Harvey Penick spent his life teaching golf. He taught countless golfers how to “take dead aim,” claimed to have seen more golf shots than anyone who ever lived and shared his wisdom about the game in one of the best-selling sports books of all time. In recognition of his numerous contributions to the game, Penick was selected for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame through the lifetime achievement category.
A Texas native, Penick began his golf career as a caddy at Austin C.C., became the assistant pro there at 13 and was elevated to head professional in 1923 upon graduation from high school.
“He found out in life that he had a gift for teaching,” said prized pupil and fellow Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw. “He was a fine player, but he made his life’s mission to help others in golf in any way possible.”
Penick frequently cited two events in determining his real strength lay in teaching. “I qualified for the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in Chicago (in 1928),” he said in the book Texas Golf Legends. “It was the first time I was a long way from home. I saw Walter Hagen hit that ball like a bullet. I didn’t play very well. Coming home on that slow train, I thought I better stick to teaching.”
"I qualified for the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in Chicago, it was the first time I was a long way from home. I saw Walter Hagen hit that ball like a bullet. I didn't play very well. Coming home on that slow train, I thought I better stick to teaching."
Observing Sam Snead’s graceful swing at the 1930 Houston Open cemented Penick’s decision to pursue teaching. He was part of the first generation of Americans to succeed the English and Scottish pros who brought the game to the United States. As president of the Texas chapter of the PGA, Penick signed the Class A membership cards of Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. From 1931 through 1963 he coached the University of Texas golf team, winning a remarkable 22 Southwest Conference titles.
Penick was revered for his simple, practical approach. He preferred to teach with images, parables and metaphors that planted the seeds of shotmaking in the golfers’ minds. Yardsticks, weed cutters, water buckets and benches became his students’ most valuable teaching aids. In 1989, Penick was honored by the PGA of America as Teacher of the Year.
Home was the practice tee. His sun-baked skin bore witness to the countless hours he spent on the range, demystifying the golf swing. “Harvey had so many wrinkles, his face would hold a seven-day rain,” quipped Jimmy Demaret. There was simply no other place he preferred to be.
Penick’s unique ability to teach the game brought a who’s who of golf to Austin over the years, including major championship winners Sandra Palmer, Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls and Kathy Whitworth.
Harvey Penick’s University of Texas teams won 22 Southwest Conference titles between 1931-63.
Penick also influenced a number of premier instructors, including Davis Love Jr. to be a student of other disciplines. Penick suggested that Love learn to play a musical instrument. The experience of learning something new helped Love become a better communicator.
Unlike most instructors of his day, Penick did not have a rigid system. He claimed to learn something new about golf every day. He observed the different techniques that worked for the game’s best and tried to incorporate them while allowing the student’s swing to fit his or her personality.
For more than 60 years, Penick privately compiled observations in a red notebook, tabbed according to subject, such as putting and chipping. He planned on passing along these thoughts to his son, Tinsley. He never intended to publish his Little Red Book until one day when he thought it would be a mistake not to do so.
Initial expectations were quite modest, but the book touched a chord with golfers everywhere. The Little Red Book was on The New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks. Four subsequent books were successful, too.
Penick died April 2, 1995, the Sunday before the Masters began. Crenshaw, who had received a putting lesson from Penick only weeks earlier, served as one of his pallbearers and paid tribute to his mentor by winning the Masters seven days later. It was the perfect epitaph for a man who had dedicated his life to the game.