Owning the Game

Journalism lecturer publishes biography of Harvey Penick’s life and wisdom of the golf game

Kevin Robbins Golf Book Banner

To the avid golf player or one who just enjoys watching from the sidelines, Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book” is no stranger to the game. This 5-by-7 Scribbletex notebook with a red cover was private to only Penick himself until its publication in 1992, changing the way golfers played and critiqued the game altogether.

Inside his notebook Penick wrote short observations and simple profound notes giving golfers tips and advice about ways to improve their swing, focus and drive. Kevin Robbins, senior lecturer in the School of Journalism owned Penick’s “Little Red Book” and said it completely changed the way he played golf but he felt it left gaps about who Harvey Penick was as a man. Robbins wanted to provide how Penick evolved in his latest biography, “Harvey Penick: The Life and Wisdom of the Man Who Wrote the Book on Golf.”  

Penick was considered America’s most effective golf instructor because of his teaching methods, students and simple form of instruction. We sat down with Robbins to learn more about his research of the legend and the biography he wrote.

Why Harvey Penick? Where did your inspiration come from to cover his life? Easy. My grandmother gave me his “Little Red Book for Christmas” in 1992. I completely changed the way I played golf. It made me better but also helped me see the beauty in the game. Harvey saw the opportunity to play golf – to compete with one’s self, to appreciate simple fellowship with like-minded people – as a privilege. Plus it conveyed to me the importance of devotion. He devoted his life to golf and his words taught me the necessity of commitment.

What made Harvey Penick and his teaching methods on golf the best? His simplicity. He was an uncomplicated, unfettered soul who brought clear thinking, plain solutions and remarkable sense of clarity to golf.

Was it difficult getting access to Penick’s most accomplished students when writing his biography? How were they to talk to? It wasn’t difficult at all. Everyone wanted to share their stories, which contributed to his story. I think people were grateful and relieved that his full life story would finally be told.

Are you a golfer yourself? Do you take techniques from Penick’s “Little Red Book” when playing the game? I am. Or at least I was. Before my children came along, I played 100 times a year – most mornings before I went to work at the Austin American Statesman, plus a regular Sunday game. I’m now lucky to play once a week, but I still use Harvey’s lessons as my touchstones. Is my grip good? Am I aligned to my target? Am I committed to the shot? Do I comport myself with integrity and grace, win or lose? Those aren’t easy things to accomplish, but I do try and remember them.

In your opinion, who is the best up and coming golf player this year in the PGA? Jordan Spieth. Last year he was nearly flawless. He’s struggling with his driving accuracy now, which doesn’t make him a very good bet for the U.S. Open, but I remain convinced that he was the best mind for golf since Tiger Woods circa 1997 to 2001 or Jack Nicklaus in his prime.

When studying and writing about Harvey Penick’s life, what was most interesting to you? I was most interested in, and surprised by, his aptitude as a player. Harvey was a world-class golfer in his 20s, which is a dimension that goes unexplored in his own books. He competed on the circuit we now know as the PGA Tour, especially in Texas. He played in the 1928 U.S. Open and he would have played in many more had he not had a demanding job as head professional at Austin Country Club since the age of 18. He held his own with Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen and others of his era. That’s one of the parts of his story I was delighted to share in my biography.

Harvey Penick sounds like he was a humble man and not into the spotlight. How do you think that helped him in golf and teaching? I think those qualities helped people see his sincerity and trustworthiness. People—especially women—wanted to be in his presence, because they knew he wasn’t trying to pull one over on them. He didn’t want their money as much as he wanted them to become the best player they could be. He was selfless in that way.

Lauren Phillips
Public Affairs Representative