When it comes to golf, nearly everyone who has played the game knows there are few feelings in sports that parallel the exhilarating joy of a well-executed shot—and that there are few feelings in sports that parallel the frustrations of a mishit. This desire for consistent deep drives, perfect lies, and low scores has led amateurs and professionals alike to spend big money on equipment and lessons. But seasoned players know that many of the best tips and advice are tucked into a single guide: Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book.
The book’s namesake, Harvey Penick, has been hailed by many as the greatest golf instructor of all time. The Austin native worked as a caddy for the Austin Country Club from the time he was a young boy, and after graduating from high school, became the club’s head golf pro in 1923. He held this position for nearly five decades, and in his tenure, coached some of the greatest players the game has ever known, including Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Betsy Rawls, and Kathy Whitworth. Over the years, he took to jotting down tips, short observations, and little bits of advice in a five-by-seven red Scribbletex notebook. He held on to the notebook long after he retired, and no one but his son had seen or read its contents. Then, in 1991, he had an idea, one that led him to reach out to Austin sportswriter Bud Shrake.
Below, in an excerpt from Kevin Robbins’s new book, Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf, we learn of a writing partnership that led to one of the best-selling sports books of all time.
One morning in 1991 Bud Shrake answered his telephone. When he heard the voice of Tinsley Penick, he thought Harvey Penick, Tinsley’s father, was asking to see him to talk about Shrake’s younger brother Bruce, who had attempted but failed to qualify for the Texas golf team as a freshman and sophomore in the mid-1950s. Many years later, Bruce Shrake, a member at Champions Golf Club in Houston, had contracted a devastating hitch in his golf swing that rendered him completely unable to bring the club to the ball. So he had taken the only action that made sense. He drove to Austin to see Harvey.
The lesson had been brief. Harvey watched the younger Shrake assemble his grip, align his feet, adjust his hips, address the ball, and lift the club up, over his shoulders. But nothing happened after that. There was no swing down. There was no clipping of grass. There was no swinging of buckets. There was nothing after Bruce Shrake reached the top of his swing and froze, like a child caught stealing from the brownie jar.
Harvey had seen a lot of staggering faults in a golf swing. But he had never seen anything like that. Shrake waited for Harvey to speak, prepared to hear a simple string of words that would thaw his paralyzing hitch.
“Well,” Harvey said after much deliberation, “don’t do that anymore.”
But Tinsley was not calling about Bruce. Would Shrake be willing to meet with Harvey? His father had something on his mind.
Shrake arrived at the Austin Country Club to find Harvey in his cart. He saw a briefcase in his lap.
“I want to show you something that nobody except Tinsley has ever read,” the old man said.
He snapped open the latch. “Here.”
Shrake took the red Scribbletex notebook back to the cabin in the woods. As he thumbed through the pages, he detected a poetic meter in the way Harvey used language. The words on the pages seemed that day to take life inside Shrake’s mind.
“I said, yeah, I could do this, and all of a sudden I felt like I had been called upon to do this for some reason,” Shrake recalled in 2009. “The fates had transpired to put me with Harvey.”
He wrote in longhand a two-page proposal for a book. He called his assistant, Jo Ellen Gent, from her office downstairs. He asked her to stop whatever she was doing to type the proposal and put it in the mail.
Shrake called Esther Newberg, his agent in New York, and revealed his idea about Harvey Penick and his Scribbletex notebook. He told her about taking dead aim and swinging buckets and weed cutters, about taking one pill, not the whole bottle, and about clipping tees. He described Harvey’s friendships with Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite and Betsy Rawls and Kathy Whitworth. Shrake tried to explain that being in Harvey’s presence felt like being a part of the Tao of golf, like being there at the beginning.
“Who’s going to buy that?” Newberg demanded.
The proposal arrived a couple of days later. As she read it, Newberg began to see the same potential in the book idea that Shrake had seen the morning he met Harvey at the club. “It was charming,” she said. “Bud had such a way of summing things up.” She called Charles Heyward, the president of the adult trade division at Simon & Schuster. He asked her to send the two-page pitch.
Heyward took it to Jeff Neuman, a senior editor and the director of sports books at the publishing house. “If this guy is who Bud says he is, this could be something,” Heyward said. Neuman read Shrake’s idea in his office on the fourteenth floor at Rockefeller Center. He admired Shrake from his career at Sports Illustrated. He knew of Harvey from stories he’d read about Crenshaw and Kite. Neuman understood golf books. He also understood that this one was different.
Simon & Schuster had a history in golf books. It had published Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, as well as Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus, a copy of which Nicklaus had sent to Harvey with the inscription, “Golf needs you.” Those were excellent books, standards in the genre, timeless. But the two-page pitch Neuman read that day struck him as something that golf needed right now. “It’s like the antidote to how-to books,” Neuman said. This one was about “loving and understanding what you do.”
He told Heyward to buy it.
Heyward called Newberg. “I’ll give you $75,000,” he said. For a two-page pitch? The agent was stunned. She also sensed Heyward’s interest. She could hear it in his voice. She requested a larger advance. The two negotiated a $90,000 contract. Newberg called Shrake in Austin to tell him to start writing the Little Red Book.
What happened next remains a matter of lore and florid speculation: there are many versions of who said what, what figures were bandied, when it happened, even where. Gary Cartwright, writing in the December 1993 issue of Texas Monthly magazine, provides the most detailed account of how Shrake informed Harvey that their book had been sold. Cartwright wrote that Shrake called Helen, who shared their conversation with Harvey.
“Maybe something got lost in the translation, but Shrake got the impression that Harvey was strangely noncommittal about the deal,” Cartwright wrote. Shrake returned the next day to the country club, where he found Harvey. “In a voice so soft and feeble that Bud could hardly hear it, Harvey confessed that he’d been awake all night worrying about the proposal,” Cartwright wrote. He quoted Harvey: “With all my medical bills and everything, I’m not sure I can afford to pay ninety thousand dollars.”
Bud explained to Harvey that the advance would be coming to him.
Harvey had to ask Bud to repeat what he just heard. He wanted to make sure he understood that a famous publishing house in New York City was really going to give him a lot of money, more than he had ever held in his bank accounts, more than he had ever imagined having, for a book based on all those notes he’d written in the Scribbletex he’d kept in a rolltop desk.
Bud typed a short letter to Harvey in June. He wanted to explain, in the simplest of terms, everything Harvey needed to know about writing his first book. He informed Harvey that he would get $45,000 of the advance; Shrake absorbed his agent’s commission, earning $36,000 as his share. Shrake promised Harvey 60 percent of the book’s earnings. He told him he would do all of the writing. “Your job will be to let me interview you on tape,” Shrake wrote. Harvey’s obligations ended there.
They signed the contract on July 18, committing to a range of 50,000 to 75,000 words to be delivered by November 1. The formalities were over. Now it was time to work.
Shrake and Harvey agreed to meet on Mondays, when the club was closed. They conducted their visits at Harvey’s house on Fawn Creek Path, across a busy street from the fourteenth tee. Shrake brought a small, clip-on microphone for those days when Harvey’s voice was too weak to project. The Scribbletex notebook served as a kind of map. Discussing each entry, Harvey would elaborate and tell stories that Shrake had never heard, sharing memories he had not thought of in years. The process was like following a trail that included diversions but always led to a clearing. For much of that summer of ’91, Harvey sat in his velour chair near the sliding-glass doors that allowed a view of the oaks and a burbling creek and told Shrake what he had learned from his eight decades of watching men and women propel golf balls. The most popular sports book in the history of the genre was a work of extraction.
The first interview took place on June 24. The first words Harvey spoke for the book addressed the grip. It was a fitting commencement for the project on that summer day in West Austin. For Harvey, golf was grounded in the tactile connection between player and club. Everything flowed from the hands.
“Why is the grip so important?” Shrake asked.
“Well, it controls everything,” Harvey replied. “When a pupil compensates for a bad grip, he gets bad aim. If you make a mistake going back, to offset a bad grip, you’ve got to make a mistake going down, to offset that one.”
So evolved the potent magic of the Little Red Book. From the moment their collaboration began, the conversations between Harvey and Shrake were layered in meaning—exemplifying Shrake’s favorite quote about life and golf from Wodehouse. Until the Little Red Book, golf instruction had been written literally, procedurally, mechanically, and often too narrowly. Golf books had propounded theories but done little to engage the reader along any other dimension.
Harvey, by contrast, described his ideas in ways that could be extrapolated. A poor grip in golf produced necessary but disastrous compensations, which led to problems in other areas of the swing, which often produced a bad shot or, worse, a bad habit. Too many bad habits and bad shots resulted in bad golf. What was he really saying? What did he really mean in a larger sense? That a faulty foundation required faulty measures, which could lead to bigger problems? Maybe it could. Maybe golf was a microcosm.
“If you get a grip that fits you, leave it alone,” Harvey said.
“How can you tell if you’ve got a grip that fits you?” Shrake said. Harvey paused. “The way the ball flies,” he answered simply. Shrake also began to consider the executorial demands of the book with Harvey. The original Scribbletex, after all, was a charmingly primitive receptacle of theories and observations maintained by a man with an impressive grasp of golf but only modest aptitude as a writer. Thumbing through the fifty-page notebook, sprinkled with names and telephone numbers and sentence fragments and misused punctuation, Shrake wondered how to extract the authentic voice of the man he was interviewing from scraps of passages with no sign of a narrative pulse.
He studied the words for the answer.
Strong grips: must use more loft on woods. also prefer smaller heads.
Ben—Vardon or overlap:
Tom —Interlock —Nicklaus
Betty Hicks —Full finger Alice Ritzman
Best help: Hold a yard stick in both hands or ping pong bat: as to hit with it.
Not much ability: chipping first Emphasize (not to help ball up)
When pupil misses a shot they should not be embarrassed: I am sup- posed to be teacher: and one to be embarrassed.
Young players grow so fast. We have to watch them or they will lose their good natural swing.
John Bredemus once called me a “wise, old Owl.”
I like to call it Guide their learning instead of teaching: Especially after the pupil becomes a good player.
This much was clear on that June morning in ’91: there was power in Harvey’s words, but they needed something to hold them together. They had function, but needed form. Shrake understood that he would be “writing in another person’s voice.”
Shrake cast around in every direction in that early interview. He mentioned Hogan. He wanted to know what Harvey thought of Five Lessons. Harvey noted that Hogan fought a fierce hook before adopting a weaker grip, a modest adjustment that changed Hogan’s career. “I feel like Hogan is a self-made man,” Harvey said. He told Shrake that someone from Austin recently had played in the member-guest tournament at Shady Oaks Country Club, where Hogan spent his retirement smoking cigarettes in the dining room that overlooked the eighteenth green and, every so often, carting out to a private spot on the course to hit shots that no one could see. Hogan was playing cards at Shady Oaks that day when he learned that someone in the member-guest was from Austin. Hogan found the man. “You tell Harvey I’ve got a loop in my swing,” Hogan told him. “I’m going to come for some help.” But he never did.
Harvey told Shrake about his years as the head coach at Texas. He affirmed what he had told many others. “Boys would come from all over the state,” Harvey told him. “The local pros helped these boys. I took thirty-two years of knowledge from these golf pros all over the state.”
Shrake asked Harvey if he had known Bobby Jones, the great amateur from Atlanta. Harvey kept a picture of Jones in his shop for many years because he wanted golfers to see that Jones finished his swing with his elbows in front of his body. Harvey said that he copied Jones’s putting stroke. Harvey saw him once, he said, at the 1928 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in Chicago, when he played a practice round with the eventual champion, Johnny Ferrell. But then Harvey stopped. What he was about to say next was to be left out of the book, he said.
“Jones and another fellow passed by on a par-three hole,” Harvey explained. “He stopped to watch us. I hit a spoon shot up within about two feet of the hole. And he says, ‘Fine shot.’”
The answer to the question was no. Harvey did not know Jones. But Jones knew Harvey once hit a fine shot at the ’28 U.S. Open. And Harvey did not want that in his book, because the book was about helping others, not about him, not about building his image among readers of the book, and not about Bobby Jones once seeing him hit a spoon shot to two feet.
Tinsley arrived. He shouted a greeting to his father from across the room. Shrake asked Harvey what he could tell about a player’s swing by simply looking at the face of his golf club.
“There’s his seven-iron,” Tinsley said. He gave Shrake’s club to Harvey.
“Turn that light on,” Harvey said.
Harvey examined Shrake’s 7-iron. “Has it been cleaned since?” he said.
“I cleaned the grooves,” Shrake said.
Harvey studied the club. He turned it in his hands until the light caught it just so.
“He’s been meeting the ball with the blade a little open,” he said finally. “You see these marks right here? See, they’re going up thataway. That’s the sand and the dirt between the ball and the club. It’s hitting this way.” Harvey dragged a finger across the clubface, tracing its collision with the ball. “You follow that?”
Harvey then spoke the words he repeated often for the remainder of his life. He said them in interviews. He said them at book signings. He said them whenever people came to him to congratulate him on his new fame as a best-selling author at the age of 87. He said them to Shrake that day: “This is something that you can use for sure.”
Harvey had something else he wanted to say to Shrake: “I have probably seen more golf shots than anybody that ever lived. Caddying. Watching. Giving lessons. Coaching. Being the starter. Too many of them were my own.” Harvey wanted to make sure Shrake heard the next part, because he took a lot of pride in why he had seen all those shots: “I can’t imagine anybody seeing more, working seven days a week.”
Harvey had given his life to golf. He wanted to make sure Shrake knew that.
In July, Harvey and Shrake discussed the final preparations of the Little Red Book. Harvey sat in his chair by the deck, paging through his Scribbletex, being careful not to overlook anything.
“Be sure and try to get a hold of Ben,” Harvey told Shrake. “Ask him if he’ll write a little foreword, a couple of paragraphs. I think we might do it today. He might be in town.”
“I’m sure he’ll do it,” Shrake said.
Crenshaw did. Shrake also solicited remarks from Kite, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls, Mary Lena Faulk, Dave Marr, and Byron Nelson. “Harvey Penick is one of the great teachers in the history of golf,” Nelson wrote. The Little Red Book had the blessings of some of the greatest players of their generation.
The two men spent most of that July day visiting familiar themes. They discussed how professional golf had changed since the 1920s, when Harvey was entering opens in San Antonio, Houston, Harlingen, and elsewhere. Men in suit jackets and women in long dresses came to watch, but only out of curiosity, and certainly not in great numbers. “But it’s changed now,” Harvey observed. He had recently watched the PGA Tour tournament in Memphis and marveled at the crowds that lined the curling zoysia fairways at TPC Southwind. There were thousands of people out there. They wore Titleist hats and Callaway shirts and golf shoes. Golf shoes!
“I used to think of it as a participating sport,” Harvey told Shrake. “It’s a spectator sport. You see those big crowds?”
The interview that day followed no logical order. Shrake darted from subject to subject, asking Harvey about the day he met young Crenshaw and how to accept failure on the course (“It’s hard,” Harvey man- aged) and the highest fee that he ever charged for lessons ($25). Shrake inquired about Harvey’s thoughts on etiquette. He pushed for memories and probed for details. He pried out of Harvey reluctant criticisms of Nicklaus (the left heel, which Nicklaus lifted at the top) and Hogan (the length of his swing). They discussed golfers who played cards well. (Doug Sanders, Lloyd Mangrum, Bill Mehlhorn, and Tommy Armour, Harvey said, dating himself considerably.) Then Shrake asked Harvey for his opinion of the condition of modern golf instruction in 1991.
“I see things written that I can’t even believe,” Harvey said.
He added: “Anything I say in this book has been tried and tested, with success.”
Shrake sensed a rare moment in the room. Typically a man of rigorous humility, Harvey rarely spoke about his portfolio of ideas with such conviction. He was confident, of course. But he also was modest, content to define his methods as suggestions, not prescriptions. Yet here he was, on this hot July day in Austin, speaking in absolutes.
The interviews for the book with Shrake gave Harvey joy and purpose. He felt relevant again. He mattered. The questions gave him new angles on golf to think about and allowed him to revisit what he thought were the best years of his life.
When Shrake asked him to rank his pupils, Harvey seemed weary of the topic but prepared to confront it again. He said people always asked him to do that, but it was difficult. It seemed unfair. In mentioning certain players, Harvey knew he would be leaving out others, and he did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But he knew readers of his book would be curious.
“Ed White,” he said finally. “He hit the ball as well as anybody ever did. Freddie Haas played him in the finals. Said he was the best player he ever saw.
“Then Morris Williams came along. Everybody thought he couldn’t be beat. He had such a fine character.
“Then came along Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. They have proven they are fine golfers, but also fine citizens.”
Shrake asked Harvey about his own career as a player.
“I played in an awful lot of tournaments,” Harvey said. “But I felt like I was playing as much for what I learned in association with my fellow pros.”
Two months into their collaboration, Shrake could begin to predict the way Harvey would articulate his thoughts. Harvey preferred not to talk about himself. He liked to talk about success, not failure, especially when the conversation turned to one of his pupils. He also made great efforts to draw parallels between golf and character. Shrake noticed that Harvey spent as much time praising morals and ethics as he did celebrating skill and technique and that he also never assumed he had an answer to every question. Shrake was beginning to understand that their book would transcend golf instruction.
“You think golf teaches you anything about how to live your life?” he asked Harvey.
“I, in a roundabout way, somehow tried to teach that,” Harvey replied. “That golf and life are similar. There’s nothing fair in either one. And we shouldn’t expect it.”
Shrake wrote the manuscript at his corner desk in the woods of West Austin. He sat at a high-backed chair covered in brown leather, surrounded by the vestiges of his career in writing. Framed dust jackets from his books hung on the dark, paneled walls, which were cluttered with newspaper clippings, pennants, and campaign bumper stickers. Photographs of Shrake with his story subjects and golf partners leaned against books on the shelves, which wrapped around the room. Shrake had an easel set up in the room so that he could paint between chapters. He wrote in the soft illumination of one lamp. Gazing through a pair of long, narrow windows that opened to the woods, he searched his own voice for Harvey’s.
He knew he wanted to organize the book in short chapters. He told friends he wanted the reading experience to “be like eating peanuts. You read two or three chapters and you can’t stop.” The tone of the prose came to Shrake as he listened to the tapes of his interviews with Harvey. He soon was poking away at his typewriter, day turning to night.
When he finished, Shrake made sure Harvey read and approved what he had composed, which Harvey did by marking with faint pencil above every word, the way fact-checkers used to do at Sports Illustrated. Shrake was mindful of not misleading readers. He needed the book to be a true reflection of Harvey’s ideas. “It scared me to think of golfers reading this book and taking away a piece of bad instruction that somehow came from me and not Harvey.”
When he finished, Shrake felt sure he had just written one of the most important books of his career. “What Harvey had to say was so important that it had to be preserved for all golfers, everywhere, for all the ages,” he said. “It happened to fall on me to make it happen.”
Shrake submitted the manuscript in the fall. “It needed very, very little work,” said Jeff Neuman, the editor at Simon & Schuster. “The voice was great right away. It had that friendly, wise, folksy feel of someone who had never heard the word ‘writerly.’ And that’s such a rare thing to capture.” Neuman rearranged some of the chapters to encourage a stronger sense of randomness to the passages and load the book with a charming element of surprise. He changed little else. At a positioning meeting with sales and marketing staff, someone in the room noted the association with another Little Red Book—the one written by Mao Tse-tung, the Communist former leader of China. “I said that wouldn’t be bad, because that was a pretty big seller,” Neuman wrote in 2015. “We came out of the meeting with the book called Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, and it never changed.”
The designers and editors at Simon & Schuster considered options for presentation. They agreed on a new size. Smaller than the standard eight inches tall by five inches wide, it became known in the industry as the “Harvey trim.” It was, after all, the little red book. They wanted the design to make a nostalgic, antique impression. The jacket artists created a cover with gold lettering and an oval image of a golfer in plus-fours, accompanied by his caddie, in the style of a cameo. They decided the book would contain no illustrations. “We didn’t want to give the impression that this is what you must do,” Neuman said. “It just felt right.”
Neuman met with the publisher’s sales team and told them: “Do not think of this as a new book. This is simply the classic golf book that has not been published yet.”
The surprising appeal of the book rippled through the offices at Simon & Schuster. Neuman and the others who had read parts of it were seduced by Harvey’s aphorisms and the chat-over-coffee manner in which Shrake had rendered them. In ways Harvey surely never imagined, the Little Red Book seemed to be about everything else as much as it was about golf. It was a sports book about life.
“It was simple, but it wasn’t simplistic,” Esther Newberg recalled. “It was just so unexpected. [Harvey] wanted to leave a legacy. But he didn’t have any idea it would change his life so.”
Shrake knew he needed early publicity to build momentum. He wanted to send complimentary copies of the Little Red Book to notable figures in journalism, sports, and the literary industry. He borrowed a list of names that his friend Dan Jenkins had used in the summer of 1991 for his novel You Gotta Play Hurt. It was a roster of elites. Jenkins would not have had it any other way. Shrake wouldn’t either.
The publisher sent the book to Dave Anderson at the New York Times, Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press, Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, Tom Brokaw at NBC, Howard Cosell, John Feinstein, Jim Murray at the Los Angeles Times, George Plimpton, Dan Rather at CBS, Liz Smith at Newsday, and Jack Whitaker at ABC. “Jack Whitaker did an essay on [the Little Red Book] on ABC-TV yesterday,” Shrake wrote to Neuman. “We owe him a love letter.”
Jenkins mailed President George H. W. Bush a copy of the Little Red Book in May. He included a typewritten letter from his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Jenkins told the president it was “the best instruction book you will ever read” and “pure uncomplicated pleasure.” He referred to Harvey as “a Texas legend.”
A week later Bush replied directly to Harvey and Shrake on presidential letterhead. He noted that he, and not an assistant, had typed the note. Bush playfully disparaged his own golf game, suggesting that not even the Little Red Book could correct the faults in his swing. Bush wrote that he regretted how little time he was able to devote to his game, given his responsibilities as commander in chief. He concluded his letter with a simple acknowledgment of how much he loved the game and thanked Harvey and Shrake for their contribution to golf.
Harvey would cherish that letter. He liked every shred of correspondence from people who found joy in the Little Red Book—and the books that followed—but a piece of paper with the seal of the President of the United States at the top carried a certain sense of accomplishment and wonder.
Harvey fetched a sheet of paper—Austin Country Club letterhead, to be sure—to compose his reply. He tried to keep the pen steady in his hand so that what he wrote didn’t look like nervous scribble.
“Dear Mr. President,” he wrote carefully.
I hope you will enjoy reading my “Little Red Book” when you have the time.
I’ve got to tell you, Mr. President, that I am having a hard time trying to put into words the high honor and true joy your letter has brought to this old caddy. It would have been nice to think that I might have been half as good a teacher as you have been a leader of our country, and I do mean that.
Now about your golf game: May I suggest that you are over-analyzing your swing? Why don’t you try using your good natural athletic ability and just swinging the club like a bucket of water: nice and easy, without spilling. Get the lowest point of your swing level with the ball: then let your head follow thru on up with a good balanced follow thru.
Don’t give up a good swing to hold your head steady: straight left arm etc. etc. etc.
Also remember to take dead aim: both in your golf and your coming election.
“My best regards,” he finished. “Harvey Penick.”
In early June, the Little Red Book rose to number one in the nonfiction category on the New York Times best-seller list. Harvey and Shrake were thrilled. Harvey no longer was just a grown-up caddie and golf teacher with a letter from the President of the United States.
He was a famous author. It said so right there in the most trusted newspaper in the world.
Excerpt from HARVEY PENICK: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf by Kevin Robbins. Copyright © 2016 by Kevin Robbins. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.