Happy Birthday Harvey Penick

by Al Pastor

Harvey Penick couldn’t have been more gracious. Bud Shrake sat over on a couch, microphone at the ready. A steady stream of people would come to visit the oracle. Bud would simply turn on the mic and see what came from the conversation. This was after the first book, based on the contents of his Scribbletex notebook, which I’m lucky enough to say I’ve held in my hands.

The only time Bud said he ever saw Harvey get genuinely angry was over his suggestion to get one of those automatic signing stamps. It would’ve approximated Harvey’s signature well enough. Signing each copy came to be difficult and fairly preposterous. Stacks of the Little Red Book would arrive at the Penick house. I saw them. Occasionally they would get mislaid, causing frantic searches. Harvey would not relent. He was insistent that there was to be no approximation. If someone wanted a signed copy from him, and went to the trouble to ask and send their copy, they were going to get it.

I sat alongside him, the better to be closer, although he had no trouble hearing and understanding me. Occasionally he would look out onto the porch, and notice a squirrel or just wait for my awkward questions. He told me many stories, the ones he said he often told writers, including about Herman Keiser showing up at Austin Country Club dressed as a forlorn caddie along with the notorious Titanic Thompson. Later they’d recognize the ‘Missouri Mortician’ in the paper as the winner of the Masters. Harvey was curious about me, especially about how I knew about Abe Mitchell, a working class British champion from the early twentieth century. Mitchell went on to find success but was perhaps one of the first of those in the modern era to be saddled with the “best to never have won a major” title, which he never did. I was a Mitchell fan from cigarette cards and was, frankly, surprised that Harvey knew who he was. Mitchell did achieve immortality. He is the model of the golfer on top of the Ryder Cup, having worked as the private instructor for Samuel Ryder.

I’d found a saying of Mitchell’s which I particularly liked, and included it in our manuscript of Golf Etiquette. Harvey noticed it, and commented about it. In fact, he later included it in one of his later books. That he agreed to endorse Golf Etiquette was something of a dream come true, and he and Bud even correctly spelled my name when they included a mention of me and the book in “Learn Etiquette from Barbara.” It appears in For All Who Love the Game. Barbara Puett, an excellent student of Harvey’s, and for many years an excellent teacher, features etiquette in her classes. She often teaches absolute beginners; in fact the classes, available through the adult Informal Classes through the University of Texas, always fill up quickly. I occasionally assist. It’s wonderful to see golfers get off on the right foot in addition to learning the basics of decorum. Former UT golf coach George Hannon told her once she was providing a public service by actually going out on the course and prepping new golfers to their responsibilities, which is true. Everyone who completes her beginner 1 class gets a copy of Golf Etiquette.

Harvey did look at me askance. I asked if he could teach me how to hit a stymie. “You don’t need to know how to do that,” he said. That was true but I persisted, and he showed me the following trick. It didn’t work well on his carpet and rug but it works like a charm on a green.

Place two balls one in front of the other, a few inches apart. Step a little bit on the back ball, compressing it down slightly into the green. [Please don’t damage the green. Find a crappy spot, or an edge, or just don’t hold me responsible.] Then simply putt the back ball. It hops up and over the front ball, a perfect antidote to negotiating a stymie. (Now that I think of it, it was an old cigarette card of Abe Mitchell demonstrating proper stymie negotiating technique that must’ve prompted the question.)

I didn’t have the nerve to ask Harvey under what circumstances he acquired this mystery. I wonder. Back in the day the stymie, a compelling subject that I explored at some length in Golf Unplugged (Tatra Press, 2008), could be a masterful bit of strategy. Harvey’s tip would of course been highly unethical. But handy.

At any rate, happy birthday Harvey, happy birthday to a grown caddie, a most interesting man, and a justly revered teacher. It shouldn’t have surprised me but when I came across a chapter entitled “Yoga” in their last collaboration (my personal favorite), The Game for a Lifetime (1996), or as I call it, the Little Blue Book, Harvey again demonstrated he was way ahead of the curve.

“I can’t imagine,” he wrote, “a more useful pursuit for a golfer than the study of yoga.” There you have it. As if he needed any endorsement, let alone one from a shag boy. An extraordinary individual, who I very much enjoyed meeting and speaking with on several occasions.

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