A biography of the iconic golf coach Harvey Penick, who caddied for Francis Ouimet, played with Ben Hogan, competed against Bobby Jones, shaped Ben Crenshaw, and distilled his golf wisdom into the Little Red Book, granting simplicity to a vexing yet beloved sport
The first-ever biography of the iconic and beloved golf coach who caddied for Francis Ouimet, played with Ben Hogan, competed against Bobby Jones, shaped Ben Crenshaw, and distilled his golf wisdom into the Little Red Book, granting simplicity to a vexing yet beloved sport
Millions of people were charmed by the homespun golf advice dispensed in Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, a sports classic that went on to become the best-selling sports book of all time. Yet, beyond the Texas golf courses where Penick happily toiled for the better part of eight decades, few people knew the self-made golf pro who coaxed the best out of countless greats — Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright — all champions who considered Penick their coach and lifelong friend.
In Harvey Penick, Kevin Robbins tells the story of this legendary steward of the game. From his first job as a caddie at age eight to his ascendance to head golf pro at the esteemed Austin Country Club to his playing days when he competed with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen to his mentorship of some of golf’s finest players, Penick studied every nuance of the game. Along the way, he scribbled his observations and anecdotes, tips and tricks, and genuine love of the sport in his little red book, which ultimately became a gift to golfers everywhere.
Part elegy to golf’s greatest teacher, part inquiry into his simple, impactful teachings, part history of golf over the past century, Harvey Penick is an exquisitely written sports biography.
Part I: The Yard
In the dining room named for him at Austin Country Club, among the artifacts on the latte walls and the awards and the letters from U.S. presidents (two) and winners of major championships (many more), there is no evidence that Harvey Penick ever had a childhood. The pictures are all of a man. The man is on a golf course, holding a golf club, wearing golf clothes, talking to a golfer, or, in the case of a portrait that hangs between two glass cases of mementos, pondering a life in golf. On a piece of old paper, the handwriting of a man notes the principles of a proper golf grip and the essence of ball position. The earliest picture of Harvey appears to have been made when he was in his late teens. He already was a full-time head golf professional.
Over there is a framed letter from Bobby Jones, typed on January 6, 1960. On the far wall, a blue-ink note from Kathy Whitworth was signed in 1997 with a salutation of love. Pictures of Patty Berg and Betty Hicks and Mickey Wright, each of them addressed to Harvey, are arranged near a piece of White House stationery bearing a message of gratitude from President George W. Bush to Harvey; at the other end of the room, President Bill Clinton’s letter of condolence to Harvey’s wife Helen is propped up in an inexpensive frame under a woolen newsboy cap. There are pictures of golf teams, pictures of men who won the Masters Tournament, and pictures of men who won the U.S. Open Championship sitting with Harvey and smiling. There are black-and-white photographs that are turning yellow. There are medals and proclamations and certificates from events such as the 1942 Hale American National Open. There are so many references here to the man Harvey Penick and his place in the sport that it’s easy to overlook the eight-year-old boy who wondered, in the year 1913, what to do now.
The bustling city of Austin had paved the street a block over from the Penick household on Cedar Street, where the quiet, twig-thin boy lived with his parents and older brothers. Cedar Street, like the rest of Harvey’s orbit back then, was bald Texas dirt scraped by wind — less a street than a path with wagon ruts and hoofprints. It was short enough that the entire length could be viewed from the porch of the Penick house, broad enough that the milk cow could be walked in the morning with the wagons chittering from Seekatz Meat Market with sacks of flank, and far enough from Congress Avenue that no one heard the streetcars hissing. The Penick family of Austin lived a long way from the city center in 1913. From his bedroom window upstairs, Harvey could peel open the cotton curtains, look out over the tops of the live oaks, and see the end of everywhere.
Harvey was eight years old that summer, and he had heard fanciful stories about Fort Worth and Dallas, about the stockyards and the bank buildings and the clothiers for men who favored seersucker in the summer and merino wool in winter. A lot of boys Harvey knew at Pease Elementary School carried reasonable hopes of growing a fortune in Texas. A lot of money was made and spent up there, two hundred miles away, in the two cities that most defined the state. But Harvey never cared much for money.
New wealth could also be found in Houston and the surrounding towns that seemed to float on oil and oil money. Four years before Harvey was born, the Lucas No. 1 well coughed up a fury of mud, gas, and black syrup: Spindletop, near Beaumont, ripped the young and still-developing state from its agrarian roots and thrust it into the soon-booming age of big energy. Many of Harvey’s friends yearned to one day buy a morning ticket for the interurban rail down at the union depot at Congress and Cypress, settle in for the daylong ride to the bulging oil camps, arrive that evening for a supper of Gulf catch, and wake to hard, dirty work and the promise of certain prosperity. But that sounded to Harvey like such an unhappy way to live.
Beyond San Antonio, cowboys tended cattle on vast swaths of fertile land in the Rio Grande Valley. All the children in Austin knew of King Ranch. It was the biggest and the best ranch in the entire West. If an ambitious young stowaway from Manhattan could survive oppressive drought and grow a 15,000-acre Mexican land-grant purchase into a livestock empire of more than 146,000 acres — Richard King and his partners even created the first American breed of beef cattle within its fences — then a boy from dusty Cedar Street could rustle a few such animals for an honest wage. But Harvey never had the wandering spirit of a cowboy.
West was the desert. West was six hundred miles of prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees and blinding sun through no clouds all the way to El Paso on the edge of Mexico. West was the ragged Davis Mountains and the yawning Big Bend to be explored; deep and dry canyons to cross on the way; cold springs to swim; frontiers to conquer; and factual and imagined rigors that Harvey and his friends read about in their schoolbooks. There lay the romance of the American West. West was rugged. West was hostile. Some of Harvey’s adventurous classmates were eager to confront the sands of the Chihuahuan Desert. They might not stop until they got to California. Maybe the Pacific.
Harvey knew he wasn’t built for that. So he stood at his window and stared out.
He wondered what he would be, what he would do, where he would go. But he also understood that as a boy of eight in a family of seven, he needed to be useful and, when possible, out from underfoot. He knew sacrifice at a young age. His older brother Tom, tougher than Harvey and gritty, had taken an interesting job a short walk from Cedar Street at a place the gentlemen called Austin Country Club, which had a curious hub of recreation called a golf course, the only one in town. Tom Penick was something called a caddie. Harvey knew nothing about caddies or golf or gentlemen, but he knew the work paid in coins, because his brother dumped out his pockets at night and Harvey saw them on the chest of drawers. Money. Tom had money. He also had stories of playing a game that gave people fits of frustration and, when the ball flew just right, a dizzy kind of joy.
Fourteen years earlier, the gentlemen strode in their stiff collars and black coats along Congress Avenue. The first paved road in the capital city of Texas, it was still unimproved in 1899. Some in the group passed the limestone facade of the Hancock Opera House, owned by the mayor. John Philip Sousa and Lillian Russell performed there when they toured this far south and west.
Some walked south from the university, along the Austin Electric Railway Line and past the smudged windows of the Raatz Department Store. Blocks away, the Ben Hur steamboat churned into port on the Colorado River, known then as Lake McDonald. A Model A sputtered. Horses clopped through the silt. Wagons rattled through ruts. The men in their business attire monitored their pocket watches that November afternoon in Austin. The time neared 4:30.
They gathered on bustling Sixth Street, shook hands outside the opulent Driskill Hotel, stepped inside the columned lobby with marble floors, and swung open the tall and consequential doors of Austin golf.
Lewis Hancock, the son of a former member of the Texas House of Representatives and the prosperous owner of the opera house, had invi...
"To read Robbins’ bio on the life of Penick is to read about how golf can shape a life and how that life can extend into others in a unique and special way."
"A readable, conscientious biography that fills in the blanks, doing justice to Penick’s lucid teachings, and the legacy he left behind."
—The Austin American-Statesman
“Deeply researched and lovingly written…The most important book of the last decade in the sports genre. If you are a golf fan, you owe it to yourself to read it.”
—The San Jose Examiner
"A detailed biography...This book will appeal to those interested in the development of golf in the 20th century."
“Harvey Penick was a rare gentleman whose legacy deserves this book. Kevin Robbins has revealed through extensive and caring research the aspects of Penick's life that made him the endearing man he was. Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf opens wide a window into the soul of someone whose story transcends the game.”
—Ben Crenshaw, two-time Masters Tournament champion
“This thorough, absorbing biography is also a history of golf in America and how one man taught so many how to hit a golf ball so well….Kevin Robbins provides great anecdotes and stories about and from [Harvey Penick’s] most accomplished students, including Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright, and Tom Kite.”
"Finally the book that explains how Harvey Penick's humble, humane life led to an incomparable treasure trove of golf wisdom and insight. Kevin Robbins's work is an important contribution to golf history." —Bill Pennington, author of Billy Martin and On Par
“I’m always thrilled to learn about the quiet giants and caretakers of golf, no less so with Kevin Robbins’s beautiful account of the game’s most influential teacher and mentor. Harvey Penick’s life was a graceful journey through the game, a story of one man’s humble trials and epiphanies and gently tutored wisdom that, down the fairway, resulted in the bestselling sports book of all time — a gift to every golfer and student of the game. This book deserves an honored spot right by Harvey’s beloved Little Red Book.”
—James Dodson, author of American Triumvirate and Final Rounds
"A warm, insightful portrait of an uncommonly wise and gentle soul. Harvey defined 'teacher' and you will learn why."
—Mark Frost, best-selling author of The Greatest Game Ever Played, The Grand Slam, and The Match
"Harvey Penick led an exceptional golfing life, and Kevin Robbins has written an exceptional account of it. His book is transporting. I have a whole new understanding of Penick, his writings, and how Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Betsy Rawls and all the others under his tutelage became the people they became. What a life, captured here beautifully."
—Michael Bamberger, author of Men in Green and To the Linksland
“What a great story about a great man. Anyone who knew Harvey knew he was special. This book just confirms it.”
—Kathy Whitworth, LPGA Hall of Fame golfer
“Legendary golf coach Harvey Penick touched so many lives, Hall of Fame players and weekend duffers alike. Thanks to Kevin Robbins’ fascinating biography, Penick’s advice, encouragement and good counsel once again allows us to play through.”
—Tim Wendel, author of Summer of ’68 and Castro’s Curveball
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