Jim Unruh: one of golf’s passionate defenders, passes away

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Photo: Jim with son James Unruh.

By Ken MacLeod

Tulsa attorney Jim Unruh will be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which was his life long passion for the game of golf as a player, coach, rules official and general benefactor of the game.

Unruh passed away in Aventura, Florida on May 29 at the age of 87 after a three-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

The Tulsa native was consumed by golf at an early age. Unruh played for the University of Tulsa in 1948 and 1949, winning 33 matches in his career including victories over Don January and NCAA champion Jack Vickers of Oklahoma. He coached the University of Tulsa from 1973-75. Two players who received at least one year of his tutelage were Ron Streck and Hank Haney, who both went on to world-wide fame, Streck as a player and Haney as a prominent teacher.

Streck remembers his old coach as a tough competitor who met him in the finals of the Tulsa Golf Association Four-Ball Championship several times.  Unruh and Fred Lawson won the Four-Ball Championship in 1965 and 1969 and Unruh won the TGA Stroke Play Championship in 1966, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1982. He also won the Oklahoma Golf Association Senior Amateur in 1984 and 1985 and was a four-time runner-up.

He and long-time friend and golf partner Eric Mueller also teamed up to win the TGA Four-Ball in 1973 and won the first Oklahoma Golf Association Four-Ball Championship in the 1980s, Mueller said.

“Jim was one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever known,” Mueller said. “He had some talent, but he was like a bulldog. There wasn’t anybody he didn’t think he couldn’t or shouldn’t beat. He was never afraid of anybody and never gave up. And he was the same way in his law practice.”

Unruh was far more than a gutsy competitor. He devoted more than 25 years to the USGA as a rules official and in other capacities. He served on the Mid-Amateur Championship Committee from 1981-89, the Sectional Affairs Committee from 1990-2004 and the Regional Affairs Committee from 2004-2009. He received the prestigious Ike Grainger Award in 2009 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Jim Unruh, third from left, with other USGA officials including Bob Lee, second from left, and NBC camera man Jim Judge, far right.

Unruh mentored fellow rules enthusiast and attorney Gene Mortensen, a close personal friend as well.

“Jim got me involved many years ago and I immediately became aware of his prominence on the national level,” Mortensen said. “I believe the high level of interest the USGA maintained in Oklahoma came as a direct  result of Jim’s involvement. The Tournament Director of the USGA personally called Jim to come assist with the Curtis Cup Matches, an international event.  While he was known as a strict enforcer of the Rules of Golf, he was highly respected for doing so. 

“The other side of the coin is that if you needed help with a local event you called Jim and he would be there from sun up to sun down.”

Fellow USGA volunteer Randy Olmstead, who replaced Unruh on the Mid-Amateur Committee in 1989, said some of his best times in golf were spent on the road discussing the game and life’s affairs with Unruh.

“Jim was one of the best players I ever knew,” Olmstead said. “I enjoyed his company very much.  He gave significant time to the game and he made many friends traveling across the U.S. working various USGA and NCAA events.”

Among the many events he worked for the USGA, Unruh and Olmstead were rules observers for the playoff in the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills won by Retief Goosen.

Tulsa banker Lew Erickson is another prominent USGA volunteer and like Unruh a member of Tulsa Country Club. She said Unruh’s efforts were key in some of the 20 USGA events that have been held in Oklahoma, not to mention many USGA qualifiers that have been conducted at TCC.

 “Jim not only volunteered for the good of the game, but he also was a good player,” Erickson said. “I am grateful for his friendship and leadership. Although many may not realize it, it is probably because of Jim that TCC has been a host site for so many OGA, USGA and other golf events.”

Mark Passey, the USGA’s director of regional affairs for the central portion of the U.S., also was a big fan of Unruh.

“Jim Unruh was an influential  leader in the golf community serving the Tulsa area, the state of Oklahoma and nationally through his committee service with the United States Golf Association,” Passey said. “Jim was an outstanding player, an excellent coach, a knowledgeable Rules Official, and a tireless advocate for helping to grow the game for over four decades. He will be remembered for his fierce competitive spirit and for his high standards of integrity and excellence. Jim was a good friend and he will be missed.”

Unruh’s son Jay, who recently retired in Kansas City from a 38-year career in international banking, said he caddied for his father from age seven for more than 20 years. The two would go to the park and his dad would hit golf balls which Jay caught with his baseball glove, which was his favorite sport.

“He was a long, straight hitter who loved the persimmon woods and really fought the advent of the metal woods in the game,” Jay said. “He loved golf and lived golf. He told me numerous times that if he had life to do over again, he would have turned professional, but he just didn’t think at that time that he could make a living doing it.

 “He was the kind of guy who never stuck his nose in anyone’s business, but if you asked for help, he provided it,” Jay said.

Mueller concurred with that assessment.

 “He was my attorney for 25 years, but mostly he was my friend,” Mueller said. “He did a lot of things for me just out of the goodness of his heart without being asked. That’s the way he was.”

 Unruh devoted himself to public service in other aspects of his life besides his work with the USGA. For 45 years he was the attorney for the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority that oversees the city’s water supply. When he stepped down from that position, the city renamed the water reservoir at the A.B. Jewell Water Treatment Plant the R. James Unruh Reservoir.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa.

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