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Myron Cope
October 30, 1967
Paul Hahn has never won a Masters or a U.S. Open, but his annual earnings from golf put him in the Nicklaus bracket. He does it by hitting shots that would make most golfers weep
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October 30, 1967

Top Man On The Laugh Tour

Paul Hahn has never won a Masters or a U.S. Open, but his annual earnings from golf put him in the Nicklaus bracket. He does it by hitting shots that would make most golfers weep

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Through the late 1930s and '40s Hahn wandered. He boxed, drove taxis and led sightseeing tours. The Walgreen drugstore chain probably is not aware that it more or less sponsored him on a golf tour of sorts. Bouncing around the South, Hahn hustled lessons to customers on driving ranges and public courses, but principally managed to pay his rent by working as a short-order cook at the nearest Walgreen pharmacy. This was excellent training, he believes, for a man destined to make his fortune with deft hands. "In Augusta, Ga.," he remembers, "Walgreen's had a breakfast special—two eggs, bacon, grits, toast and coffee, all for 19¢. That special went over so big that I used to fry 45 dozen eggs every morning." Even today, he cannot crack an egg without executing a nipper-dipper flourish.

In 1941, when Hahn married a brown-haired Charleston girl, Bobbie Bryan, he had to pawn his golf clubs in Jacksonville in order for them to complete their honeymoon trip to Miami. Entering World War II, he rose to lieutenant commander aboard a hospital ship, and on one voyage safely carried 400 pregnant WACs home from England. Later he became a disc jockey, a sign manufacturer and a chef, among other things.

"I had a gypsy restlessness in me," Hahn says. "I was the black sheep in the family, the wastrel. When you mentioned Paul, they'd tisk, tisk. Now, of course, they're very proud of me." Just as his hands compulsively seek the ornate gesture, Hahn's tongue savors a verbal curlicue. Brushing a speck of lint off a $125 blazer, he cries, "Oh, the vicissitudes of fortune!"

As a golfer, Hahn found work now and then as a club pro or assistant pro and briefly in 1947 and '48 tried the pro tour. But he arrived at a withering view of himself: though his game showed signs of brilliance, Paul Hahn was a born loser.

At one tournament, the Hawaiian Open in Honolulu, he partied all night and then shot a 69 the first day for a first-place tie with Lloyd Mangrum. "I'd gone out on that course not knowing whether I was on foot or on horseback," Hahn recalls. His 69 sobered him. "That night I went to bed early. The next morning I ate a good breakfast and hit just the right number of practice balls before stepping up to the first tee." The starter gave him a generous introduction, and the gallery applauded enthusiastically. Hahn then hit a gigantic slice into the Pacific Ocean.

Well, he ruminated, doesn't every new man on the tour succumb to pressure? Perhaps so, but Hahn began to wonder if his dramatic failure had not been symptomatic of a fatal pattern.

"At the Greensboro Open a little later, I was playing a very respectable round," he goes on, "but I found myself repeatedly putting right to the edge of the cup. That night at my hotel I concluded that I wasn't really a competitor—that instead I was attuned to audience response. You see, you can get a very big Ohhhh! by just missing. I found myself subconsciously, yet deliberately, putting for close rather than in. You know, there are people born to lose—people who feel better because they lost. That was exactly the case with me. Perhaps it was a compulsion to get sympathy from the audience."

Hahn made the cut at Greensboro but dropped out of the tournament and forswore the pro circuit.

Soon after, he began to consider a trick-shot career. Employed as an assistant pro at Glen Oak Country Club in suburban Chicago, Hahn discovered his ability to amuse a crowd. "I used to clown around on the practice tee with goofy swings—one-legged swings, whirling-dervish swings, that sort of thing," he says. "I found I could collect an audience, and, when I'd mention the names of the prominent members, they'd later slip me a 10 or a 20." Nevertheless, like many a virtuoso before him, Hahn required a moment of angry passion to declare for his art. It happened two years later, in 1950, when he was head pro at a club owned by nouveau riche Californians in the San Joaquin Valley.

Hahn had been hired after having created a stir by shooting two straight rounds of 64 in a nearby town where he was working as a restaurant chef. In his first year at the club he cleared $14,000 hustling lessons and merchandise, but he received neither a salary nor a guarantee. His wife Bobbie, usually good-natured despite their nomadic existence, grew unhappy. "The club wouldn't even let us put a Coke machine in the pro shop or sell cigarettes," she says. The president's wife treated her briskly. Hahn, fed up, at last demanded a salary—only $200 a month. When the board turned him down flat he bought a trailer and struck out on a trick-shot exhibition tour. "I figured if I could take in $170 a week I could make it," he says.

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