Revisiting Mr. Penick’s Little Red Book

I’ve taken our Winterpocalypse as an opportunity to re-read one of my favorite golf books, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. I first read the Little Red Book while in college. If such a thing is possible, I knew less about golf and the golf swing then than I do now. Trying to digest any level of golf instruction, even something as innocuous as a book, felt like trying to split the atom. I was more likely to end up confused and in worse condition than I began.

Therein lies the beauty of Penick’s collection of golf wisdom, knowledge, and method. His observations are simplified to their most basic concepts and presented with a folksy simplicity. Penick’s text takes a holistic approach to the golf swing and overall game, which seems applicable to a wide and varied audience. The grandfatherly charm with which the material is presented allows the reader of any ability to feel like they are gaining valuable, proven insights.

It is remarkable that very little information contained in the Little Red Book is of a technical nature. There are no illustrations for the reader to mimic or glossy photographs of professionals to emulate. I have read elsewhere that as an instructor, Penick was very much obsessed with the traditional quandaries of the golf teaching professional: grip, stance, angles, swing paths, etc. However, most of the information contained in his book, even concerning the golf swing, feels more like general knowledge that is as applicable to a touring pro as it is the weekend duffer.

It’s almost as if Penick culled together a collection of golfing thoughts and simple principles that your mother would have imparted to you had she tried to teach you golf. As much as you could strain against the advice and try to do it your way, you would eventually come around to the conclusion that the advice given was correct. For the Little Red Book, the proof is in the tremendous players that Penick’s instruction produced.

While re-reading the text, I smacked my forehead in exasperation repeatedly, because I’d read something so basic and simple that I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten or neglected it. His reasoning and suggestion to “Take Dead Aim!” is probably the book’s most enduring and important point, something worth incorporating into my mental approach to the game. A close second is a derivative of the first; that you have to focus with positive thinking. Fear, doubt, and indecision will cost you as many or more strokes than flawed mechanics.

Until I rediscovered this book, I had forgotten from where I had picked up many of the maxims I already incorporate into my game. I always pick a target when taking a practice swing (pg. 51), I place a shaft across my thighs at least once a practice session to tell where I’m aimed (pg. 54), I prefer to hit a full approach rather than take a little off of a stronger club (pg. 66), and I regularly use a heavy club (pg. 62) and practice the slow motion drill (pg. 81). Of all the golf tips I’ve read or received, these kernels of truth have proven Gospel for my game.

If there is one concern I have with the Little Red Book, it’s that its information can be completely individualized by the reader. That’s part of the beauty of Penick’s method, that he approached each student differently and used different methods to help them reach their maximum potential. Penick’s book is broken down into small, easily digestible vignettes, most of which can stand alone from the other pearls of wisdom.

However, I suspect that if a reader cherry picks what to remember from the book, the ensuing misinterpretation could be disastrous. I’m in the middle of a swing change, under professional supervision, and nothing in the Little Red Book is directly contrary to the substance of the lessons I’ve received. But I’m sure that if I just re-read the book without my teaching pro with whom to discuss my thinking, I easily could end up contorted and flailing at the ball worse than before.

I can’t help but contrast Penick’s general and holistic approach to what Ben Hogan tries to impart through Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. With Hogan, there was definitely a right and wrong way to approach the golf swing, with little room for individual interpretation. There was a finite, known result that one could expect from Hogan’s method, whereas the results of Penick’s advice could look vastly different amongst his own pupils. Examine how differently Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, Penick’s two most famous pupils, approached and played golf as a striking example.

That philosophical worry aside, the Little Red Book is an absolute must-read for any golfer of any skill level. Harvey had more golfing wit, wisdom, and experience in his little finger than I could hope to accumulate in several lifetimes. The stories and endorsements from some of golf’s true legends are worth the price of the hard cover printing alone. It’s a history book, an instruction manual, and a collection of life lessons all wrapped up in one text.

I feel better having revisited his text this winter. I certainly can’t justify waiting another 10 years to pull it off the bookshelf. I suspect my golf game and my quality of life will benefit from periodic returns to the wisdom contained in Mr. Penick’s Little Red Book.

  • David Hill is the publisher of OneBeardedGolfer.com, where he pens opinions on golf courses, travel, and all things golf as a part of his daily life.

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