It has been over twenty year since the phenomenon that is Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings From A Lifetime In Golf hit the market, so you, the avid golf reader, can be forgiven for thinking that there must already be a Harvey Penick bio out there. Well, until now there wasn’t—but now that there is, let me tell you, it has been worth the wait.
Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf, by Austin, Texas-based journalist and journalism professor Kevin Robbins, available April 5, 2016, is a deeply researched and lovingly written book which brings to life the story of the soft-spoken man whose wisdom and dedication to the game of golf has touched literally millions of golfers the world over. Some of the anecdotes from Harvey’s life as a golf pro and teacher will be familiar to those who have read the Little Red Book and its successors, but the detail on Harvey’s early life, his journey to an increasing level of understanding of the game of golf and how to teach it—as well as the fascinating story of how the Little Red Book and its follow-on volumes came about—is information which you will not find elsewhere.
Kevin Robbins has done the world of golf a tremendous service by bringing together the life story of Harvey Penick, his Little Red Book, and the far-reaching touch of this gentle, unassuming genius who was one of the most important figures in the game of golf in the 20th century.
Harvey Penick’s impact on and importance to the game of golf—in Austin, where he lived all of his life; in Texas, a state with as rich and varied a history in the game of golf as any state in the Union; and the world over, though he saw little of the rest of the world—simply cannot be overstated. There are names mentioned in the book, people associated with Harvey over the years, which will ring with familiarity in the ears of any golf fan: Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Davis Love (II and III), Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw; and some which may only be familiar to the more dedicated fan of golf history: Morris Williams, Jr., Billy Munn, Don January, Kathy Whitworth, Sandra Palmer. Harvey’s association with the big names and important figures in the game is only part of the story, though – he touched thousands whose association with the game extended only to country club and muni golf, the monthly member-guest and the Saturday skins game between friends.
Harvey became a caddie at the nascent Austin Country Club at age eight, a golf pro at age 13, and in 1922, at the age of 17, became the head professional at the Austin Country Club. At the age of 26 he took over the head coach position for the University of Texas golf team – with plenty of experience teaching the game of golf, but none coaching a team. He made a success of it anyway, in his low-key, unconventional manner, and remained in the position up until the mid-1950s.
Along the way, Harvey had started keeping notes in a red Scribbletex notebook – a 9-1/8 by 5-3/4 composition book that became probably the most famous notebook in the history of sports. His accumulated wisdom was gathered in this unassuming book over the years, but shown to no one. No one, that is, until he finally decided, in 1991, at the age of 87, to share his observations, to share with the world what he had learned by watching his students, and fellow golf pros, and the talented players of all ilks whom he had observed over the years, and what he had learned from thinking about golf practically full-time for most of 80 years.
The man to whom Harvey entrusted the Scribbletex notebook, and with whom he collaborated in turning the thoughts and observations of 80 years into the most beloved, and best-selling, sports book of all time, was a Texas legend of another kind – Bud Shrake.
I initially thought that author Kevin Robbins was dedicating too many pages in the book to biographical information about Shrake, but as I read on I saw the purpose behind the depth he went to in bringing to the reader the background on Harvey’s collaborator. What becomes apparent in this section of the book is that Robbins is using the extensive background on Shrake to establish the character, and bonafides, of the man who would bring Harvey Penick’s golf wisdom to the world.
Bud Shrake was a friend and contemporary of Texas sportswriting legend Dan Jenkins, and had worked with Jenkins on the Fort Worth Press when they were both still in college. Later Shrake moved on, and up, to the Dallas Times Herald and then the Dallas Morning News. He branched out into novels and screenplays, and later joined Dan Jenkins at Sports Illustrated, transplanting himself to New York City. Years of hard living never seemed to blunt the edge of Shrake’s talent, though he eventually calmed down, quit booze and drugs, and returned to Texas, to the Austin area this time, where he took up golf.
When Bud Shrake was contacted by Harvey’s son, Tinsley, in 1991, he thought it was about Bud’s younger brother Bruce, who had tried out for the UT golf team in the early 1950s, and had lessons from Harvey in later years. Instead, Tinsley wanted Bud to meet with his father, Harvey – a meeting that resulted, eventually, in The Little Red Book. The book became a publishing phenomenon that outstripped the expectations of all involved, even as they realized the genius of the concept; even the man who had recorded all the profound thoughts and observations that comprised it. The section of Harvey Penick which recounts the birth of Harvey’s Little Red Book is truly a joy to read.
Sadder to read, even though parts of this section of Harvey’s story are fairly well known, are the final chapters of the book, recounting Harvey’s declining health even as his book and its successors reach tens of thousands of golfers the world over, and the inspirational, but still sad, story of his death shortly before the 1995 Masters tournament. Most golf fans know about the ascendant victory, 11 years after his first Masters win, and just days after Harvey’s death, of Ben Crenshaw, who along with Tom Kite was the most famous of the tens of thousands of golfers who had benefitted from Harvey’ tutelage over the years.
There have been some excellent golf-related books hitting the market in the last couple of years, and it has been my joy and privilege to read most of them, but I can state, categorically, and with no disrespect to the authors of those other fine works, that Kevin Robbins’ Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf is 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.