My Little Red Book
An old pro told me that originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before; it consists of saying what you have to say that you know to be the truth.
More than sixty years ago, I began writing notes and observations in what I came to call my Little Red Book. Until recently I had never let anyone read my Little Red Book except my son, Tinsley. My wife, Helen, could have read it, of course, but a lifetime spent living with a grown-up caddie like me provided Helen with all the information about golf that she cares to know.
My intention was to pass my Little Red Book on to Tinsley, who is the head professional at Austin Country Club. Tinsley was named to that post in 1973, when I retired with the title of Head Professional Emeritus after holding the job for fifty years.
With the knowledge in this little book to use as a reference, it would be easier for Tinsley to make a good living teaching golf no matter what happens when I am gone.
Tinsley is a wonderful teacher on his own and has added insights to this book over the years. But there is only one copy of the red Scribbletex notebook that I wrote in. I kept it locked in my briefcase. Most of my club members and the players who came to me for help heard about my Little Red Book as it slowly grew into what is still a slender volume considering that all the important truths I have learned about golf are written in its pages.
Many asked to read the book. I wouldn't show it to Tommy Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, Betty Jameson, Sandra Palmer, or any of the others, no matter how much I loved them.
What made my Little Red Book special was not that what was written in it had never been said before. It was that what it says about playing golf has stood the test of time.
I see things written about the golf swing that I can't believe will work except by accident. But whether it is for beginners, medium players, experts, or children, anything I say in my book has been tried and tested with success.
One morning last spring I was sitting in my golf cart under the trees on the grass near the veranda at Austin Country Club. I was with my nurse, Penny, a patient young woman who drives us in my golf cart a few blocks from home to the club on days when I feel well enough for the journey.
I don't stay more than an hour or two on each visit, and I don't go more than three or four times a week because I don't want the members to think of me as a ghost that refuses to go away.
I don't want to cut into the teaching time of any of our fine club professionals, either. I can see Jackson Bradley out teaching on the practice line, and there are moments when I might want to make a suggestion, but I don't do it.
However, I can't refuse to help when my old friend Tommy Kite, the leading money winner in the history of the game, walks over to my golf cart and asks if I will watch him putt for a while. Tommy asks almost shyly, as if afraid I might not feel strong enough. His request makes my heart leap with joy.
I spend nights staring at the ceiling, thinking of what I have seen Tommy doing in tournaments on television, and praying that he will come see me. If Tommy wants, I will break my rule that I never visit the club on weekends, and will have Penny drive me to the putting green to meet with Tommy on Saturday and Sunday morning, as well as on Thursday and Friday. I know it exasperates Penny that I would rather watch Tommy putt than eat the lunch she has to force on me.
Or I may be sitting in my cart in the shade enjoying the spring breeze and the rolling greenery of our beautiful golf course, with the blue water of Lake Austin sparkling below, as good and peaceful a place as I know on this earth, and the young touring pro Cindy Figg-Currier may stop and say hello and eventually work up the nerve to ask if I will look at her putting stroke.
Certainly I will. I get as much pleasure out of helping a rising young pro like Cindy as I do a celebrated hero like Tommy.
Don Massengale of the Senior Tour had phoned me at home the night before for a long-distance putting lesson. I can't hear very well on the phone, and Helen had to interpret, shouting back and forth as I tried to straighten out Don's grip.
Earlier my old friend Ben Crenshaw, the Masters champion who had grown up with Tommy Kite in the group of boys that I taught at the old Austin Country Club across town, dropped by our home for a visit and brought his wife and daughter to see Helen and me. Ben is one of the greatest players of all time, a natural. When he was a boy I wouldn't let him practice too much for fear that he might find out how to do something wrong. Ben has his own course, designed by Ben and his partner, at the Barton Creek Country Club layout, a ten-minute drive away from us. It pleases me deeply when Ben drops by to sit on the couch or when he phones me from some tournament.
Ben hasn't been gone long before the doorbell rings and it's one of our members, Gil Kuykendall, who brings Air Force General Robin Olds into the living room and asks if I will give the general a lesson on the rug from my wheelchair. They are entered in a tournament, and the general has played golf only a few times. Can I teach him? In the living room? In half an hour?
General Olds is a jolly good fellow, thick through the chest. He was a football star at West Point. He has those big muscles that, as Bobby Jones said, can bend a bar but are no use in swinging a golf club.
I fit the general with a strong grip and teach him a very short swing. Just about waist high to waist high. This man is too muscle-bound to make a full swing, but he is strong enough to advance the ball decently with a short swing. He may not break 100 in the tournament, but he will make it around the golf course.
When the member and the general leave, Helen and Penny scold me. I am wearing myself out, they say. They remind me that before Ben dropped by, a girl who is hoping to make the University of Texas team had come to talk to me about her progress, and I had asked questions for an hour.
It's true that I have grown fired as the day became evening. But my mind is excited. My heart is thrilled. I have been teaching. Nothing has ever given me greater pleasure than teaching. I received as much joy from coaxing a first-time pupil, a woman from Paris, into hitting the ball into the air so that she could go back to France and play golf with her husband as I did from watching the development of all the fine players I have been lucky enough to know.
When one of my less talented pupils would, under my guidance, hit a first-class shot, I would say, "I hope that gives you as much pleasure as it does me." I would get goose pimples on my arms and a prickly feeling on my neck from the joy of being able to help.
Every time I found something about the swing or the stance or the mental approach that proved to be consistently successful, I wrote it down in my Little Red Book.
Occasionally I added impressions of champions I have known, from Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, and Sam Snead to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to Kite and Crenshaw, as well as Rawls, Whitworth, Jameson, Mickey Wright, Sandra Palmer, and many other distinguished players.
I prefer to teach with images, parables, and metaphors that plant in the mind the seeds of shotmaking. These, too, went into the notebook -- if they proved successful.
Many professional writers inquired during my long career as a teacher if they might write a book for me on how to play golf.
I always politely declined. For one thing, I never regarded myself as any kind of genius. I was a humble student and teacher of the game. What I was learning was not for the purpose of promoting myself in the public eye. I was never interested in money. What I was learning was to be shared only with my pupils, and ultimately the knowledge would belong to my son, Tinsley, and my daughter, Kathryn.
But on this soft spring morning that I mentioned earlier, with squirrels playing in the grass around the wheels of my cart, and a shiny black grackle prowling in the branches above me, I was sitting there wondering if I was being selfish.
Maybe it was wrong to hoard the knowledge I had accumulated. Maybe I had been granted these eighty-seven years of life and this wonderful career in order that I should pass on to everyone what I had learned. This gift had not been given me to keep secret.
A writer, Bud Shrake, who lives in the hills near the club, came to visit with me under the trees on this particular morning.
Penny gave Bud her seat in my cart. We chatted a few minutes about his brother, Bruce, who was one of my boys during the thirty-three years I was the golf coach at the University of Texas. Then it burst out of me.
"I want to show you something that nobody except Tinsley has ever read," I said.
I unlocked my briefcase and handed him my Little Red Book.
I asked if he might help me get it in shape to be published.
Bud went into the golf shop and brought Tinsley out to my cart.
I asked Tinsley if he thought we should share our book with a larger crowd than the two of us.
Tinsley had a big grin on his face.
"I've been waiting and hoping for you to say that," he said.
So that morning under the trees we opened my Little Red Book.
When I ask you to take an aspirin, please don't take the whole bottle.
In the golf swing a tiny change can make a huge difference. The natural inclination is to begin to overdo the tiny change that has brought success. So you exaggerate in an effort to improve even more, and soon you are lost and confused again.
Lessons are not to take the place of practice but to make practice worthwhile.
Looking up is the biggest alibi ever invented to explain a terrible shot.
By the time you look up, you've already made the mistake that caused the bad shot.
When I tell a student to keep his eye on the ball, it is usually to give him something to think about that won't do any harm.
I've known only three or four top players who say they actually see the ball when they hit it. Even Ben Hogan told me he loses sight of the ball "somewhere in my downswing."
I like to see your hands toward the inside of your left thigh on every shot except the driver.
With the driver, I like to see your hands at your zipper. If this moves them slightly behind the ball at address, that is fine. It encourages hitting on the upswing.
The Three Most Important Clubs
Herbert Warren Wind, the stylish and learned golf writer, came to see me at the club and asked what I think are the three most important clubs in the bag, in order.
I said, "The putter, the driver, and the wedge."
Herb said he'd asked Ben Hogan the same question. Ben had replied, "The driver, the putter, and the wedge."
My reasoning is that you hit the driver fourteen times in an ordinary round. But on the same day, you may have 23-25 putts that are outside the "gimme" range but within a makable distance.
A five-foot putt counts one stroke, the same as a 270-yard drive, but the putt may be much more significant to your score.
Psychologically, the driver is very important. If you hit your tee ball well, it fills you with confidence. On the other hand, if you smash a couple of drives into the trees, your confidence can be shaken.
But nothing is more important psychologically than knocking putts into the hole. Sinking putts makes your confidence soar, and it devastates your opponent.
A good putter is a match for anyone. A bad putter is a match for no one.
The woods are full of long drivers.
If you have a bad grip, you don't want a good swing.
With a bad grip you have to make unattractive adjustments in your swing to hit the ball squarely.
It's no good to make a beautiful Al Geiberger swing unless you grip the club like he does. If Al twisted his hands around into some kind of ugly grip and then made his graceful swing, he might knock the ball out of bounds.
I believe it is a nice idea to try to pattern your swing after that of a professional player who is close to your own height and body structure, but only if you also study and imitate that player's grip.
As a teacher I have learned that one of the most delicate matters to attend to is the student's grip.
If the student comes to me as a once-a-week player who has been playing for years without improving, all I have to do is put his hands on the club in a good grip -- and after the lesson I will never see him again. He will hit the ball so poorly that he will think I am the dumbest teacher in the country.
Changing a bad grip into a good grip requires a great amount of practice. Unless the student is willing and able to do this, I would indeed be a dumb teacher if I demanded a radical alteration from an ordinary player in one lesson.
But with a talented player who plays and practices often, it can be a different, almost miraculous story.
Kirby Attwell was trying to make my team at the University of Texas. He had a good swing but a weak grip that caused an open clubface. His shots lacked authority and mostly flew off to the right of the target, except when he would try so hard to square the clubface that he would hit a nasty hook.
After I knew the boy and his game well enough, I moved his left hand to the right. Then I moved his fight hand a bit more to the right, also.
Don't think that because you move your left hand you must automatically move the right to make it match. Often it's enough to move one hand and leave the other alone. But in this boy's case, he needed a stronger grip all around.
Kirby looked at his hands as I placed them on the club, and there was an expression of disbelief on his face.
"Harvey," he said, "if I hit the ball with this grip, I'll hook it over the fence."
I asked him to try.
He cracked a long, powerful shot that went as straight as a ball can go. He was astonished and delighted. Kirby became an excellent player at the University of Texas. But he had talent and the time and desire to take his new grip to the practice range and become confident with it before he took it to the golf course.
One grip does not fit all.
The interlocking grip, with the forefinger of the top hand laced between the little finger and the ring finger of the bottom hand, is for people who have short fingers. Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Kite use it.
The overlapping grip, with the little finger of the bottom hand wrapped into the hollow between the forefinger and middle finger of the top hand or on top of the left forefinger, is the most widely used among ordinary players as well as experts, though with many individual variations. Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Sam Snead, Al Geiberger, and Payne Stewart are just a few of the overlappers, and none of their grips are exactly alike.
The two-hand or ten-finger grip, with all the fingers on the handle -- sometimes called the baseball grip (although the baseball bat is held more in the palms, and a golf club more in the fingers) -- is especially good for women and older players who may lack strength, although some top professionals like Beth Daniel, Art Wall, and Bob Rosburg have done well with it. Little Alice Ritzman adopted the ten-finger grip as my student and gained enough distance to play on the tour and become one of the longer drivers.
In his famous book, Five Lessons, written with Herb Wind, Hogan says the tips of the thumb and forefinger of the bottom hand should never touch each other. Others teach that the thumb and forefinger should meld like a trigger. Bobby Jones used the overlapping grip with the tip of his right forefinger not touching the handle at all. But the back of the first joint of his forefinger pressed against the handle. Victor East of Spalding built special grips with flat places for the back of Jones's right forefinger, which would be illegal today.
I can go on and on talking about the grip until it gets too deep for me to understand.
The fact is, a top player can change his grip enough to cause a draw or a fade, a slice or a hook, and an observer can't even see the change. The top player feels it; and it happens.
I happen to have long fingers, and long fingers feel good on a club in the overlapping grip.
If you will pick up a yardstick and let your hands fit it, that will come closer to giving you a good grip than anything I could write about where to point your V's and all of that.
Just pick up a yardstick and fit your hands to it and swing it.
Then put the same grip on a golf club.
0 There is one thing I like to see in common with all three grips. I don't want the left thumb straight down the top of the handle. I want the thumb a little bit to the right. Byron Nelson told me the left thumb position is one of the most important things I teach. The reason is that at the top of the backswing, that thumb wants to be underneath the club. This gives you control.
Coaching at the University of Texas, I encountered a lot of west Texas boys. West Texas boys were well known for their strong grips, which they develop because they play in the wind so often. They can hit a 7-iron so far you can't believe it. Off the tee they get great distances with a 3-wood or 4-wood, but they can't hit a driver Their strong grips delofted the clubs so much that a driver face would be totally shut.
Billy Maxwell was the first west Texas boy I can remember who had what I would call a good grip, with his hands more on top of the club.
No matter which of the three grips you use, one fundamental is that the hands must be touching each other. They should be joined as one unit. They should feel like they are melted together.
The best thing to do is to find a grip that fits you and feels good and then stay with it.
If the ball is flying pretty well, your grip is all fight.
If you keep fooling with your grip, you will find yourself making a mistake on your backswing to correct for your new grip and then making another mistake on your downswing to correct the mistake you made on your backswing.
As for your grip pressure, keep it light.
Arnold Palmer likes to grip the club tightly, but you are not Arnold Palmer.
I think the main value of the waggle is that it turns on your juice and gets your adrenaline flowing.
The waggle is also a small practice swing and a way to ease tension, unless you get so involved in waggling you forget your purpose.
One of my club players took twenty-one waggles before he could swing the club. People in his foursome would look the other way when it was his turn to hit.
Ben Hogan has a solid piece of advice: Don't groove your waggle. Just get the feel and swing. Bobby Jones said if you saw him waggle more than twice, he probably hit a bad shot.
I don't like to see a player waggle up and down. To me it looks amateurish.
The great Horton Smith used no waggle at all.
Holding the Club
There is an artfulness to holding the club that goes beyond the craft of gripping it. I was teaching at a seminar in New York and, as usual, holding a club. Not that I thought I was Bob Hope, but I always found it much easier to talk to people, especially large groups, if I had a golf club in my hands.
I heard one of the pros say, "Look at Harvey. He holds that club like it's a fine musical instrument."
That's how a golf club feels to me: like a fine musical instrument.
At another seminar in Houston, Jackson Bradley, Jimmy Demaret, Jack Burke, Jr., and I were teaching, and I pointed out how beautifully Jackie Burke held the club. His hands looked perfectly natural.
"Let me add," Jackson Bradley said, "that Jackie's hands look perfect, but so do his clothes." Jackson showed us his own hands. "My fingers are a little crooked. My grip may be just as good as Jackie's, but my hands will never look as good on a club as his do."
Look at the club in the hands of Ben Crenshaw. His hands and fingers fit so gracefully, so naturally, that I am moved to regard his grip as a piece of art.
The same can be said for Mickey Wright and Dave Marr, among others.
Tommy Kite and Jack Nicklaus have a good grip on the club, but they will never look as artful because their fingers are short and they use the interlocking grip which is not as appealing to my eyes.
The Easiest Lesson
The easiest golf lesson I ever gave was to Don January.
Don had been a star player at North Texas State University and a winner on the Texas amateur circuit, a regular round of tournaments that drew so many championship-quality golfers that I could fill up a whole book with their names.
Now Don was wondering if he could make it on the professional tour. He came to see me and asked if I would take a look at his swing and tell him my honest opinion of his game and help correct any flaws.
I watched Don hit a few putts. We went to the practice range. I asked him to hit a half-dozen short irons for me. Then I asked him to hit a half-dozen middle irons, followed by several long irons.
I could tell he was waiting for me to say something.
Instead I asked him to hit a few drives.
When he had done so, he turned and said, "Well? What do I need?"
I said, "Don, you need to pack your clubs and go to California and join the tour."
End of lesson.
People are always asking me to look at the calluses on their palms, as if the location and thickness of the calluses will tell me whether their grip is correct.
I remember someone asking to see the calluses on Sam Snead's palms. Sam said, "I don't have any calluses." Sam said he holds the club as if it is a live bird in his hands, with just enough pressure that the bird can't fly away but not so tightly that the bird can't breathe. Grip the club this way and you won't have calluses, either.
Hold onto the club firmly but not tightly, with your elbows and shoulders slightly relaxed. This is especially important for women. It helps them to hit with more snap.
Where the calluses come from is a player putting his hands on the club and then twisting them into what looks like a good grip when in fact it is not a good grip.
Place your hands on the club correctly and leave them alone. There's no need to screw them around in a vain effort to make your V's point where you think they should point.
If you insist on moving your hands and fingers after taking your grip, you accomplish two things that you do not want: You camouflage a poor grip; and you get calluses.
The best age to start a child in golf is the time he or she becomes interested in the game.
I don't believe in parents forcing the game on kids who would rather be doing something else. But if a little child four or five years old is eager to go out and play with Dad or Mom, then it's time to start.
Don't be too exacting on the grip or anything else. Just let the kids use their natural ability. Hands together.
Be sure the club you give them has plenty of loft. Problems start when the child uses too little loft and tries to scoop the ball up into the air. The more the child tries to help the ball up, the less it'll get up.
Also be sure the club is light enough. A small child will learn a bad grip by trying to swing a club that is too heavy. My cousin, Dr. D. A. Penick, a professor of Greek who rode around town on a bicycle and was the tennis coach at the University of Texas for fifty years, discouraged toddlers from swinging a tennis racquet for that same reason.
When you take your youngster to see a teaching pro, say that you're going to get some "help." The word "lessons" sounds too much like going to school, which is not always fun. Golf should be fun. With a child I never say "teach" or "lessons."
Group instruction for kids is all right, but in some cases the teaching can be overcomplicated to the point where it interferes with the child's natural ability. Beware especially the group instructor who is a poor player and teaches the kids what he has just read in the latest how-to-hit-it book, which the instructor may not even understand.
If you see an instructor trying to teach a whole group of kids to imitate the stance and swing of Ben Hogan, for example, take your child out of that group. The way Hogan does it is special to Hogan. Your child is special in his or her own way.
A professional should look at the child's swing maybe once a month,just to steer the game on the right track. No more.
Practicing is an individual matter. When they were kids, Ben Crenshaw was always playing more than he practiced, and Tom Kite was always practicing at least as much as he played. Hogan was a practicer. Byron Nelson was a player and also a practicer.
Whatever the child wants to do -- play or practice -- that's what he or she should do.
Worst of all is when I see Dad, on the range or the course, constantly nagging the child to keep his head down, keep his left arm straight, stare at the ball -- bad information, all of it. This may be fun for Dad, but it is hurting the child's development.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to give your child plenty of free time to spend at a golf course, and the right amount of help from a professional teacher, your child will be beating you sooner than you may think.
Hole Them All
Two proud parents came to me at the club and announced that their young son had just scored his first birdie.
I agreed that was a wonderful event and asked them how long was the putt Junior made for the birdie
The parents said the putt was only two feet long, so they gave Junior a "gimme" to assure his first birdie.
"I've got bad news for you," I said. "Junior still hasn't made his first birdie."
Not only did Junior not sink the birdie putt, it was now planted in his mind that he could pick up his ball two feet from the hole and pronounce the putt as made, not having to face the moment of truth
When Junior reaches a higher level of play, where there are no "gimmes," he may develop an anxiety about short putts that will bother him the rest of his life.
My rule is that a youngster, no matter how small, should be required to hole every putt.
If Junior grows up knowing he has to make all the short ones, that will automatically become part of his game. When he plays on higher levels and faces a two-footer to win an important match, he'll be ready.
Learning Around the Cup
Golf should be learned starting at the cup and progressing back toward the tee.
I'm talking about with children. The same thing applies to adult beginners, but adults think that is too simple. An adult beginner -- especially a man -- thinks he's not getting his money's worth if you ask him to spend an hour sinking short putts. He wants to pull out his driver and smack it, which is the very last thing he will learn if he comes to me.
If a beginner tries to learn the game at the tee and move on toward the green, postponing the short game until last, this is one beginner who will be lucky ever to beat anybody.
What I like to see is a youngster learning the game on the practice green with one chipping club, a putter, and one golf ball.
A chipping stroke is just a short version of a full swing.
A child will learn a good chipping stroke and the unteachable qualities of touch and feel if the grown-ups will let it happen.
The best stroke in the world is not much good without touch or feel. An individual-looking stroke that the child has confidence in and a feel for how to use, and that puts the ball close to the hole, is the best stroke in the world for that child.
I will take a chipper and putter who has touch any time over someone who has a beautiful stroke but no sense of feel for where the ball is going to roll.
Many of the best putters and chippers in history learned in the caddie yard.
I like for a child to use one ball, chip it at the hole, and then go put it in. This is how the child learns to score.
For a child to chip a dozen or more balls at the same hole, one after the other, is a poor method. It gives too much room for mistakes. If a child can hit a bad chip and then just drag over another ball and hit it again, it does not teach the reality of playing golf, which is that you have to pay for your mistakes.
The best thing is for the child to play games with other children on and around the practice green. I like for them to play each other for something, whether it's matchsticks or a soda pop or an imaginary U.S. Open championship -- just as long as there is something at stake that makes the child concentrate on getting his or her ball into the cup in fewer strokes than the other kids. Some children are natural competitors at golf, some must learn to be, and some couldn't care less. Playing games sharpens or teaches competition. Those who don't care will drift into something else that they do care about.
I remember when Ben Crenshaw was six years old, two years before he took his first lesson from me, he and his daddy Charlie and the great tennis player Wilmer Allison, who succeeded my cousin as tennis coach at Texas, would go around and around and around the putting green, hour after hour. Ben was developing the touch and stroke that made him one of the finest putters in history. It wasn't long before he was winning quarters from the grown-ups.
Not everyone agrees with me on learning the game from the cup backward, of course.
Arnold Palmer's daddy taught him to hit the ball hard at a very young age. There was a shot at their golf course that called for a long carry over water. Young Arnold would stand there and bet the grown-ups coming through a dime or a quarter that he could hit it over the water -- and he could. At the same time, Arnold became a top putter.
That's the thing about golf. Outside of the USGA rule book, there are no indisputable ways the game must be learned or played.
But if your child will learn to play on and around the green first of all, I am convinced that in most cases progress will be more rapid and the skills will be longer-lasting.
Do You Need Help?
IF you play poorly one day, forget it.
If you play poorly the next time out, review your fundamentals of grip, stance, aim, and ball position. Most mistakes are made before the club is swung.
If you play poorly for a third time in a row, go see your professional.
Take Dead Aim
When my student Betsy Rawls was in a playoff for the U.S. Women's Open championship, I sent her a one-sentence telegram.
It said: "Take dead aim!"
Betsy won the playoff.
For golfers who might not understand Texas talk, let me put the advice in the telegram a different way: Once you address the golf ball, hitting it has got to be the most important thing in your life at that moment. Shut out all thoughts other than picking out a target and taking dead aim at it.
This is a good way to calm a case of nerves.
Everybody gets nervous on the first tee, whether it's Betsy Rawls in a playoff for the Open or a high handicapper teeing off at the club in a two-dollar Nassau with pals.
Instead of worrying about making a fool of yourself in front of a crowd of 4 or 40,000, forget about how your swing may look and concentrate instead on where you want the ball to go. Pretty is as pretty does.
I would approach my college players before a match and tell them the same thing: Take dead aim.
This is a wonderful thought to keep in mind all the way around the course, not just on the first tee. Take dead aim at a spot on the fairway or the green, refuse to allow any negative thought to enter your head, and swing away.
A high handicapper will be surprised at how often the mind will make the muscles hit the ball to the target, even with a far less than perfect swing.
The expert player won't be surprised. The expert expects to hit the target. The only surprise here is that the expert sometimes allows disorganized thinking to make him or her become distracted from the primary object of the shot, which is to hit the target.
I can't say it too many times. It's the most important advice in this book.
Take dead aim.
Make it a point to do it every time on every shot. Don't just do it from time to time, when you happen to remember.
Take dead aim.
One of my University of Texas golfers was playing in a tournament in North Carolina. He won his first match handily.
He phoned me and said, "The guy I play tomorrow I can beat easily. He has a bad grip and also a bad swing."
My boy lost the next match.
"The lesson to be learned," I told my golfer later, "is don't be afraid of the player with a good grip and a bad swing. Don't be afraid of a player with a bad grip and a good swing. The player to beware of is the one with the bad grip and the bad swing. If he's reached your level, he has grooved his faults and knows how to score."
How to Knock Five Strokes Off Your Game
The average golfer does not improve stroke by stroke.
Improvement comes in plateaus.
A player who shoots 95 does not through lessons and practice see his or her score drop slowly to 94, then 93, then 92, 91, 90. Nor does the 87-shooter come down gradually to 86, 85, 84.
Instead the 95 suddenly falls to 90. The 87 will seemingly overnight become an 81.
By the same token, a player who regularly shoots 80 can quickly fall into the middle 70s. Once you reach 75 or so, you are no longer an average golfer but are approaching the expert level, where improvement comes more slowly.
But even some 75-shooters can reach a mini-plateau and see their scores go down by three shots or so after a week of practice.
There can be many reasons why the 95 becomes a 90. Maybe the player learns to cure his slice. The 87 may become an 81 because the player learns to hit the ball twenty yards farther off the tee and now can reach more greens in regulation.
As a general rule, however, the 75-shooter can become a 72-shooter only if he improves his short game -- unless it was his short-game wizardry that made him shoot 75 in the first place.
The short game. Those are the magic words.
The higher your score, the faster you can lower it -- with the short game.
There's no mystery to it. Anybody who plays much golf knows that about half of his shots are struck within sixty yards of the flagstick.
And yet when I see an average golfer practicing, where is he? Most likely he is on the range, banging away with his driver.
If I ask an average golfer what percentage of his practice time he spends on his short game in comparison to hitting the longer shots, he'll probably tell me he gives the short game 10 or 20 percent. This is usually a fib. The average golfer will devote fifteen minutes to stroking a few putts if he has time before he heads for the first tee, and that's about it for the short-game practice.
Well, if you want to see a radical improvement in your game and cut off five strokes in a week or two, you must make a radical change in the way you practice.
For two weeks devote 90 percent of your practice time to chipping and putting, and only 10 percent to the full swing.
If you do this, your 95 will turn into 90. I guarantee it.
I can see the average player nodding his head and saying yeah, yeah. I know that's what I ought to do.
But I don't see him doing it.
Instead I see him on the range, swinging from the heels, hitting forty drives in a row for the thrill of those four or five that might be well struck.
I would never let my college players or the touring pros who come to me for help hit forty driver shots in a row. This causes fatigue and very bad habits.
My college players and touring pros, being experts, understand the immense importance of the short game. Tom Kite, for example, puts in many hours on his full swing, but he practices his wedges and his chipping and putting even more because he knows that's what causes good scores, and without good scores he wouldn't be the all-time leading money winner in golf.
So if you want to knock five shots off your game in a hurry, leave your long clubs in your bag and head for the green.
Bobby Jones said the secret of shooting low scores is the ability to turn three shots into two.
It reminds me of a college match I saw. I had a good player named Billy Munn, who was matched against R. H. Sikes of Arkansas at the old Austin Country Club.
Billy hit every fairway and seventeen greens and shot 67. Sikes hit few fairways and maybe five greens. But Sikes shot 66 and beat Billy 1-up.
After the match I found Billy and said, "I'm very proud of you. You played a wonderful round of golf. But, Billy, don't ever think what you saw out there today was luck."
Sikes had a great short game, as he went on to prove on the professional tour.
You may never develop a short game to equal Sikes's, but if you practice hard on chipping and putting you can bring your score down fast. It's all up to you.
Emerson said, "Thinking is the hardest work in the world. That's why so few of us do it."
Too many golfers think chipping and putting is hard work. That's why so few of them do it.
One of my favorite students, Sandra Palmer, a very successful player on the LPGA Tour, phoned me one night from the site of the U.S. Women's Open.
Sandra was worried about the speed of the greens. She said they were the slickest, fastest greens she had ever seen. The tournament started the next morning, and Sandra was getting the jitters wondering if she could putt greens like this. Should she try to change her stroke?
I knew Sandra was a fine putter and what she needed was reassurance.
"Well, Sandra," I said, "if the greens are that fast, you probably should hit your putts a little easier."
That's all it took.
Students are always asking if they should switch to heavier putters when they go play at a club with faster greens. It's probably true that if you went through the members' bags at Oakmont -- famous for its fast greens -- you would find heavy putters in most of them. But you should stick with your favorite putter when you go to a course with faster (or slower) greens. It's easier to get the feel or different greens than for a different putter.
The Practice Swing
How many times have you seen an average golfer take two or three beautiful practice swings and then step up to the ball and make a swing that is totally different and causes an ugly shot?
It happens over and over.
As a caddie, a pro, a teacher, and starter at the first tee over the past seventy-five years, I have probably seen more golf swings than any person alive. The practice swing and real swing I just described, I must have seen a million times.
And what does the average golfer say? "If I could just hit the ball with my practice swing, I'd be a terrific player."
The reason he doesn't hit the ball with his practice swing is simple: With his practice swing he doesn't have to square his clubface on impact. He allows himself to swing freely. When there's a golf ball in front of him, he knows -- at least subconsciously -- that he must square that clubface, and tension sets in, causing all sorts of faults.
Now let me ask another question: How many times have you seen a player make two or three beautiful practice swings that don't touch anything but air?
These swings are useful for loosening up, but they are no good when it comes to hitting the ball.
From now on when you take a practice swing, make it a point to aim at something. Cut off a dandelion or a blade of grass, or if you are in your living room aim at a spot on the rug (but please don't take a divot and tell your wife Harvey made you do it).
Aiming at something with your practice swing will help you learn to square the clubface. Never take another practice swing without aiming it at something.
One more thing about practice swings.
Taking two or three practice swings before every shot when you are on the course playing golf takes up too much time. In these days of the four- or five-hour round, we need to speed up the game, not slow it down
At many courses in Scotland and England there is a sign on the first tee that says, "A round of golf requires no more than 3 hours, 15 minutes. If you are on the course longer than this, a marshal will come escort you off."
You don't see those Scots loitering in the fairway to take practice swings.
The Average Golfer
I use the term "average golfer" a lot, but sometimes I wonder, what is an average golfer?
I read somewhere that statistics show the average male golfer shoots about 92.
I don't believe it. Not if he counts every stroke and plays by USGA rules. Playing our Pete Dye course from the men's tees and holing every shot, the average golfer won't break 100.
A party of four Japanese gentlemen once showed up as special guests to play our course, which they had heard about in Tokyo.
I asked how well they played so I would know which of our four sets of tees -- women's, seniors', men's, or championship -- I would suggest.
They said they were average players and would use the championship tees because they wanted to see the whole course.
Well, I knew they wouldn't see the whole course from the back tees, because they couldn't hit the ball over our canyons from back there. But they were guests.
It took them twenty minutes and three lost balls to get past our first hole, which is relatively easy -- a sharp dogleg left uphill over a ravine. About six hours later, I realized our Japanese gentlemen were still on the course, and I went to find them.
They were on the fourteenth hole. One was off in the trees, another was down in a canyon, the third was searching in the deep rough on a hillside, and the fourth greeted me with a smile.
"Very good course," he said.
"How are you doing?" I asked.
"Very good," he said.
Dick Metz said a club pro is half-mule and half-slave. Instead of escorting them off the course, I politely urged them to try to finish before dark, and then I went back to the clubhouse.
Later I heard them figuring up their scores. Every one of them shot in the low 90s.
The fact is, by USGA rules not a one of them broke 100 -- on the first nine.
But of course they weren't really average golfers, either.
How to Tell Where You're Aimed
Take your stance and hold a clubshaft along the front of your thighs. Look where the club is pointing, and you will see where you are aimed.
Laying a club on the ground at your feet will tell you very little.
Much is made of how to aim.
Hit the ball solidly, and I can show you where you were aimed. Once you learn this, your mind will tell you how to aim.
One of the many wonderful things about golf is that it is a game you can play for the rest of your life.
In fact, Seasoned Citizens -- a term I much prefer to "Senior" -- may get even more enjoyment out of the game than they did when they were young, because the deeper you get into golf, the more you learn to value the freedom, the companionship, the joy of being outdoors in beautiful surroundings, and the profound mysteries of the game itself.
Like chess, golf is a game that is forever challenging but can never be conquered.
As a golfer grows older and becomes a Seasoned Citizen, age does take its toll on the eyesight, the muscles, the flexibility, and all too often on the waistline.
But there are many ways a Seasoned Citizen can continue to score as well as when young, or perhaps score better due to the wisdom of age and the new equipment that is available.
First and foremost, a Seasoned Citizen must make every effort to maintain good physical condition.
If you can walk the golf course, do it. Get out of that golf cart. If your companions in your regular foursome insist on riding, it's all right to go along with them, but you should hop out of the cart and walk at every opportunity.
Carry two or three clubs in hand that you know you may need, and don't be afraid of slowing your companions down. The truth is that a briskly walking foursome will usually go around the course faster than a foursome in golf carts.
Golfers in carts are always driving here and there from one ball to the other, taking up a lot of time. If a rule is in effect that the cart is not allowed to leave the path, golfers are inclined to dawdle over club selection and make unnecessary trips back and forth from the ball to the bag.
Carts are very valuable tools for Seasoned Citizens who can't physically go around the course without them. One of our members is hooked up to an oxygen tank, but the golf cart allows him to continue to enjoy playing the game.
I've noticed that walkers tend to band together. If you walk and either carry a lightweight bag or pull your clubs on a trolley, you'll soon find a regular game with likeminded players.
Walking keeps a Seasoned Citizen's legs strong, and strong legs make for a more powerful swing.
I will stress here -- and this is vital -- that a Seasoned Citizen must let the left heel come off the ground in the backswing.
Let the left heel come up and the left arm bend for a longer, freer swing.
Some modern teachers demand that their students keep the left heel on the ground. I don't agree with that teaching for players of any age, but especially not for a Seasoned Citizen.
One of the most important factors in an older golfer's swing is the body turn. The older one gets, the harder it is to turn. Keeping the left heel down makes it all the harder. Don't raise the heel, just let it come up as it will want to do.
A straight left arm inhibits the turn. If a Seasoned Citizen has become heavy in the chest and stomach, there should be no effort made to keep a straight left arm at the top of the backswing. A player should try to swing longer, not shorter, as the years go by.
Another block to the swing is keeping the head down too long. I doubt I tell one student a month to keep his head down, and I almost never say it to an older player. Keeping the head down prevents a good follow-through because the golfer can't swing past hip-high with the head still down and not give up something good in the finish to do it.
Other than strong legs and plenty of stretching exercises, the first consideration for the older golfer is selecting the proper clubs.
You don't want to fiddle too much with a swing that has been useful to you for decades, but now is the time to add a 5- or 6-wood and especially a 7-wood to your bag. Seasoned Citizens get their loft from their clubs, not from their swing. Adding loft is a reliable substitute for youth and strength.
The older golfer must play with softer shafts. If you used "S" shafts when you were younger, switch to the "R" shafts. If you had been using "R" shafts, you may need to change to "A" shafts. You are not hitting as hard as when you were young, and you can't get the most out of the stiffer shafts.
Men should use D-0 or lower swingweights. Women should use no more than C-6 or C-8.
Many Seasoned Citizens have problems with arthritis in their hands. Built-up grips are available to help you hold the club. Composition grips are best for arthritic golfers because they give a bit. Leather is not resilient enough.
I don't like to see the Seasoned player change to longer shafts in an effort to get more distance. A longer club causes a big change in the swing plane, from upright to flat. Flat swings require more turn, which is difficult for an older player.
If you can hit the ball solidly, you can get enough distance.
The Seasoned Citizen may want to try the ten-finger grip, which allows the hands to move faster.
One disadvantage older players may have is that they learned the game before the tremendous improvement in golf course maintenance, when it was necessary to hit down on the ball because the grass was sparse. Today's heavy, well-watered fairways make hitting down on the ball an out-of-date technique.
Many older golfers learned to play the ball far back in their stance for an iron shot. Modern fairways have done away with the need for that technique, also. Years ago we would play the ball off the right foot so we could hit down on it on the bare lies. Today the iron shots should be played no farther back than center.
A Seasoned Citizen should at regular intervals visit a professional who understands the problems of older golfers. You don't want a teacher who tries to rebuild a golf swing that you have been using for decades. You want a teacher who will help you get the best out of the swing you already have.
Perhaps most important of all, a Seasoned Citizen should devote at least 75 percent of practice time to the short game.
I harp on the significance of the short game to golfers of all ages. But this is an area where an older player who may have never broken 90 can expect to cut strokes. A retired person has the time to practice the short game. Short shots don't require strength or flexibility.
Don't plead that you are so old and your nerves so frayed that you can't putt. Every golf course has a few old geezers who can chip and putt the eyes out of the cup.
Certainly the older golfer can't hit the ball as far as the young, flat-bellied player. But once you reach the fringe of the green, you and the younger player become no worse than equals. And you can even have the advantage if you are faithful in practicing your short game.
Just as I suggest for children, the Seasoned Citizen will get the most out of chipping and putting practice by using just one golf ball to practice with instead of a whole basketful at a time.
Pitch or chip that one ball to the cup, and then go putt it until you make it, just as you would have to do if you were on the course playing a match. This sharpens your focus and improves your touch.
You have plenty of time. Make a game out of practice. You may be a Seasoned Citizen, but you know you're still a child at heart.
The Left Heel
The left heel is the subject of distinctly different schools of teaching.
Many modern teachers want their students to keep their left heel on the ground throughout the swing.
The old-school teachers like Percy Boomer and the great Scottish pros want the left heel to come up in the backswing and return to the ground at the start of the downswing.
I am of the old school, not because it produces a more classic swing -- which it does -- but because letting the left heel come up is the best way to get the job done.
The important thing is that you do not consciously lift the left heel. You keep the left heel on the ground, but you let it naturally come up as you make your back turn.
I think the reason Jack Nicklaus has such good control at the top is that he lets that left heel come up, releasing a full turn. He doesn't have to complete his backswing by letting loose of the club.
Ben Hogan never worried about his left heel. It either came up or it didn't, depending on the swing he was making.
Shelley Mayfield made the left-heel-on-the-ground swing popular in the middle '50s when he was a winner on the tour. Shelley, who became the head pro at Brook Hollow in Dallas, told me he didn't keep his left heel on the ground on purpose. It was just his natural, individual style.
Often when people imitate the swing of a top player, they will pick out a peculiarity to copy. The so-called flying elbow of Nicklaus or the open stance of Lee Trevino will be what they imitate.
Shelley told me he wished his left heel had let itself come up in his backswing, but it just wouldn't do it.
In my opinion, keeping the left heel flat on the ground throughout the swing will shorten the player's period of Success.
An average golfer was pestering Tommy Armour to teach him how to put backspin on his iron shots.
The obvious answer is that if you hit the ball solidly, the loft on the club will put backspin on it. But this was too simple. The average golfer was sure Tommy must know some secret that made a good middle-iron shot land on the green and dance backward.
Finally Tommy said, "Let me ask you something. When you hit an approach shot from 140 yards or so, are you usually past the pin, or are you usually short of it?"
"I'm nearly always short of the pin," the average golfer replied.
"Then what do you need with backspin?" Tommy said.
Every golfer, from the young adult through Seasoned Citizens, should own a heavy practice club that weighs at least twenty-two ounces.
It hardly need be said that a heavy club is no good for children.
Swinging a weighted club, with your regular grip and stance, is the best exercise I know to build the golf muscles. Squeezing a tennis ball and similar exercises might be all right, but I'd be afraid the wrong muscles might get developed.
In golf you don't need muscles that lift weights. You want muscles that can pop a whip -- or play golf.
Swing the weighted club the night before a round, not in the morning before you tee off. Save your strength for the golf course.
Don't swing it so hard you'll hurt yourself. If it is inconvenient to go outside, swing the weighted club indoors -- in slow motion.
A slow-motion swing develops the golf muscles, implants the correct club positions in your golfing brain -- and doesn't smash the chandelier.
Every time you swing that weighted club, slow or moderately fast, aim the clubhead at a fixed spot. Learn a good habit while you are building golf muscles.
The Wrist Cock
I prefer a swing with a full, early wrist cock, but I don't like to use the words "wrist cock" because so many students become so entranced with getting their wrists cocked that they forget the rest of the swing.
One way to mess up students is to tell them to cock their wrists.
Women, especially, try to cock their wrists at the top of their backswing -- and thus they overswing and lose snap.
When you swing back to waist high -- the shaft parallel to the ground -- the toe of the club must be pointed straight up to the sky.
If it is, your wrists will be cocked and you don't need to think about it. Go ahead and make your turn.
To get a clear picture in mind of how the wrists cock, double your left hand into a fist. This is an automatic wrist cock.
Make a golf swing with your left fist and you can immediately see what position the club is in when your wrists cock, then uncock, and cock again at the finish.
Look at your fist in a full-length mirror. The "wrist cock" will cease to be a source of confusion.
Hit a Full Approach
The average golfer seldom hits a middle-iron approach shot past the pin.
Some teachers recommend that the average golfer use one club stronger for his approach.
In other words, some say if you are 140 yards out and think the shot calls for a 7-iron, choose a 6-iron instead and hit it easier.
I don't care for this idea. I would much rather you take the 7-iron and hit it harder, with the thought in mind that you are going to get the ball all the way to the hole.
When you take a stronger club and try to hit it easy, your muscles will involuntarily tell you that you are using the wrong club, and you are likely to flinch and pull up on the shot.
If you want to hit the stronger club anyway, grip down an inch on the handle -- and go ahead and hit it hard.
I like to see a golfer hit the bail hard if he doesn't swing so fiercely he loses his tempo and balance.
When Jimmy Thompson was the longest hitter on the tour, he enjoyed visiting me for guidance because he knew I was one teacher who would never tell him not to hit it so hard.
But always play within yourself.
The main reason so many approach shots come up short is that four out of five are hit off-center.
Practice your bunker game to become more aggressive with it. You don't have to look at it as being in anticipation of your misses.
If you practice it and learn a few fundamentals, playing a ball out of a greenside bunker is not a difficult shot, even for the average golfer.
First, grip your sand wedge high on the handle as you would for a normal iron shot. This encourages you to take a full swing all the way to a high follow-through without quitting on the shot when the club strikes the sand.
Grip it tightly with the little finger and ring finger of your left hand so the club won't roll over and close in the sand.
Play the ball with the shaft pointing at your zipper and your hands slightly ahead. Take a square stance and open your clubface so that it points right of the target.
Then open your stance by moving your left foot back and taking your hips and shoulders with it, so that now your body is aimed left of the target but the clubface has come around to aim straight at it.
Shift a little more weight onto the left foot than on the right.
Now make a basically normal swing along the line established by your shoulders and body. Hit three or four inches behind the ball and clip the sand out from beneath it. The ball will come out and land on the green in a spray of sand.
Practice this shot for a few hours and you will see what I mean about becoming aggressive with it.
You won't need to worry again about merely escaping from the bunker somehow. You will be shooting at the pin.
The longer the shot, the less you hit behind the ball. The shorter the shot, the more sand you must take.
You hear it all the time on the range and on the course-relax, relax, relax.
I have even heard a golfer attempt to help a companion by saying, "Try real hard to relax."
If you try real hard to relax, you will become either very tense or else so limp you might fall over on the grass and go to drowsing.
Neither of those states is conducive to hitting a golf shot.
You do want to keep tension from creeping into your muscles, of course, and from allowing fear in your heart.
But I prefer to put it this way:
Be at ease.
If you feel at ease, you are relaxed -- but ready.
The secret is the feeling of "controlled violence," as Jackie Burke, Jr., says.
When I am teaching, I never say never and I don't say don't, if I can help it.
I use the words "never" and "don't" in this book rather often, but that is because the reader has the leisure to reflect upon the point I am trying to get across.
But I would never say never and I don't say don't to a student on the range with club in hand and a need to learn while under the stress of being watched and mentally graded.
I try to put everything in positive, constructive terms. I go into this subject more deeply in my remarks on teaching, but the point I am trying to get across to the reader here is that when you are hitting a golf shot, a negative thought is pure poison.
I could have called this discussion "No Negative Thoughts" -- but even that can be construed as a negative thought in the mind of a golfer.
Jack Burke, Sr., said it this way: "Give yourself the benefit of the doubt."
But even that statement has the dangerous word "doubt" in it.
I want you to believe with all your heart that the shot you are about to hit will be a good one. I want you to have total confidence.
This may sound ridiculous to the player who doesn't break 100. The difference is between confidence and optimism. Confidence is when you have hit this particular shot many times in the past with success, and you know you are capable of doing it again. Any 85-shooter has hit every shot in the bag with success many times. The ability is there. Optimism would be if you had never hit this shot successfully in your life, and are hoping this will be the first time.
The 100-shooter can be helped enormously by positive thinking, but he or she needs some groundwork of teaching upon which to base these positive thoughts before they can be distinguished as the feeling of confidence.
Indecision is a killer.
For example, when you pull that 5-iron out of the bag and register the target in your mind and address the ball, you must totally believe this is the right club for the shot. Put your best swing on it.
If it turns out the 5-iron was a club too much or too little but you hit it solidly, you won't be more than ten yards off.
However, if you can't make up your mind whether the shot calls for a 4-, a 5-, or a 6-iron, and you choose the 5 as a compromise, and then are still unsure when you take your stance, you might as well go sit down.
Many conflicting voices are chattering inside the mind of the average golfer. He or she is thinking of the latest swing "tips" heard on the veranda, and wondering if the club is going back too much inside and which "swing thought" might work at the moment, and probably worrying if the teenager remembered to put gas in the auto.
The golfer must learn to turn off all these voices.
A golf swing happens right now, not in the past or in the future.
Think positively and as my big brother Tom, the pro at Austin Muny for thirty years, used to say, "Rare back and hit it."
A sportswriter was in town to interview Tom Kite at Austin Country Club. Sandra Palmer and I were standing around, sort of listening to the interview. The sportswriter turned to me and said, "Harvey, I understand you are practically a psychiatrist when it comes to golf."
"I don't know about that," I said. "I'm just a grown caddie still studying golf."
"You used psychology on me this morning," Tommy said.
"When was that?" I asked.
"When I asked you to help me with my putting," Tommy said. "You asked me if I had changed anything since the last time you saw me. I said, yes, I had started choking down on my putter."
"Tommy, don't use that word," I said. "you should never use the word 'choke' in connection with your golf game. Don't think of choking down on your putter -- think of gripping down on it."
"That's what you told me this morning," he said. "That's psychology, isn't it?"
It always made me uncomfortable when Jimmy Demaret talked about his "choke stroke."
What Jimmy meant was he had in his repertoire a simple, reliable type of swing that he could call upon when he was under intense pressure. This swing wouldn't do anything fancy and wouldn't hit the ball as far as normal, but it was a repeating swing that would put his ball somewhere in the fairway or on the green
He should have called it a "no choke stroke."
But I wouldn't have liked that either, because it still had the word "choke" in it, and also the word "no."
The golfing area of the brain is a fragile thing that is terribly susceptible to suggestion. Golfers are gullible.
I tell my players to go to dinner with good putters.
We have all played with people who would try to talk you into losing. They'll stand on the tee with an innocent expression and say, "Gee, look how fight that boundary marker is on the left. I sure hope I don't hit it over there." Or they might say, "That's an interesting change you've made in your backswing, Harvey." Maybe the best one I ever heard was when someone asked,
The Wisdom of Harvey Penick
Harvey Penick's life in golf began when he started caddying at the Austin Country Club in Texas at the youthful age of eight. Over the next eighty-plus years, he enlightened the members of that club with insights into golf and life. In 1992, at the age of eighty-seven, he offered the world that same wisdom in a timeless collection of pieces entitled Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. He followed that with three more books, all bestsellers, and all filled with thoughts, stories, and golf advice that had stood the test of time. Now, Bud Shrake, Harvey's friend and collaborator, gathers together the very best pointers, portraits, and parables from all four of Harvey's previous works. Filled with nuggets of wisdom from Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, And If You Play Golf, You're My Friend, For All Who Love the Game, and The Game for a Lifetime and enhanced with dozens of personal photographs and keepsakes from the Penick family scrapbooks, The Wisdom of Harvey Penick is a lasting treasure from the most beloved teacher in all of golf.