Legendary instructor Harvey Penick still looms large at Austin CC
AUSTIN, Texas – He's everywhere.
Harvey Penick left this world 23 years ago this spring, but his enduring, gentle spirit permeates the Austin Country Club like a morning fog.
His image. His likeness. His adoring disciples. His trademark phrases.
The world's 64 top golfers competing in this week's World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play won't be able to hit a tee shot without being reminded of the legendary PGA golf instructor and best-selling author at every turn.
His iconic presence will be so ubiquitous that it will surprise no one if they see visions of Penick at a club that was his home for 73 of his 91 years.
"We've got Harvey everywhere," said PGA Professional Ann Marie Gildersleeve, a bubbly Michigander who started working at the Penick Teaching Academy in 1994 and has been ACC's director of instruction for 17 years. "We're carrying on his legacy. 'The Little Red Book' is my golf Bible. The world is getting ready to know Austin Country Club and Harvey Penick."
Austin, of course, and the golf world are more than a little familiar with the man who became instantly recognizable after he and Bud Shrake collaborated on that first 175-page, instructional book that encapsulated Penick's approach to the game he so passionately loved. For a man who poured every fabric of himself into the sport, his entire life could be easily summarized.
In his world, both sustained him for his uncomplicated, focused life and were the essence of this humble son of an engineer with the city water utility. For him, neither worked without the other. Hall of Famer Tom Kite learned that firsthand one day at ACC when he was an amateur. That day, the feisty redhead was feeling a little too chesty.
"I had a run in the summer where I was playing pretty well and got a little full of myself," Kite said. "So I had a lesson with Harvey. He said goodbye and started walking off. Then, he turned around and said, 'I'm really proud of you, but I'm hearing some stories about the way you're conducting yourself. Remember, you are what you are.' He could have taken a 2-by-4 and hit me upside the head, and it would have hurt less. That was probably as harsh as anything he ever said to me."
And there was very little about the man that wasn't kind and compassionate. But anything he said resonated. He would often watch his students, sometimes not saying a word until the next day, fearful of giving bad advice.
Never into money or materialistic things, Penick never took more than $20 for a golf lesson. A man so unassuming that he rarely traveled to tournaments to see his proteges. He refused to even follow his players around the course when he was the golf coach at Texas, fearful they'd get too nervous and tighten up. Instead, he would stealthily catch glimpses of their games behind trees or shrubs.
Of course, that was Harvey's preferred lie. He wasn't so much allergic to the spotlight as it wasn't in his nature to be boldly out front. He gave himself to the game, such that he sacrificed precious time with his family because of his devotion to his craft. The family took but one single vacation during his life, a brief trip to the Texas coast in 1946.
"He started playing golf when he was 8 years old, and he stayed like that until he died in 1995," said his only son, Tinsley, who succeeded him as head professional at ACC and will take in the tournament with his wife, Betty Ann. "Every day, he went to the golf shop. Not five days, not six days, but seven days, and nobody can do that. And he loved it."
An almost life-sized, bronze statue of Penick will greet Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy when they approach the pristine driving range. Just off the first tee stands the Harvey Penick Learning Center, where junior golfers can have their shots analyzed in a pair of golf bays and where pennants for many of the 75 or so juniors who went on to play collegiate golf hang on the wall. The caddies will unwind there this week.
Inside the clubhouse, the golfers can grab a Moeller Burger at the watering hole Harvey's. Many of the 650 ACC members will dine on the Taco Trio in the Penick Room, where first-timers can gaze upon the portrait of Penick and marvel at his sayings like "Go to dinner with good putters," the advice he gave the relentless Kite when he joined the PGA Tour. "He meant hang around good people," Kite said. Penick once said a good putter "covers a lot of sins."
When the pro golfers check in at their lockers, each will be greeted with an oversized, white golf towel emblazoned with "The Home of Harvey Penick." They'll spot their balls with red-and-black-framed ball markers inscribed with Top 64 "Take Dead Aim," Penick's signature message that stuck in Penick pupil Ben Crenshaw's mind in April 1995, when he willed himself to a second Masters victory just days after Penick died on the same Sunday his statue at ACC was unveiled.
Crenshaw and Kite were his two prizes, a pair who combined to win 38 PGA Tour events and three major championships. He never allowed one to see the other take a lesson. Of course, with Crenshaw, his lesson was to go play 18. Kite, on the other hand, was insatiably curious about everything.
"I was different than Tom, who loved to hit balls and Harvey knew that," said Crenshaw, who first met Penick when he was 7. "Harvey spent a lot of time with Tom on the practice tee. We want to share our love of Harvey with as many people as we can."
This week, the humble man who wished to remain in the background will be front and center.
"Our message is all about Harvey," said ACC member Jill Shackelford, director of hospitality.
Certainly many of the golfers in this field know the story of Penick's rise from lowly caddie to ACC head golf professional at age 18 and peerless teacher and are aware of the sacred wisdom that Harvey began recording on his Scribbletex notebook in the early 1930s. In his new biography called "Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf," former American-Statesman writer Kevin Robbins elegantly chronicles the rich legend from the time Penick gave his first lesson and told Franz Fiser to "keep your left arm a little straighter."
Golf was Harvey's passion, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of this man who became an Austin treasure and who gave golfers a foundation for a career or a weekend hobby. He taught young and old. He taught men and women alike. He could count among his adoring students such luminaries as a pair of LPGA Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright and star Betsy Rawls.
"He taught through images and through simple messages and very short messages," Robbins said. "He was really big on not asking people to do too much. It was one thing at a time with him. It's not the way golf instruction is now. Technology plays a big role now. Teaching was becoming more precise and mechanical, all things Harvey didn't represent."
Dale Morgan succeeded Harvey's son Tinsley as ACC's third head professional and carries Harvey's messages forward.
"I've read 'The Little Red Book' about 10 times and have tried to instill the same philosophy," Morgan said. "It was his simplistic approach. Teaching can be so analytical now with technology the way it is, and you can confuse people."
Morgan is infused with the same approach that Penick used. He incorporates Penick advice like swinging a golf club like they're holding a bucket of water. Small words. Big ideas.
"The grip was so important to him," Morgan said. "It's like the steering wheel of your car. It's got to be perfect, or the car won't go where it needs to go."
What drove Penick was an unabashed worship of the game he fell in love with at an early age. His tireless dedication to the game will be celebrated this week as one of the greatest golf teachers alongside Jack Grout, Tommy Armour, Jack Burke Sr. and Stewart Maiden.
"Harvey was very single-minded about golf," Robbins said. "He probably believed that was his highest calling. Is he the greatest teacher ever? I have no idea, but I think he belongs on the first tier with all the great early pros. He belongs in the conversation."