People get paid good money to make stuff like this up.
Two weeks before the Masters, the greatest putter in history visits his teacher on his deathbed. The mentor insists on one final lesson. A week later, the mentor dies. The day before the tournament begins, the pupil serves as a pallbearer, then rushes back to play. Emotions swinging from highs to lows, he somehow gets through four rounds without three-putting a single green.
Better yet, he wins.
If Ben Crenshaw hadn’t been captured on camera, hadn’t frozen doubled over the cup at Augusta National’s 18th on Sunday with head in his hands, victory in his grasp and more than a little ache in his heart, who would have believed the story was true?
“I had a 15th club in the bag today and that was Harvey - Harvey Penick,” Crenshaw said.
“I don’t know how I got through the week,” he added. “I really don’t.”
This could have been maudlin. And if Crenshaw weren’t the bestliked player on tour and Penick hadn’t roused such genuine loyalty in people, it might have been.
But then, the story really wasn’t intended for general consumption. Penick and the small cadre of players he inspired from his base in Austin, Texas, might have remained their little secret if the mentor hadn’t got sick.
To cover the cost of his medical care, with friends pushing and a publisher pulling, he finally finished “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book.” It became the best-selling sports book of all time.
It was easy to see why. What Penick taught them about was not just golf, but a little about life, too. The lessons weren’t so much about things like swing plane, pronation of the wrists, connectedness or most of the other mumbo jumbo that passes for teaching. They were about things like enjoyment, comfort, composure, grace and above all, common sense.
The very things Crenshaw needed desperately coming down the stretch, when a second green jacket hung tantalizingly before him and it was the most he could do to remember to put one foot in front of the other.
“Things so simple,” he recalled now, “that sometimes they would go right by you.”
This could have been maudlin.
For much of Sunday, the interview room at Augusta was practically a shrine. To Penick.
“We all loved Harvey - he didn’t think about how to make money,” recalled Davis Love III, another Penick devotee who finished as the runner-up.
“It figures it would take Harvey until he was 80 years old to make it big. His whole thing was teaching people to play better so they’d enjoy it more.”
In a sense, Penick never stopped teaching. The last time Crenshaw went to see him at home, the mentor demanded he find a putter and show him several make-believe strokes.
At first Crenshaw balked. It wasn’t that he didn’t need the help, because his career was in another one of its lulls. It’s just that he couldn’t believe Penick, grown so frail, was up to the task. Finally, the pupil relented.
“He said, ‘Now I want you to take two good practice strokes and then trust yourself. Don’t let that club get past your hands in the stroke,”’ Crenshaw recalled.
To say his putting stroke was flawless Sunday would be imprecise. For 17 holes, it was flawless. Every time Crenshaw heard a roar echoing from somewhere amid the pines on the back nine, he found a way to get the ball in the hole quickly enough to stay one stroke clear of the field.
The best putt of the lot came at 17. It was a 12-footer for birdie and a two-shot cushion. “Prettiest putt I ever seen,” said Crenshaw.
Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not. He’s seen a lifetime of pretty putts. But none, certainly, came at a bigger moment.
“It was like someone put their hand on my shoulder this week and sort of guided me through,” Crenshaw said. “So, yes, I do believe in fate. I don’t know if I can describe it … but that’s usually what happens around here.”