Part I: The Yard
In the dining room named for him at Austin Country Club, among the artifacts on the latte walls and the awards and the letters from U.S. presidents (two) and winners of major championships (many more), there is no evidence that Harvey Penick ever had a childhood. The pictures are all of a man. The man is on a golf course, holding a golf club, wearing golf clothes, talking to a golfer, or, in the case of a portrait that hangs between two glass cases of mementos, pondering a life in golf. On a piece of old paper, the handwriting of a man notes the principles of a proper golf grip and the essence of ball position. The earliest picture of Harvey appears to have been made when he was in his late teens. He already was a full-time head golf professional.
Over there is a framed letter from Bobby Jones, typed on January 6, 1960. On the far wall, a blue-ink note from Kathy Whitworth was signed in 1997 with a salutation of love. Pictures of Patty Berg and Betty Hicks and Mickey Wright, each of them addressed to Harvey, are arranged near a piece of White House stationery bearing a message of gratitude from President George W. Bush to Harvey; at the other end of the room, President Bill Clinton’s letter of condolence to Harvey’s wife Helen is propped up in an inexpensive frame under a woolen newsboy cap. There are pictures of golf teams, pictures of men who won the Masters Tournament, and pictures of men who won the U.S. Open Championship sitting with Harvey and smiling. There are black-and-white photographs that are turning yellow. There are medals and proclamations and certificates from events such as the 1942 Hale American National Open. There are so many references here to the man Harvey Penick and his place in the sport that it’s easy to overlook the eight-year-old boy who wondered, in the year 1913, what to do now.
The bustling city of Austin had paved the street a block over from the Penick household on Cedar Street, where the quiet, twig-thin boy lived with his parents and older brothers. Cedar Street, like the rest of Harvey’s orbit back then, was bald Texas dirt scraped by wind — less a street than a path with wagon ruts and hoofprints. It was short enough that the entire length could be viewed from the porch of the Penick house, broad enough that the milk cow could be walked in the morning with the wagons chittering from Seekatz Meat Market with sacks of flank, and far enough from Congress Avenue that no one heard the streetcars hissing. The Penick family of Austin lived a long way from the city center in 1913. From his bedroom window upstairs, Harvey could peel open the cotton curtains, look out over the tops of the live oaks, and see the end of everywhere.
Harvey was eight years old that summer, and he had heard fanciful stories about Fort Worth and Dallas, about the stockyards and the bank buildings and the clothiers for men who favored seersucker in the summer and merino wool in winter. A lot of boys Harvey knew at Pease Elementary School carried reasonable hopes of growing a fortune in Texas. A lot of money was made and spent up there, two hundred miles away, in the two cities that most defined the state. But Harvey never cared much for money.
New wealth could also be found in Houston and the surrounding towns that seemed to float on oil and oil money. Four years before Harvey was born, the Lucas No. 1 well coughed up a fury of mud, gas, and black syrup: Spindletop, near Beaumont, ripped the young and still-developing state from its agrarian roots and thrust it into the soon-booming age of big energy. Many of Harvey’s friends yearned to one day buy a morning ticket for the interurban rail down at the union depot at Congress and Cypress, settle in for the daylong ride to the bulging oil camps, arrive that evening for a supper of Gulf catch, and wake to hard, dirty work and the promise of certain prosperity. But that sounded to Harvey like such an unhappy way to live.
Beyond San Antonio, cowboys tended cattle on vast swaths of fertile land in the Rio Grande Valley. All the children in Austin knew of King Ranch. It was the biggest and the best ranch in the entire West. If an ambitious young stowaway from Manhattan could survive oppressive drought and grow a 15,000-acre Mexican land-grant purchase into a livestock empire of more than 146,000 acres — Richard King and his partners even created the first American breed of beef cattle within its fences — then a boy from dusty Cedar Street could rustle a few such animals for an honest wage. But Harvey never had the wandering spirit of a cowboy.
West was the desert. West was six hundred miles of prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees and blinding sun through no clouds all the way to El Paso on the edge of Mexico. West was the ragged Davis Mountains and the yawning Big Bend to be explored; deep and dry canyons to cross on the way; cold springs to swim; frontiers to conquer; and factual and imagined rigors that Harvey and his friends read about in their schoolbooks. There lay the romance of the American West. West was rugged. West was hostile. Some of Harvey’s adventurous classmates were eager to confront the sands of the Chihuahuan Desert. They might not stop until they got to California. Maybe the Pacific.
Harvey knew he wasn’t built for that. So he stood at his window and stared out.
He wondered what he would be, what he would do, where he would go. But he also understood that as a boy of eight in a family of seven, he needed to be useful and, when possible, out from underfoot. He knew sacrifice at a young age. His older brother Tom, tougher than Harvey and gritty, had taken an interesting job a short walk from Cedar Street at a place the gentlemen called Austin Country Club, which had a curious hub of recreation called a golf course, the only one in town. Tom Penick was something called a caddie. Harvey knew nothing about caddies or golf or gentlemen, but he knew the work paid in coins, because his brother dumped out his pockets at night and Harvey saw them on the chest of drawers. Money. Tom had money. He also had stories of playing a game that gave people fits of frustration and, when the ball flew just right, a dizzy kind of joy.
Fourteen years earlier, the gentlemen strode in their stiff collars and black coats along Congress Avenue. The first paved road in the capital city of Texas, it was still unimproved in 1899. Some in the group passed the limestone facade of the Hancock Opera House, owned by the mayor. John Philip Sousa and Lillian Russell performed there when they toured this far south and west.
Some walked south from the university, along the Austin Electric Railway Line and past the smudged windows of the Raatz Department Store. Blocks away, the Ben Hur steamboat churned into port on the Colorado River, known then as Lake McDonald. A Model A sputtered. Horses clopped through the silt. Wagons rattled through ruts. The men in their business attire monitored their pocket watches that November afternoon in Austin. The time neared 4:30.
They gathered on bustling Sixth Street, shook hands outside the opulent Driskill Hotel, stepped inside the columned lobby with marble floors, and swung open the tall and consequential doors of Austin golf.
Lewis Hancock, the son of a former member of the Texas House of Representatives and the prosperous owner of the opera house, had invi...