Golf Digress

Physically cultured commentary on Sport and Wellness

Category: Harvey Penick

Happy Birthday Harvey Penick

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.

Not available in stores

It seemed prudent to keep a safe distance. (

It seemed prudent to keep a safe distance.

More destructive than supplements, at least as unregulated, golf practice aids remain a healthy sub-category of golf commerce. The afflicted, riddled by addiction, despondent for answers and quick fixes, are especially vulnerable. Preying on them like vultures, those pro endorsers should be ashamed of themselves.

“The weed cutter is still my favorite learning tool,” Harvey Penick wrote with typical frugality, “but if you can’t find one,” he added, “use a broom.” What?! No three easy payments? No infomercial? There must be a catch. What gives? The reference was in Harvey’s final memoir. By the time The Game for a Lifetime came out (1996), there was, sadly, the inevitable backlash to such seismic success – and simplicity. Some people, as Harvey noted, just didn’t care for a straight answer. Dan Jenkins got a wry column out of the discontent with the withered, self-effacing  “grown caddie.” He noted pros jealous to cash in with their own pithy homily, “take live aim” and so forth. It wasn’t all that much of a stretch. I heard the sniping.

Little known, there was a practice aid of Harvey’s own devise. I don’t believe it had a name. I’m only sorry that the thin tissue label affixed to the top of the shaft that stated “Harvey Penick, patent pending, Llano, Texas” is gone. It came from an elderly neighbor’s garage sale. She’d briefly taken lessons with Harvey at Austin Country Club.

I showed it to John Rhodes. A North Texas teacher, John had worked over the years with successful tour players like Tom Kite and Peter Jacobson. He’s the kind of teacher who can’t walk into Lowe’s or Home Depot without finding new construction materials to fashion homemade practice aids. He’s really a wizard, very enthusiastic, and obviously entrenched in the D-I-Y tradition. Inventive, I guess is the word. I haven’t seen nor heard of John in years. I hope he’s well. The last time we crossed paths he was in the Colonial press room.

Working for the Star-Telegram, he was tracking something rarely discussed, typical of his active mind. I’ve never tired of noticing his line of inquiry. He was simply tracking what happened to tour players after shooting those terrific low rounds. What he determined, and I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity (sorry, if it’s not really working) was that, often as not, those low rounds routinely presaged rounds eight or 10 shots higher. Or, at least several shots higher. I’ve since discussed this with players but I’ll let that go. John’s point was that someone who shoots, say, 63 and then follows it up with a 74 the next day is, in their way, not all that different from the golfer who shoots 80 one day and is (justifiably) miserable the next day with a 92. Of course, both golfers are justifiably steamed.

John was intrigued by Harvey’s training aid. He enthusiastically started hitting a few balls with it, not well. It’s just about impossible. I stood at a safe distance, fearful of getting brained.

Here’s Harvey’s reference to the aid from And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend (1993).

Another [training aid] was a chain with a grip on one end and an iron on the other. I could hit a golf ball 150 yards with that contraption, but I quit using it when the cotter pin came loose one day and the iron ball flew off down the range. It could have killed somebody.

He also mentions another aid with a special grip but discarded that. You may be able to see that the rubber grip on his novel design is rectangular rather than round. John described what he thought Harvey had in mind but I’ve forgotten, likely timing. Walter Hagen had his name on a little aluminum shaft with a clicker inside. The object was to swing the club so the click would come at the very bottom of the downswing – at the ball – where you want it. Mine always clicked on the way down, symptomatic of various faults. I should’ve bought the Hagen aid, fiendishly simple, but I had the sense to realize it would lead to madness.

(Tell me this, oh, gullible golfing public. Have you ever seen a touring pro use a commercially-sold practice aid, other than a stick placed strategically at his or her feet?  I mean, not when the camera was rolling and they were getting paid.)