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June 25, 2012
My father and his friend and mentor, Harvey Penick, shared a common bond: Both delighted in helping players understand their swings
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June 25, 2012

A Feel For The Game

My father and his friend and mentor, Harvey Penick, shared a common bond: Both delighted in helping players understand their swings

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"Now a four-iron."

And through the bag they went.

When I was in high school, my father would say to me, "Hit me a 300-yard drive." I'd do it. "Now 250." Done. "O.K.—200." Another swing. "How 'bout 150?" These days I do the same with Dru, except I start him at 325. Harvey wanted for my father what my father wanted for me and what I want for Dru. We want a golfer to truly feel the clubhead, to own his or her swing.

I'm not a good golf teacher. I can tell you what you're doing wrong, but I can't tell you how to fix it. My brother, Mark, who teaches Dru and many others, is a good teacher, a natural instructor who teaches right out of the Harvey Penick--Davis Love Jr. playbook. A big part of that skill is to recognize the needs—and the personality type—of the student. Harvey taught Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, and they both went on to win majors with totally different styles and methods. They couldn't be more different as people or as golfers. What worked for one would not have worked for the other. Harvey gave each what he needed. He sized them up. Harvey wouldn't have really known the concept of sports psychologist. But he was the ultimate sports psychologist. He saw the whole person, and he could teach anybody, from any walk of life, from a raw beginner to the best player in the world. Caring about people was at the core of his teaching and his being.

Tinsley Penick succeeded his father as the head pro at Austin. Tinsley remembers the story of the advice his father gave my father on how to be an effective teacher. Early in his career, right after serving in the Army during the Korean War, my father was working as an assistant for Wes Ellis, a Texan and a legendary club pro at Mountain Ridge Country Club in New Jersey. Harvey suggested that my father take dancing lessons. He never said why. My father did as Harvey suggested. Maybe it had something to do with improving his balance—he didn't know. Only later my father figured it out: Harvey wanted him to know what it's like to be on the receiving end of a lesson and what it's like to be trying something new.

When my father played for Harvey at Texas, Tinsley was in junior high, and my father would give him rides home from the golf course. Later, he remembers my father speaking to his father from Korea, getting advice over the phone about how to build sand greens for a course he was building on an Army base there. Tinsley says that my father fulfilled his father's teaching legacy. They both taught golf—although this is a phrase they would never use—in a holistic way. For them, teaching was not a get-rich-quick scheme. It was a way of life. Golf didn't make them rich, not in the material sense. According to legend, when Harvey was told his cut of the advance for the Little Red Book would be $50,000, he said, "I don't know if I can come up with that kind of money." The book sold two million copies. (I can't tell you how many I have bought and given away.) As an old man, Harvey made a big pile of money. Oh, he went wild. He bought his wife, Helen, some drapes. I can turn golf on and off in my life, but my father could not, and I don't think Harvey could either. Every day that I play or hit balls, I think of Harvey. He gave me the grip I have used for my entire professional career, pretty much. I was with Harvey in person only a handful of times, but I feel as if I really knew him, and the book you have in your hands is part of the reason.

My times with him were all memorable, particularly when I went to see him in 1986, in my rookie year on Tour, when my grip wasn't feeling right. My father felt I should see Harvey alone. I remember him saying, "I can't figure this out. Go see Mr. Penick." For old-time golf instructors, golf always begins with the grip. Everything flows from the grip.

We met on a Monday late in my rookie season. Austin Country Club was closed, but Harvey was able to use his range. He was 81, and you could see the Texas wind and 10,000 lessons in his weathered face. But his eyes were young, and so was his voice. He was sharp. He didn't babble endlessly, the way some instructors do. He had me hit balls, and I could tell in his silence that he was really thinking. He looked at my swing and my grip and my footwork. He looked at everything. Finally he said, "Davis, I'd like you to take your left thumb and pinch it closer to your fingers. Just enough so that you can feel it, but I can't see the change." I can remember his eyes as he spoke. They were all lit up. He was excited.

He didn't say why he wanted me to make that change, just as he didn't tell my father why he should take dancing classes. He wanted you to answer the why questions for yourself. I made the small grip change, and it felt new but not strange. Harvey's adjustment fixed all the grip-related swing problems my dad had been seeing. In one simple lesson. I made the change right there. Harvey watched me make a few more swings and said, "Let's go get lunch." The next year I won my first Tour event.

Two of the best-selling sports books of all time are golf books: this one and John Feinstein's A Good Walk Spoiled. I talked to John for his first golf book, and he included something about my father and his legal pads crammed with notes. After John's book came out, Jeff Neuman, an editor at Simon & Schuster, and I talked about using those notes as the basis for a book I would write about how I learned golf from my father. I was intrigued from the beginning, but the reason I said yes was because Jeff had edited Harvey.

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