Harvey Penick's Little Red Book

I know many of you have read his first book, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons And Teachings From A Lifetime In Golf by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake (Simon & Schuster 1992). It is a classic that remains the bestselling golf instruction book of all time.

Up until his book came out, Penick (1904 to 1995) was a highly respected instructor, but hardly a household name. Yes, he had an impressive resume and an eye-popping list of students, but he wasn’t a brand name that was sure to sell books like Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Watson or Woods. His book sold and stayed on The New York Times bestselling list for 52 straight weeks because it was readable and not too technical. It is a “read” that feels more like a “one-on-one conversation.” Of course, having a bit of credibility does make life a bit easier for a book’s publicist.

  • Head professional at Austin CC from 1923 to 1993. (He became an assistant pro at ACC at age 13 and the head pro at age 19 after graduating from high school.)
  • Golf coach at the University of Texas from 1931 to 1963. His teams won 22 Southwest Conference titles.
  • He is in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
  • In 1989, he was named by the PGA of America as Teacher of the Year.
  • The Teacher of the Year Award given by the Golf Teachers Association is called the Harvey Penick Award.
  • His list of students include Major winners Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Sandra Palmer, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright.

Penick worked with a great writer, Bud Shrake (1931 to 2009), on all five of his books*, but they were all based on the journals he kept throughout his career. His books are a wonderful blend of specific instructions, reminders, stories, affirmations and life lessons.

As 1992 U.S. Open winner Tom Kite wrote: “But when it is all said and done, when the drives no longer have the carry they used to, when the iron shots are not as crisp as they once were and the 29 putts per round are now more like 33 or 34, the one thing that we all have learned from Harvey is love. A love of a game that teaches us more about ourselves than we sometimes care to know. And a love of the people that we share this game with.”

If you haven’t recently read or have never read any of Harvey’s books, head immediately to your bookshelf or local bookstore. The lessons and advice are timeless and time tested.

Here is just a sampling of Penick’s thoughts on golf from his first book, The Little Read Book:

Lessons are not to take the place of practice but to make practice worthwhile.

If you arrive at the course with just a few minutes to warm up before a round, use that time to hit chip shots. The chip shot, being a short version of the full swing, tells your muscles and your golfing brain to get ready to play.

Watching the clubhead go back as you start your swing will probably ruin any chance you have of hitting a good shot.

Try to show me a champion who doesn’t move his head during his golf swing. You can’t do it. Sam Sneak comes as close as anyone ever has, but he moves it too. … However, all these great players move their head slightly backward before and during impact – never forward.

If there is any such thing as a Magic Move in the golf swing, to me it is an action that I stress over and over on the practice tee and in this book. I will say it again – to start the downswing, let your weight shift to your left foot while bringing your right elbow back down to your body. … This is one move, not two.

When my student Betsy Rawls was in a playoff for the U.S. Women’s Open championship (at the Country Club of Rochester in 1953), I sent her a one sentence telegram.

It said: “Take dead aim!”

Betsy won the playoff (against Jackie Pung by 6 strokes in the 18-hole playoff).

For golfers who might now understand Texas talk, let me put the advice in the telegram a different way: Once you address the golf ball, hitting it has got to be the most important thing in your life at that moment. Shut out all thoughts other than picking out a target and taking dead aim at it.

On Chipping: The  first and foremost fundamental to learn about chipping is this: keep your hands ahead of even with the clubhead on the follow-through. All the way through. … Use the straightest-face club that will carry the ball onto the green the soonest and start it rolling toward the cup.

The average player usually doesn’t work as hard lining up a three- or four-footer as lining up a 10 footer that might be an easier putt.

The best part of golf is that if you observe the etiquette, you can always find a game. I don’t care how good you play, you can find somebody who can beat you, and I don’t care how bad you play, you can find somebody you can beat.

*The other Penick/Shrake books are:

  • And if You Play Golf, You're My Friend: Further Reflections of a Grown Caddie (S&S 1993)
  • For All Who Love the Game: Lessons and Teachings for Women (S&S 1995)
  • The Game for a Lifetime: More Lessons and Teachings (S&S 1996)
  • The Wisdom of Harvey Penick: Lessons and Thoughts from the Collected Writings of Golf’s Best-Loved Teacher (S&S 1997).

Read Away!

Allan Stark

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