By Joey Hornaday
The recent passing of Robin Williams truly was sad. Not just from the loss of an outstanding comedian, but, as we just found out, maybe even a better person.
There have been many great comedians, but think back. How many truly “great” people come to mind. Not very many. After much soul-searching, the main one that pops up here is Harvey Penick. Like Williams, he was better known for something else.
Few of us knew him in his prime. He was well in his 50s when a bunch of Baby Boomers fell in love with golf at the Austin Country Club. He was the main reason why, and playing a part in that was the way he came across.
He was always the same – happy to see you. There was never a situation he couldn’t overcome with a smile on his face. If there was a negative ounce in his body, it never came to the surface. The club president was just important to him as the part-time bag boy. He charged Kathy Whitworth and Sandra Palmer the same $5 that he charged Joe Blow
His popularity was so high he could have hung out with the members but he chose not to. He always ate lunch at a table by himself in the 19th hole and he was never seen playing a round of golf there. If he ever hit balls on the practice range, it would have been Monday when the club was closed.
Well, that’s not quite true. If he hadn’t been such a high-quality teacher, he could have made the circuit as a trick-shot artist. Best remembered was his “Call Shot”. He would ask a bystander to call out “hook” or “slice” when he reached the top of his backswing. Sure enough, it curved the right way every time. Not sure this one really happened, but memory says it did – he could hit two balls at once, with one hooking and the other slicing.
One of the first lessons here was short and sweet. First, he would check your grip and stance. Then he would watch you hit a few balls. I was ready to hear how he would solve the slice: keep the right elbow in, don’t sway into the ball, shift your weight, etc. “Just concentrate on hitting it on the toe of the club,” he said gently. No, that can’t be it! That’s too simple. It must be something much more complicated and complex. But after the a few straight balls, he was right.
He then would promptly leave for his office, where he would pull out some papers from his desk and write stuff down. We always joked about how we were supplying him with material for a book. Sure enough, we were.
Probably his foundation of golf instruction was based on optimism. The word “don’t” did not exist to him. It was always “do”. It was never, “don’t take the club back so far.” It was always, “take it back just halfway.” He knew negative words led to negative thoughts, which would lead to negative shots. He counseled “Always Eat Dinner with Good Putters” because he knew good putters were optimistic people or they wouldn’t be good putters. Hang out with them and it will rub off on you.
An experience over 50 years ago about his thought process comes to mind. After a horrible round one day, the head was down and the body slumped as it passed by the golf shop. Mr. Penick caught sight and rushed out.
How did you play today?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Really bad,” came the response with a big frown.
“Well, did you hit just one good shot?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Then that’s what you should be thinking about,” he said and walked back into the shop.
That one statement has stayed with me over time on and off the course, and shaped the way I try to perceive life. I owe it all to him.