Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The guy who saved my golf game
I've been playing golf since about age 9, and am virtually self-taught. My dad had no interest in the game, and my high school golf coach's only qualification was the ability to drive a van to and from meets, so I was sort of on my own when it came to learning.
I picked up lots of instruction books, listened to guys on TV, watched other golfers and over the years managed to cobble together a halfway decent swing without ever having taken a formal lesson. It was good enough to let me shoot in the mid-80s pretty consistently, and even drop down into the 70s once in a while.
When my children came along, my time for golf diminished, and my meager skills did as well. But the time William was 10 and was interested in learning to golf, it was a real struggle for me to break 90. I couldn't seem to find the swing of my youth, and didn't understand the mechanics of the swing well enough to fix it myself. I was frustrated, and didn't always enjoy the idea of going to the course.
And then along came Harvey Penick and "Harvey Penick's Little Red Book."
Harvey was a club pro in Austin, Texas, who toiled in relative anonymity for most of his life. He was a bit of a guru among teaching pros, and later in life he gained a small bit of fame when two of his pupils - Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw - became great pros. But until he was past age 80, few people outside Austin had heard of Penick.
During all his years of teaching, he had been making notes in a small red notebook that only a few people knew about. Sometimes someone would mention that he should write a book, but he pretty much kept the notebook to himself.
Finally, in the early '90s, he allowed a Texas writer - Bud Shrake - to see the notebook, and asked if Shrake could turn it into a book. Shrake talked to a publisher, and came back to Harvey to say that, yes, it could be made into a book, and he threw out a dollar figure. "I'm not sure I can raise that kind of money," Penick said, not understanding that it was the amount to be paid TO him.
In 1992, when Penick was 87 years old, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book was published, and it took the golf world by storm. It quickly sold a million copies, and became the best-selling sports book of all time.
It's not designed to be read cover-to-cover. It's full of little one- and two-page tidbits of folksy wisdom, all of which lead back to Harvey's biggest piece of advice, "Take dead aim."
I got a copy in about 1994, and started soaking in the wisdom, and it made all the difference in the world. Using a couple of Harvey's tips that especially spoke to me, I shaved 6-7 shots off my average score, and lowered my handicap to about an 8. More importantly, golf was fun again. I was able to help William develop into an all-conference golfer in high school, and began to really cherish my time on the course.
At some point last summer, I sort of lost my swing, and the problems got worse this year. In May I played in a tournament and shot 90 on both days. My handicap ballooned to 13, then 15. When my club championship came around in August, I could manage only an 83 and 84, good for fifth place in my flight.
And it was about that time I remembered the Little Red Book. I dug through the bookshelves, drawers and closets, trying to find it, before William finally mentioned that he had seen it on a shelf in the basement.
It was like finding gold. I started flipping through the book again, found the pages that had straightened me out in the past, and went to work on several things. The change was immediate. Within a week, I shot a 74, tying my best round of the past several years. In the past month, I've played several rounds in the 70s, and my handicap is headed back to single digits. Golf is fun again, and I owe it all to Harvey and the book.
The fame that found Harvey lasted only a couple of years. In 1995, at the age of 90, he passed away. On a Wednesday in the second week of April, Crenshaw flew to Austin to serve as pallbearer for Harvey, then returned to Augusta, GA to compete in the Masters.
It had been a tough year for Crenshaw. He had missed three of the last four cuts, and hadn't broken 70 in a tournament in two months. He took to the 1st tee at Augusta less than 24 hours after burying the man who had first put a club in his hand at age 6.
For the next three days, Crenshaw hung in there, and on Sunday he shot a 68 and won his second Masters, breaking down in tears on the 18th green in one of golf's most memorable moments.
Harvey Penick touched millions of lives with his book, and I've given it as a gift to a number of friends. If you want to save some shots - and really learn to enjoy the game - find a copy.