A final lesson from Harvey Penick


Turk Pipkin

(An obituary published in The Austin Chronicle.)

“Take dead aim,” Harvey Penick advised in a pearl of wisdom that applies equally well to both golf and life. Born on October 23, 1904, for most of his ninety years Penick applied this simple philosophy towards sharing his love and knowledge of the game as golf, and towards being a trusted advisor and a consummate gentleman. In retrospect, the aims of his life were so inseparable from his actual achievements that he seems to have perfected both the teaching of golf and the art of living.

Penick’s family was joined this past Wednesday, April 5, by hundreds of friends and former students who gathered on a rainy morning in Austin to pay their respects to America’s most beloved golf instructor. Having journeyed home from Augusta for their final farewells were Penick’s two most celebrated protégés, former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who began to study with Penick at age 6, and Tom Kite, the PGA tour’s all-time leading money-winner who started lessons with Penick at age 13.

Kite had been with his teacher at Penick’s home the previous Sunday afternoon when, though Penick was very weak, he was rooting for the attempt by Davis Love, III to win the Freeport-McMoRan Classic in New Orleans and thus qualify for the upcoming Masters. Love’s father, Davis Love, Jr., played on the golf team at the University of Texas when Penick was the head coach, a position he held for 32 years. When Kite informed Penick that Love was in a play-off, Penick, unable to speak, raised his hands and clapped them together softly. A few minutes later, Kite passed along the news that Love had won the tournament, Penick indicated that he understood, and then he passed on.

One of the first American born golf instructors, Penick first came to know golf as a caddie at the Austin Country Club in 1913. He became the head pro of that club in 1923, a position he held until his son Tinsley took over the job in 1971. Though his life was devoted to the game of golf, Penick was little known outside of professional golf circles until 1990 when he showed sportswriter and novelist Bud Shrake a little red notebook in which he had for many years written the simple words of wisdom he often used in teaching the game of golf. Would it be possible, Penick wanted to know, to find a publisher for the book?

Shrake returned a few days later with the news that Simon and Schuster was interested in publishing the work. Penick inquired about the money involved and when Shrake mentioned the figure the publisher had quoted, Penick replied, “Bud, I don’t know if I can put together that kind of money.” That figure was of course the amount to be paid to Harvey Penick. Considering his soft-spoken and humble manner, those who knew him could only smile knowingly at how he had underestimated the world’s thirst for his knowledge.

Simon and Schuster subsequently published “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book” which sold over a million copies, becoming the best-selling sports book of all time. Penick and Shrake wrote a follow-up volume, “And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend,” also a million seller. A third book in the series, “For All Who Love the Game” is now arriving in bookstores. Subtitled “Lessons and Teaching for Women,” this volume was inspired by Penick’s particular talent for working with women golfers, among them Kathy Whitworth, Betsy Rawls, Sandra Palmer and Mickey Wright.

Both Tinsley Penick and Harvey’s loving wife of more than 60 years, Helen Holmes Penick, agree that the success of his “Little Red Book” and the attention and acclaim that came with it rejuvenated Harvey Penick from his poor health of many years. Despite his illnesses, Penick continued to visit the Austin Country Club until recently, often sitting in a golf cart near the first tee where he greeted one and all, signing books with careful personal inscriptions and examining the grips of anyone who asked. Just hours before his death, a life-size bronze statue of Penick giving instruction to Tom Kite was unveiled at the Austin Country Club.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything worthy of a statue,” Penick had told the sculptor when asked for permission to create the work. When Tom Kite was asked for his permission, he had replied, “I don’t think I’ve done anything worthy of being a part of a statue with Harvey Penick.”

“Harvey Penick, who was known and loved all over the world, never really left home,” said his co-author and friend Bud Shrake in a moving eulogy at Penick’s service. “Except for a few tournaments and teaching seminars, Harvey stayed at home in Austin at his beloved Austin Country Club and the world came to Harvey.”

“What is it about Harvey that the world fell in love with? I think it was his spirit. He was always wisely powerful, always positive. Harvey spoke in simple words, and if you listened, sooner or later you understood. Harvey was never in a hurry, and was careful that each word of his teaching would be just right and spoken at the right time. He would walk away rather than risk saying the wrong thing. When he was giving a lesson and an ordinary pupil hit an extraordinary shot, Harvey would literally get goose bumps on his arms. And he would look at his student and say, ‘I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.’ ”

Shrake also related a touching story that took place one week before Penick passed away, on a very difficult day when he was in pain and his words could not be understood. When Ben Crenshaw came in with his wife Julie and their two little girls, Harvey’s face lit up. Crenshaw and Penick began talking golf, and then Harvey’s voice was heard loud and clear as he said, “Go get a putter.”

Striving to control his emotions, Shrake described the scene: “Using Harvey’s old wooden shafted Saracen putter, on the carpet beside what was to be his deathbed, one of the world’s outstanding teachers was giving a lesson to one of the outstanding putters. Harvey’s eyes were bright, the fog of his age and pain rolled away, and he was back in his own world again, doing what he loved best.”

When it was time to say good-bye to the only golf instructor he has ever had, Crenshaw said, “I love you, Harvey.” Harvey Penick replied, “I love you Ben, and I’ll be watching you, always.”

At Tom Kite’s suggestion, the old Saracen putter used for that last lesson was buried with Harvey Penick.

“In case they don’t have a putter in heaven,” said Shrake, “Now they do. And now they have the perfect person to teach them how to use it.”

Donations in the memory of Harvey Penick may be made to the Harvey Penick Scholarship Fund, c/o David McWilliams, University of Texas, Box 7399, Austin, TX 78713.

All materials copyright, Turk Pipkin, unless otherwise noted.