When the oldest of Paul Harney’s six children entered school, he fulfilled a promise to his wife and stopped playing on the PGA Tour full-time to spend more time with his family. Whenever Erin Harney Abbott asked her father if he wished he had remained on tour, the answer was always the same: “I have no regrets at all.”
Nevertheless, Abbott believes her father could have won a major championship if he had continued to play full-time.
“I hope we didn’t take away any of his dreams,” she said.
Harney died at 82 last August after a long battle with stomach and lung cancer at a hospice in Falmouth, with his wife Patti and their children at his side. Among the old golfing buddies who sent along their condolences was Jack Nicklaus.
Running his own golf course allowed Harney to work with Abbott, the club’s general manager, his son Michael, who is the head pro, and his grandchildren, who work on the grounds during the summer.
“Everything he did was for other people and for God,” Abbott said. “That was the way he lived his life. His family came first and he taught us that family comes first.”
But despite being a part-time pro, Harney didn’t stop winning. He earned the last three of his six PGA Tour victories while he played only five to 14 events a year and spent most of his time working as a club pro, first at Sunset Oaks Country Club outside Sacramento, Calif., and then at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton.
Harney won the Los Angeles Open in 1964 and repeated in 1965, even though he was bed-ridden with the flu the week before. He nearly won the event again in 1966, but finished tied for second behind Arnold Palmer. In 1972, at age 42, he captured the Andy Williams San Diego Open. The $30,000 he pocketed helped him open his Paul Harney Golf Course in East Falmouth.
Bob Molt was Harney’s assistant at Pleasant Valley and watched in awe as Harney hit balls into a net in the back of the pro shop to keep sharp during the winter. The drill helped him beat Hale Irwin by a shot in the Andy Williams San Diego Open.
“It amazed me how he could do it,” Molt said. “He never went down south to practice for three weeks. He hit balls into that net and I couldn’t figure out how he could tell how well he was hitting them. It’s pretty easy to be hitting a duck hook and it feels fine. You don’t know what’s happening if the ball is going only 10 yards. But he kept his muscle tone.”
When Johnny Miller won the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am - the only event he played in that year after not playing in any events the previous year - he told everyone he had “pulled a Paul Harney.”
“If you take players from Massachusetts, other than Francis Ouimet, I can’t think of one that’s better than Paul,” Molt said.
Harney’s six PGA Tour victories are the most of any golfer born in Massachusetts. He came close to winning other titles, losing in four playoffs, three to Palmer. He also had four top eight finishes at the Masters. He was inducted into the halls of fame by Holy Cross, the New England PGA and the PGA Golf Professionals.
He won all five Massachusetts Opens he played in, the last coming at the Country Club of New Seabury in 1977. He gave away some of his trophies, but his club still sells tees out of the bowl-shaped trophy he received for winning the San Diego Open.
Harney grew up in Worcester on the street next to Tatnuck Country Club, where he and his brother Larry used to sneak onto the course. After graduating from Holy Cross and serving in the Army, he joined the PGA Tour in 1954. His favorite tour victory was his first, the 1957 Carling Open in Flint, Mich. Borrowing a putter from a PGA Tour official, the prematurely gray Harney beat Palmer by five shots and pocketed $5,700. Two weeks later, using a putting tip from his father, he won the Labatt Open in Canada, prompting Bob Toski to remark: “He’ll make them forget all about Gene Littler.”
Harney was a superb putter, but one missed putt haunted him. In 1963, The Country Club in Brookline hosted the U.S. Open 50 years after Ouimet’s historic victory there. Harney’s 12-foot par putt on the final hole of regulation stopped inches short of the cup and prevented him from joining a playoff with eventual winner Julius Boros, Palmer and Jacky Cupit.
“I can still see that putt,” Harney said in 2005. “I told myself that all I had to do was start it on line and I’d make it. I started it on line. I said, ‘Oh, terrific, I made it.’ But it stopped an inch short. I almost fainted.”