Harvey Penick Golf Teacher: Homespun Brilliance from the Heart of Texas

    “Take dead aim.”

    That’s the essence of Harvey Penick’s teaching style, distilled into three little syllables. No other golf coach made the game so simple. Few, if any, impacted students so profoundly.

    Best known as author of the best-selling golf book ever written,
    Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book
    , and mentor to pros including
    Ben Crenshaw
    , Penick was a Texas institution. He was born in 1904, started caddying at Austin Country Club at age 8, made assistant pro at 13, and after graduating high school in 1923 became the club’s head pro – a position he held for 50 years. He also coached the University of Texas golf team from 1931-63.

    Early on, Penick entertained thoughts of playing for a living. Then he qualified for the 1928 U.S. Open, where he watched the great Walter Hagen “hit that ball like a bullet,” and realized teaching might be a better option.

    It’s hard to argue with his decision.

    Penick believed he witnessed more golf shots than anyone who’d ever lived, and he certainly saw some good ones. Besides Crenshaw, Penick’s pupils included Tom Kite and Davis Love Jr. Even more noteworthy were his female students, like Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls and Kathy Whitworth.

    From superstars to beginners, golfers of all stripes flocked to Penick. His signature was a warm, down-to-earth style and a genius for simplifying the game’s maddeningly complex concepts using, in his words, “images, parables and metaphors that plant in the mind the seeds of shotmaking.”

    His Little Red Book took these lessons to the masses. Published in 1992, it compiled 60 years of Penick’s notebook scribblings into a single, easy-to-read volume. More books, also based on his notes and written by his collaborator Bud Shrake, were published after Penick’s death.

    He passed away on April 2, 1995, and Crenshaw served as a pallbearer at his funeral three days later. On April 6, “Gentle Ben” began his march toward one of golf’s most emotional triumphs. The image of Crenshaw doubled over in tears after holing the final putt for his second Masters victory is indelible – just like the mark Penick left on the game.

    Famous students: Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, Sandra Palmer, Rick Massengale, Davis Love Jr.

    Core philosophy: Penick didn’t advocate complicated swing-plane theories or introduce any revolutionary ideas. He absorbed everything he observed and recognized specific techniques used by good players. He taught all students as individuals, tailoring tried-and-true methods to their particular physique and talent.

    Penick was a big proponent of developing feel and believed the mind played a central role in golf success. Hence, his famous advice to “take dead aim.” 

    “Once you address the ball,” Penick elaborated, “hitting it to the desired target must be the only thing in your life. Allow no negative thoughts, and focus on your goal.” 

    Classic Penick-style tip: Rather than overhauling his students’ swings, Penick preferred to use what he called “aspirins.” Not the same as quick-fix band-aids for the swing, Penick felt these pearls of wisdom could cure whatever underlying problem was causing the symptoms. 

    For example, his tip for banishing the dreaded shanks didn’t address whether the golfer’s swing was off-plane or the club laid-off at the top. He simply recommended setting up with the ball toward the toe of the club and attempting to hit it on that very spot.

    Oh, and he didn’t call them “shanks,” opting for “laterals” or “pitch-outs” instead.

    Is it any wonder Harvey Penick was so beloved?