Well, how are all you English-based golfers feeling? Excited? Twitchy? Antsy? Panicky? Ready to retire the sticks and continue with whatever it is we’ve all been doing while golf has been off limits? Champing at the bit to be out there swinging and hitting balls? I suspect the jigsaw season is coming to an end, what with the clocks changing this weekend and the days getting longer, so an outdoor pursuit should be just what we need. There’ll be no scrum on our 1st tee at Whittington Heath because we now have a booking system – fastest finger first is the key – but it’ll be novel to root out the clubs, clean the shoes, shave the legs and remember how to drive to the course, let alone drive off a tee.
Lots of people have been taking their daily exercise on the course, walking the holes without stress, not having to worry about where that pesky little white (or yellow or orange) ball is going to go or has gone. I’ve just done it a couple of times and it’s a delight, the course looking a picture in the spring sunshine and no need to check for wayward shots as you tootle on your merry way. Perhaps it’s true that a course is wasted on the golfers…
Do you ever have those moments when you get lucky, so lucky that you can’t stop smiling; so lucky that you really can’t quite believe your luck? Keeping half an eye on the early stages of the WGC-Dell Match Play at Austin Country Club, I thought it was a good time for a Harvey Penick story – the legendary teacher was head professional there for 50 years and his pupils ranged from beginners to major champions like Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, to name just a few. One of my favourite Harvey stories features an incisive comment from his wife Helen and I thought I’d better check and get it right. I picked up my Penick books, opened one of them, The Best of Harvey Penick – and what was the first thing I saw? Exactly the tale I wanted to tell! What a rarity!
Over to Harvey (and Bud Shrake, the writer and golf tragic who worked with Harvey on his books): In our hotel room I was nervously going over my notes for the lecture I was to present in a few hours to a large audience of my peers at a PGA convention.
I was starting to feel a little impressed with myself. Here I was, a humble growing caddie, about to give a speech on how to teach golf to a room crowded with the best golf teachers in the world.
“Just consider it, Helen,” I said. “Of all the great teachers, they have chosen me to make this talk. How many great teachers do you suppose will be there”
My lovely wife looked up from the book she was reading.
“I don’t know how many great teachers will be there, Harvey,” she said. “But it’s probably one less than you think.”
The anecdote was called “Instant Humility”.
As a young man Harvey fancied himself as a bit of a player but he was lucky enough to be paired with Sam Snead early in his career and that’s when he decided to concentrate on teaching. It was a decision he – and countless pupils – never regretted. “Nothing has ever given me greater pleasure than teaching,” he wrote. “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.”
Tom Kite, who won the US Open in 1992 at a fiendishly windy Pebble Beach, was in no doubt about Penick’s qualities: “Harvey’s students always improve and at the same time Harvey improves as a teacher……he says he learns something new about golf every day…..Harvey allows the swing to fit the student – his or her personality…..
“I have never seen him give a group lesson. To the contrary, he would shoo away any sideline watchers for fear they would overhear something that didn’t apply to their games. I have never been allowed to watch Ben take a lesson from Harvey, nor has he been allowed to watch me. Harvey is so careful in choosing what he says that I have often seen him fail to respond to a question until the next day for fear that his answer would be misconstrued. And I can assure you that every answer he finally did come up with was always, always expressed in a positive way. Never would Harvey say ‘don’t do that’ but ‘could we try a little of this’.”
That’s why he was asked to give talks to his fellow teaching professionals.
And if you come across a coach or a teacher who is unremittingly critical and negative, excuse yourself politely and go and work with someone else.
Or just read Harvey. His writings are a distillation of years of work, observation, learning and loving the game:-
“What a beautiful place a golf course is. From the meanest country pasture to the Pebble Beaches and St Andrews of the world, a golf course is to me a holy ground. I feel God in the trees and grass and flowers, in the rabbits and birds and the squirrels, in the sky and the water. I feel that I am home.”
Finally, spot the Lichfield Cathedral spires from Beacon Park as the tree surgeon gets to work. Not a job for the faint-hearted.