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.