Penick, Harvey Morrison

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Penick, Harvey Morrison

(b. 23 October 1904 in Austin, Texas; d. 2 April 1995 in Austin), celebrated golf instructor and author whose students included Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite.

Penick was one of three boys born to Daniel Penick, a municipal employee in the city of Austin, and Molly Miller. Penick received a minimal education in the Austin public schools and became a golf caddie at the age of eight, a role he took pride in all his life. When not yet thirteen years of age, he became an assistant professional at Austin Country Club. Upon graduating from high school in 1923, he became head professional at the club. In his many roles as greenskeeper, caddie master, clubmaker, and instructor, Penick was both witness to and participant in the transformation of golf. The year he became head professional, Walter Hagen broke the line that barred professionals from entering country clubs. Previously, golf professionals had been regarded as ne’er-do-wells, but Hagen changed all that.

Penick played a respectable game of golf, which in Texas terms—given the likes of Jack Burke, Jimmy DeMaret, Bill Melhorn, and Ky Lafoon—was considerable. However, in 1930 Penick chose not to follow the itinerant life of the touring professional. His marriage on 27 December 1929 to Helen Holmes of Whitesboro, Texas, encouraged him to lead a settled life in Austin.

In his next career position, as coach for the University of Texas golf team, Penick often advised talented golfers about turning professional. Many of his players came from families with oil, banking, insurance, and real estate interests, but he cautioned them against chasing a profession that as late as the 1940s provided a precarious living at best. For Penick, the joy of golf was in the satisfaction to be gained from improvement, and his teaching style fit his temperament. His University of Texas teams won twenty Southwest Conference titles during his tenure from 1931 to 1963.

The Professional Golfers Association named its teacher of the year award the Harvey Penick Award, but Penick remained one of golf’s best-kept secrets until at the age of eighty-eight, he showed Edwin “Bud” Shrake, a writer, notebooks that he had been keeping for more than sixty years. The ideas, tips, theories, anecdotes, and personal reminiscences that Penick penned in his “Little Red Book” soon became a phenomenon in both golf and publishing history. Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf (1992) became an instant success. Penick was overwhelmed when told that the advance for the book would be about $90,000. He thought it was money required of him, and suggested to Shrake that taking out another mortgage might be an answer. The book sold 1.3 million copies by 1995. The two men collaborated on three other works: And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend (1993); For All Who Love the Game: Lessons and Teachings for Women (1995); and The Game for A Lifetime: More Lessons and Teachings (1996). A video was also developed and marketed, and the Golfsmith firm of Texas developed a line of golf clubs according to his design.

Penick’s common sense came through in the written word as though he were standing beside the reader. He cautioned the need to ease the tension in the elbow, showing three knuckles of the top hand in the gripping of the club, nipping a tee with the swing as practice, and putting negative thoughts from the mind at every stroke of the club. Penick had an instinct for recognizing the potential of his students. He had the ability to grasp what would and could work with each individual. His rule was never to attempt to change what worked naturally for a golfer despite the unorthodoxy of a particular technique.

The mythology, mystery, and romance of golf were never part of Penick’s passion for the game. Building on sound fundamentals and reinforcing confidence in one’s abilities were basics that transcended the mystical. He believed in the need of golfers to associate with better players. As for the role of providence, Penick advised Sandra Palmer, who called him while playing the U.S. Women’s Open, “If God wants you to win, you will.” She went on to win and to join the legendary women golfers who were his pupils, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Betsy Rawls, Cindy Figg-Currier, Betty Jameson, and the accomplished amateur Judy Bell, who became president of the U.S. Golf Association in 1996. Six of his women students became members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association Hall of Fame.

Penick’s male students were even more numerous and included Don January, Tommy Aaron, Jimmy Thompson, Davis Love, Jr., and the letter’s son, Davis Love III. Two former members of his university team, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, went on to brilliant and lucrative careers in professional golf.

Penick severely cracked his spine when thrown from a golf cart in 1972, the year following his retirement as head professional at the Austin Country Club. He still gave private lessons, though degenerating arthritis crippled him and kept him in constant pain. He slept virtually sitting up in a downstairs bedroom in his house on the country club’s course. A hospital stay in 1991 did little to alleviate his condition.

Kite, who had been Penick’s pupil for twenty-nine years, had never won a major tournament and was forty-two years old in 1992. He was not invited to the Masters that year, though he had the best record of finishes in the preceding decade. Instead he took his game to Pebble Beach and the U.S. Open, where in wind, wet, and cold, he won the coveted national crown and had his wife, Christy, take the trophy to Penick in Austin as his gift for all his help over the years. Kite returned to Penick’s sickbed in 1995, where the immobile and speechless Penick was told that Davis Love III had won in New Orleans and gained a spot in the Masters. Penick feebly raised his hands in applause at the news.

Crenshaw told Love to stay in Augusta to prepare for the Masters rather than follow him to Austin to be with Penick. Kite and Crenshaw were pallbearers at his funeral, and he was buried in Austin Memorial Park. One week later, Crenshaw was on the sixteenth fairway in a tie for the lead with Love who was already finished. Crenshaw went two under par in the final three holes, dropping to his knees on the eighteenth hole, the emotion of the events ovewhelming him. His tears were for Penick and what Penick meant to him personally and for the game of golf. Crenshaw went on to win the Masters the following week. As defender of the championship in 1996, Crenshaw invited Penick’s wife, Helen, to be his special guest at the Masters. It was her first visit to the tournament.

In addition to Penick’s own books, useful sources include Herbert Warren Wind, The Story of American Golf: Its Champions and its Championships, 2d ed. (1972), and Tom W. Kite with Mickey Herskowitz, A Fairway to Heaven: My Lessons from Harvey Penick on Golf and Life (1997). Golf Digest has several articles dealing with Penick, including Mickey Herskowitz, “Golf’s Greatest Teacher of the Century” (Sept. 1985), and Don Wade, “The Wit and Wisdom of Harvey Penick” (July 1989). Sports Illustrated has a study of the 1995 Masters highlighting Ben Crenshaw in an article by Rick Reilly, “For You Harvey: Ben Crenshaw’s Second Masters Win Was a Memorial to His Mentor” (17 Apr. 1995). A obituary is in the New York Times (4 Apr. 1995).

Jack J. Cardoso