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Harvey Penick—Lessons from a Pro

When you think of leadership communications, chances are you don't think of golf. After all, golf, even in its competitive form, is chiefly a solitary game—one course, one player. Communications are chiefly internal; players and caddies are allowed to converse, and players of course speak to one another, but the game itself revolves around finding the shortest and best way to put the ball into the hole using nothing more than variously fashioned clubs, all derived from an ancient game that Scottish shepherds once played.

Well, there is an exception—the communication that occurs between a player and his or her coach. Plenty is said during coaching sessions, and in fact you can make the case that the lessons imparted on the golf range or in the clubhouse must be the most enduring, since player and coach are not allowed to converse during a match. The player must rely on lessons reiterated, reinforced, and remembered. One master of such teaching is Harvey Penick, a golf teacher for more than 70 years and a best-selling author as an octogenarian and even nonagenarian. His lessons were simple, straightforward, and down to earth. In his own unique way, Penick was a leader who was able to communicate with a directness that was as effective as it was heartfelt.

Getting the Word Out

Harvey Penick was a coach at the University of Texas as well as being club pro at the Austin Country Club in Texas. Along the way, he nurtured the careers of many a great player: Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Mickey Wright, and many others. He himself had played collegiate golf and had flirted with the professional game. But watching (and hearing) Sam Snead shape his shots so purely and accurately made Penick realize that if he were to remain in golf, his place was in shaping the talents of others.[17 ]Along the way, Penick kept notes on what he told his players, and over the years the range and volume of his notes grew. It was his son, Tinsley, also a club pro, who urged him to publish.[18 ]

And what happened next tells you all you need to know about Harvey Penick. Bud Shrake, a respected sportswriter and novelist with a pedigree that included Sports Illustrated, teamed with Penick to do a book. The story goes that Shrake informed Penick that "his share" from the book deal would be $85,000. Harvey was aghast: "Bud, I don't think I can raise that kind of money."[19] What this story says about Penick is this: He was humble (a publisher wants to pay me!), and he was a teacher (he wanted to share the lessons he had learned himself and imparted to his pupils over a long lifetime of teaching a game he loved). The first tome, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, became one of the best-selling sports books of all time and led to a series of subsequent books, television appearances, a video, and eventual worldwide recognition.

Lessons from the Game

Simplicity is something Penick strove for always. Golf is a game of feel: Feel the grip, feel the club head, feel the swing. Most students respond to the simplicity, but Penick recalls the example of the woman who became flustered because he would not add more technical advice. But that was not his style.[20] "Playing golf you learn a form of meditation . . . you learn to focus on the game and clean your mind of worrisome thoughts."[21]

Penick was earnest about his teaching and prayed before beginning one of his teaching clinics; his reason was that "few professions have as much influence on people as the golf pro," and so he wanted the help of the Almighty in this endeavor.[22] At the same time, Penick was perpetually humble about his role in the game, referring to himself as a "grown caddie still studying golf."[23] About his own teaching style, Penick uses the tools of all successful teachers—"images, parables and metaphors."[24] In this way, he could make his pupils see both physically and metaphysically how they could improve their game.

Tribute to Teacher

Penick's students who have gone on to excel in the professional game are themselves legends. Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw were two of his favorites. Kite won the 1992 U.S. Open and gave his trophy to his tutor to hold.[25] And most movingly, Ben Crenshaw won the 1996 Masters shortly after Penick died. "I could definitely feel him with me. I had a fifteenth club in the bag. The fifteenth club was Harvey."[26]

Shortly before the 1995 Ryder Cup matches between the best American and best European golfers, Penick's son, Tinsley, summed up his father's life in a kind of elegy delivered to the players on the eve of the match. Some of the players knew Penick personally; all of them knew him in some way, if only through the lessons imparted in his books. In his talk, Tinsley spoke of his father's commitment to differences: Each player has his own unique style, and he would not try to change it. And he mentioned Harvey's sense of professionalism, never speaking ill of fellow pros.[27]

Keep on Learning

Tinsley also revealed what might be the secret of Harvey's coaching—he never stopped learning. As a coach at the University of Texas, Harvey made it a point to find out "the methods and teaching techniques" of the person who had taught the player. "My dad gained a lot of knowledge from these experiences."[28 ]And somehow it is fitting that a man who seemingly devoted himself to a game was in reality devoting himself to helping generations of men and women, young and old, find a better way to play the ultimate game—life itself.

[17 ]Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 109.

[18 ]Ibid., p. 26.

[19]Clifton Fadiman and Andre Bernard, eds., Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes, rev. ed. (Boston and New York: Little, Brown, 2000), p. 430, quoted in Robert T. Sommers, Golf Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[20]Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake, And If You Play Golf, You're My Friend (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), pp. 65-67.

[21]Penick with Shrake, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, p. 74.

[22]Penick with Shrake, And If You Play Golf, You're My Friend, p. 168.

[23]Penick with Shrake, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, p. 73.

[24]Ibid., p. 25.

[25]Penick with Shrake, And If You Play Golf, You're My Friend, pp. 62-63.

[26]Penick with Shrake, Game for a Lifetime, p. 20.

[27]Tinsley Penick, epilogue to The Game for a Lifetime, by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 201-208.

[28 ]Ibid., p. 207.

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