Harvey Morrison Penick, born in Austin, Texas, became head professional at Austin Country Club when he was 18 and held the position for 50 years until his son Tinsley took over in 1971.
Penick was a good competitor as a youngster, even qualifying for the 1928 U.S. Open. But after watching Sam Snead and Walter Hagen in person, he decided he was more likely to succeed as a teacher rather than a player.
Penick taught many successful tournament players including Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Betty Jameson, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, and Mickey Wright.
A gentle and thoughtful man, Penick was a teaching legend in Texas for decades, but worldwide celebrity came only after the publication of Penick’s Little Red Book in 1992. The book, an organized version of the personal teaching notes he had scribbled over a lifetime on the lesson tee, sold more than one million copies to become the best-selling sports book of all time.
Penick’s style relied upon short, memorable anecdotes to drive home an important point. Identifying the essence of the needed cure then delivering it with precision and simplicity is Penick’s greatest legacy to golfers.
“Harvey’s lessons were simple, direct, and enjoyable,” said Crenshaw. “Perhaps the best part of a lesson with Harvey was the confidence it always inspired.”
Penick often called his cures “aspirins” because they were simple, easy-to-apply corrections that eased a golfer’s pain and let him regain confidence. Penick always said not to correct an error with another error. His aspirins are rooted in the fundamentals of the game. Each correlates directly to the fundamental causes of all golf shots: the path of the club, the angle of the clubface, and the speed of the clubhead.
Many observers believe that this focus on fundamentals allowed Penick to mold the two very different personalities and playing styles of Crenshaw and Kite from youngsters into two of the world’s best players.
Penick once said, “When I quit trying to learn, I’ll quit trying to teach.” Even from a wheelchair, he still dispensed his gentle and thoughtful aspirins on the Austin Country Club lesson tee until his death at the age of 91.
Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992
And if You Play Golf, You’re My Friend, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993
For All Who Love the Game, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995
The Game for a Lifetime, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996
The king of keeping it simple, Penick will be remembered as much for the way he explained his knowledge of the game as for the actual information he imparted. “I prefer,” said Penick, “to teach with images, parables, and metaphors that plant in the mind the seeds of shotmaking.”
He also was a proponent of matching a student’s swing to his body size: “You must fit the swing to your body. You must be yourself.”
On these pages are excerpts of his easy-to-understand explanations taken from his years as a GOLF MAGAZINE Teaching Editor during the 1970s and ’80s. As he liked to call them, “little pills for big cures.”
“When my pupils are in golf trouble-hitting the ball to the right, to the left or not getting it off the ground — I am very careful about making major corrections in their swings. Major corrections are like major surgery — they need recovery time.
“Instead, I’ll often give them what I call one of my ‘aspirins.’ Each has been tested on thousands of my golf pupils, who come in all shapes, sizes and handicaps. They work because they address the root cause of the problem.”
Rx FOR SHOTS HIT TOO LOW
“To cure the ‘lows,’ you have to think in terms of catching the ball at the bottom of the arc with a more ‘horizontal’ path through the ball than what you’ve been giving it. The image that will accomplish this is to think of clipping the grass where the ball is, just like you’re swinging a sickle for cutting weeds. You’ll get exactly the proper shallower angle through the ball to get it up.”
Rx FOR A SHANK
“I prefer to call these shots ‘laterals’ or ‘pitch outs.’ Here’s a cure that you can use even when you’re in the middle of a round. Draw a mental picture of hitting the ball on the toe of the club. Really try to hit the ball on the toe as you swing. This will soon get you striking solidly again.”
USING YOUR HEAD
“Show me a player who keeps his head still and I’ll show you somebody who can’t play golf. Yet that’s the principle around which most people build their swings. If you ask a person not to think of anything except making a full, free swing with the club, his natural impulse would be to let the head shift slightly to the right on the backswing, helping create a proper weight shift to the right, then back to the left as the weight moves left on the downswing. Fighting that impulse will cause problems.”
THE TALL PLAYER
“The tall golfer can be grateful for the advantage of a large built-in arc, but it comes with penalties attached. Attention to timing and control is imperative for tall players, who often allow their swings to become too long and too loose. The elbows should stay in their address relationship throughout the swing. Ben Hogan tied a belt around his elbows to help keep them together. Elbows-together will help keep a tall player as compact as he can get.”
Rx FOR A HOOK
“If you have a slight hook, hold firmly with the little and ring fingers of the left hand, both at the top of the backswing and on the follow-through.
“If you have a big hook, try this instead: Before you grip the club, set the clubface down a little open at address. Then, without letting the clubface move, take your normal grip. Then square up the clubface and look at your grip. What you’ve done is weaken your grip and that will help your hook.
“If the first amount that you opened the clubface at address fails to eliminate the hook, increase the amount you open the clubface until you hit the ball straight.”
RIGHT ELBOW MUST RETURN
“These days you see a lot of professionals letting their right elbows move away from their sides on the backswing. That’s okay with me, so long as the elbow returns to the right side and remains close on the downswing. This assures that the clubhead will approach the ball from slightly inside the target line.
“When the right elbow fails to return to the right side or moves further away from it during the swing, the result is an outside-in downswing path and either a pull or pull-slice.
“So no matter how your right elbow moves in the backswing, be sure it returns to your side at the start of the downswing and stays their through impact.”
THE SHORT PLAYER
“For the small golfer the club is going to be on the target line for a short distance at best. This demands that the slight player be attentive to what Ben Hogan referred to in popular terms as ‘pronating,’ to avoid blocking the shot, Hogan actually was talking of turning the wrists over.”
“The small golfer has to think of rotating both forearms in a counterclockwise direction in the impact area. If he thinks of turning his wrists over, he’s too likely to hit from the top and swing out-to-in through impact.”
Rx FOR TOPPING
“So many golfers are trying to help the ball up, when they should be trying to hit it down. Others are trying to keep their heads down and because they are, they’re either hitting the ground or raising back up and topping — or even whiffing — the ball.
“One aspirin for this problem is to think of hitting under a table which is a few feet down the target line from the ball. Another one for when you’re on the practice tee is to put your golf bag down a few feet in front of the ball along the target line. Now try chipping balls with your 7-iron into the side of the bag. I believe that the ball will start going up for you.
“Once you’ve gotten the idea with a chip shot, start hitting full 7-irons, trying to hit the ball into the side of the bag. In short order, you will have the feeling of ‘hitting down’ to get the ball up so thoroughly into your system that you won’t make the mistake of ‘helping’ the ball up again.”
TAKE DEAD AIM
Penick will always be remembered for his advice to “Take Dead Aim.” He explained this as meaning that during the time you address the golf ball, hitting it has got to be the most important thing in your life. Shut out all thoughts other than picking out a target and taking dead aim at it. Forget about how your swing looks and concentrate on where you want the ball to go.
In his Little Red Book he says to “take dead aim at a spot on the fairway or the green, refuse to allow any negative thought to enter your head, and swing away…Make it a point to do it every time on every shot. Don’t just do it when you happen to remember…I can’t say it too many times.”