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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 thatwhat 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.
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 col