I wore out two golf courses," Harvey Penick likes to say. He means the two previous sites of the Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas, where he worked before the club moved to its current setting by Lake Austin.
If Penick wore out those courses, he certainly has not worn out his welcome. The legendary golf teacher and former University of Texas coach had many famous pupils in his 50 years as a club professional—Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Betsy Rawls and Kathy Whitworth, to name a few—but he is just as highly regarded in Austin for his work with high handicappers. "He's probably seen more golf balls hit than anybody alive," says his son, Tinsley, who succeeded him in 1973 as head pro at the Austin Country Club.
These days the 87-year-old Penick is merely wearing out his right hand by autographing copies of his best-selling golf guide, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. Four days a week he puts on a floppy hat, sets up his lap desk and holds court in a golf cart outside the club's pro shop, where the warmth of feeling often rivals the heat of the Texas sun. "Take dead aim!" a middle-aged woman in shorts calls to him, waving a putter. "Love you, Harvey!" yells another. A man in a business suit introduces himself: "My father said he didn't want the trip to Hawaii for his birthday—he wanted an autographed copy of your book."
Bestsellerdom is a tonic for the frail Penick, whose days might otherwise be spent fussing with his feedback-prone hearing aids or sitting at home in his wheelchair. A further boost was supplied in June when Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Two weeks later Crenshaw won the Western Open in Chicago, and the 54-year-old Tinsley had to plead with the book's publisher, Simon & Schuster, to send more copies of his father's book to Austin. (He had already sold 1,400 copies out of the pro shop.)
August 9, 1992
The Little Red Book gets its name from a spiral notebook that Penick bought more than 60 years ago in which to jot down his leaching principles. With the help of novelist and sportswriter Bud Shrake, Penick organized and added to his collection of golf-swing thoughts and parables, and the result is charming. Typical Penickisms:
•"If you have a bad grip, you don't want a good swing."
•"The woods are full of long drivers."
•"Looking up is the biggest alibi ever invented to explain a terrible shot. By the time you look up, you've already made the mistake that caused the bad shot."
There is, it turns out, no "Harvey Penick method"—no litany of prescribed and prohibited moves that must be slavishly followed. Consequently there is no "Penick swing" and no frame-by-frame analysis of Kite or Crenshaw at work. "He loves the playing of the game," Kite says. "He doesn't worry too much about the swing."
What Penick does worry about is worry. "The golfing area of the brain," he writes, "is a fragile thing that is terribly susceptible to suggestion." Which explains why Penick never tells a player to "choke up" on a club—ugly word, choke—and why he refuses to even utter the word shank, preferring the euphemistic lateral shot. Penick's trademark compliment when a pupil hits the ball solidly: "I hope that gives you as much pleasure as it does me!"
That Penick has lived to enjoy this summer's shots is a wonder. A year ago he lay crippled and incoherent in the hospital, facing surgery for a bleeding ulcer. "They told me I'd either put him in a nursing home or have 24-hour help," says Helen Penick, Harvey's wife of 63 years. "And since then"—she begins to laugh—"he's written a book!"
"There's no explanation for it," says Tinsley. "It's providential."
Whatever the reason, Harvey Penick was able to sit up and watch the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open on TV. He believed that Kite would win because Kite, except for second-place finisher Jeff Sluman, was the only contender playing smart golf.
"Hey, Harvey!" A club member waves from the door of the Harvey Penick Room, beside a life-sized etching of Penick on frosted glass. "Take dead aim!"
The old man waves back and smiles. In the copy of the book in his hands, he has written a brief inscription—"Keep playing or you'll get old."
"You just wouldn't believe," he says, enjoying his day in the sun, "that a grown caddie could get so much out of life."