Book Review: Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book

For more than 60 years, every time Penick found something that proved to be consistently successful, he wrote it down in his little red Scribbletex notebook.
For more than 60 years, Penick recorded his observations in this red Scribbletex notebook.

The two best-selling sports books of all time, at least according to Davis Love III at the time of publication in 2012, are both golf books: Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and John Feinstein’s A Good Walk Spoiled.

I’ve probably read Penick’s Little Red Book five or six times over the years, but ever since I decided to pursue a career in the golf industry and specifically instruction, it’s felt as though it belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of my golfing library. As I continue to mold and shape my teaching philosophy, I’m rabidly consuming any and all golf instruction books I can get my hands on. This one’s a must-have.

Like a lot of things in life, my copies (and I’ve had more than one) of the Little Red Book have gotten lost in the shuffle. I probably lent them to friends of mine, and it’s been so long, I don’t remember who I need to ask for them back. So when I found myself in a quaint little bookstore called The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina last year and saw a hardback edition of the famous book, I couldn’t pass up the purchase. It was first printed in 1992, but because it’s the 20th Anniversary Edition, the newest version contains a new foreward by Love III and rare photographs from the Penick Family Archive.

All you really need to know about Harvey Penick is that he was never “above” helping anybody. “Harvey makes no distinction between the rank beginner who chops his way around the course or the touring pro with a swing as smooth as velvet,” writes 1992 U.S. Open Champion and Penick disciple Tom Kite. In fact, his decision to publish the notes from his little red Scribbletex notebook was ultimately motivated by his unselflessness.

“Maybe it was wrong to hoard the knowledge I had accumulated,” writes Penick. “Maybe I had been granted these eighty-seven years of life and this wonderful career in order that I should pass on to everyone what I had learned. This gift had not been given me to keep secret.”

Harvey Penick had a servant’s heart, and I think that’s one of the things that makes a great teacher, not just a good golf instructor. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the book’s very first page:

“This book is written not only to help all golfers with their own games but to help club pros and teachers with their teaching.” – Harvey Penick, Austin Country Club, 1992

As an instructor, Penick was ahead of his time. “I prefer to teach with images, parables and metaphors,” he writes, “that plant in the mind the seeds of shotmaking.” Wow! Who writes like this anymore? But it’s something I’m trying to adopt in my own teaching methods.

I also like the idea of using transferable skills. If people have played other sports before, chances are they already know how to swing a golf club. In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel to “sand the floor” and “paint the fence.” It wasn’t until Daniel-san got fed up with Mr. Miyagi that he realized he was actually learning karate through all of the repititious chores he was doing. This is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes:



If the true measure of a person’s life is what others say about that person, then Mr. Harvey Penick lived one of the most enviable lives in modern history. He’s coached golfers of varying personalities – national, amateur, and major champions in both the men’s and women’s games, and he’s been equally respected by many of game’s greatest players from Bobby Jones and Byron Nelson to Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. He writes about many of these people in this book, and they write about him too:

“What sets the great teachers apart from the others is not merely golf knowledge, but the essential art of communication. Very few teachers in golf have had it, as Harvey does.” – Ben Crenshaw, 1984 & 1995 Masters Champion

“If it’s true that a teacher is judged by his pupils and what they accomplish, then Harvey Penick stands at the top of not just golf but golf as a way of life.” – Dave Marr, 1965 PGA Champion

“For me, Harvey reduced golf, as he did life, to a few sound, irrefutable, worthwhile principles. And he expressed those principles in simple, unadorned, down-to-earth, and often humorous terms.” – Betsy Rawls, 8-Time LPGA Major Champion

Penick says he decided to become a teacher after he saw (and heard) Sam Snead hit the ball at a Houston Open in the mid-1930s.
Penick says he decided to become a teacher after he saw Sam Snead at a Houston Open in the mid-1930s.

“I was always struck by the simplicity of his teaching.” – Mickey Wright, 82 LPGA Tour Wins

“His demeanor, his honesty, his integrity in how he lives his everyday life have probably had as much an impact on me as his teaching.” – Kathy Whitworth, 88 LPGA Tour Wins

“Harvey wouldn’t have really known the concept of the sports psychologist. But he was the ultimate sports psychologist! He saw the whole person and he could teach anybody, from any walk of life, from a raw beginner to the best player in the world. Caring about people was at the core of his teaching and his being.” – Davis Love III, 1997 PGA Champion

But sport psychology wasn’t a totally foreign concept to Penick. He knew the value of instilling self-confidence and self-discovery in his players, points best illustrated in another book I recently reviewed, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect by Dr. Bob Rotella.

Dr. Rotella worked with both Kite and Crenshaw later in their PGA Tour careers. Of course, both Kite and Crenshaw came up at the same time under Penick’s tutelage at Austin Country Club.

“Tom Kite has told me about how he and Ben Crenshaw learned from Harvey Penick,” writes Rotella. “Tom or Ben would say, for instance, ‘Mr. Penick, how do you hit a high lob over a trap and stop it real fast?’ Harvey Penick was smart enough not to fill their heads with a lot of instruction about weakening their grips and not turning their right hands over. He gave them some balls and sent them out to a practice green. He told them to stand behind the bunker and pretend there was a tree growing in it. Then they were to hit balls over the tree. They were to make the tree grow higher until it was the right size to make the ball sit down and stop near the hole. And when they could do that, they were to come and tell him about it.”

As the story goes, “Eventually, Tom and Ben would come running into the pro shop, proudly announcing that they had completed their assignment,” continues Rotella. “Harvey Penick would go out to the practice green and watch. And if one of them asked him a question about technique for a high lob, Mr. Penick would reply, ‘I don’t know. Show me again.’ After they’d demonstrated again, he would say, ‘It’s what you just did.'”

What I like most about this book is that it’s a fairly quick read and it’s broken down into several individual anecdotes. Each one reads like its own vignette, and each one is chalk full of instructional gems. Here are a few of my favorites:

* Golf should be learned starting at the cup and progressing back toward the tee.

* Take dead aim. I can’t say it too many times. It’s the most important advice in this book.

* Letting the left heel come up is the best way to get the job done. Let it naturally come up as you make your back turn.

* The first and simplest (way to persuade the student to stop hitting over the top) is to make the student try to hit the ball on the toe of the club for a while. This is often a one-aspirin remedy for the sickness.

* To start a golf swing you need a forward press of some sort that sets off the action. My favorite image of what I want the forward press to feel like is to imagine you are in your stance holding a bucket of water with your hands on either side of the bucket.

Harvey Penick's Little Red Book is brilliant in its simplicity.
Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book is brilliant in its simplicity.

* Of all the thousands of swing-training aids and gimmicks I have seen, the best is one you can buy at the hardware store… it is the common weed cutter (something I have adopted in my own teaching). The motion you make lopping off dandelions with your weed cutter is the perfect action of swinging a golf club through the hitting area.

Always chip the ball if:
1. The lie is poor.
2. The green is hard.
3. You have a downhill lie.
4. The wind has an influence on the shot.
5. You are under stress.

Probably you want to pitch the ball if:
1. The lie is good.
2. You have an uphill lie.
3. The green is very soft.
4. There is an obstacle in the way.

I love Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. It’s my favorite golf book for its thoughtfulness and simplicity. If I remember correctly, it’s probably also the first golf book I ever read when I was growing up in the game, not just the first golf instruction book. The Little Red Book is the kind of book you’ll see on the shelf as you’re passing by and stop to read for a few minutes if only to remember what it was like to see and feel the game through the eyes of a man who seemed to love it and the people he taught it to almost more than he did life itself.

Next On the Shelf
Bobby Jones On Golf by Bobby Jones. Harvey Penick once told Ben Crenshaw that it was “the finest book of golf instruction for all.” In the words of Crenshaw, “It contains Jones’ own golfing genius as well as (Stewart) Maiden’s (Jones’ teacher), combined with miles and miles of common sense and Jones’ beautiful command of the English language.” Jones earned a degree in English Literature from Harvard.

Leaving for Florida
I’m on my way to the PGA Level 1 Seminar in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Seminar is one week long and covers everything from Business Planning and Customer Relations to Tournament Operations and Teaching. I’m pretty excited, although I don’t really know what to expect. A suit and tie is required except when we’re out on the practice range for our Teaching & Golf Club Performance Seminar on Thursday and Friday. I will try to weigh-in with my biggest takeaways from each day when I get back to my hotel room each night.

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