner's attitude, has said, "He's going to be one heck of a golfer." Tom Watson said recently, "He's serious. He has talent. He works hard on his game. I think it's only a matter of time till he wins." Others, however, say they see things in Renner's swing and his grip that could limit his potential. One veteran observer thinks it even possible Renner has already had his best year. But veteran observers have been wrong before. Arnold Palmer survived a hook grip, Jack Nicklaus a supposedly flying elbow, Billy Casper a dragging foot, Bobby Jones a loop, Walter Hagen a sway, and on and on back to Old Tom Morris.
Renner himself feels that the only thing standing between him and his heart's desire is physical strength. His weight, listed as 160 in the tour book, is obviously wishful thinking by at least a few pounds, but just as obviously, he has not finished growing. During the off months he did some careful weight lifting and rope skipping, convinced that if he wants to, he can become strong. On his record, he is probably right.
He also worked long and hard on increasing his distance off the tee. When he returned to the tour this past January, he was startled to find that his short game, the bulwark of his success, was suffering from neglect. He missed cuts in his first two tournaments, and by the time he got to Hawaii, he says, he was praying to the "golf god." "I told him I was sorry I hadn't practiced my chipping and putting, that I had committed the cardinal golf sin and that I was repenting, and since I'd done the penance would he please give me a few putts."
Did he? "No."
Things got so bad that the afternoon before he left home for the L.A. Open, Chet, Jane, Jim and Jack Renner had a family conference on the south course of the Canyon Country Club, in the middle of the desert near Palm Springs, to consider what was wrong with Jack's putting.
"Nobody could figure out what it was," said Jack. "As it was getting dark, I lined up six balls about 20 feet from the hole. I hit one after another and the fifth one missed by two feet. When I got to the last, I sort of flicked my wrist and the ball went maybe 30 yards over the green. That was when I blew my stack, literally. Nobody ever thinks he is a good putter, but I had been told my whole life I was a good putter, and to get to a point where for six weeks I couldn't make a putt...I just let out a howl. I had reached the boiling point. Nobody said anything at first. Then, out in the dark a coyote answered me. It was pretty funny. I calmed down right away, opened my stance drastically, and suddenly I began to see my line again."
Renner shot 75-71-71-70—287 and finished tied for 27th at L.A. His putts had begun to drop again. After two weeks at home, he resurfaced in Florida, where he tied for 40th at Doral and then took that splendid third in the TPC. The golf god had taken pity on the young penitent at last.
Reading a green, Renner is typically poker faced.