By Leonard Finkel
It’s curious how circumstances often occur to lead us in unexpected directions. This tale recounts the chain of events that led me to the legendary Harvey Penick and the subsequent impact the encounter had on my life.
I was visiting an uncle I had not seen in many years, a golfer’s kinship sort of thing. As his caddie, Uncle Norman introduced me to the game of golf. A miserable experience, due to weather and other circumstances, I hated the game and I didn’t take it up in earnest until the age of thirty-five. Immediately, the golf bug bit. During this visit, I noticed a book on the kitchen counter, Harvey Penick’s Little Green Book, If You’re a Golfer, You’re My Friend. I read that book in one night and it so impressed me, I resolved to meet Mr. Penick. Now was as good a time as any.
From south Florida, I drove the following week to Austin, Texas. Checking into a motel on Sunday night, I looked up the phone number and somewhat apprehensive, I called. Though Penick was old and frail, I was shocked to learn his current condition. Helen Penick informed me, “That her dear husband was released from the hospital that very day and was not expected to pull through.” It was even more surprising when she asked me to call in the morning and if he feels up to it, Mr. Penick would be happy to see me. I was given directions and instructed to call at 10 AM.
With emotions surging, I began feeling sorry for myself. Driving more than 1500 miles, I expected that effort would get me the audience I came for. I felt guilty, knowing how selfish that was. Saying a prayer, for Mr. Penick and myself, I retired early.
Rising at the crack of dawn, I anxiously waited for 10 o’clock to arrive. Precisely at 10, and for what seemed an eternity, the line was busy. The worst crossed my mind. Did he get sicker? Or die? Paranoid that I am, I even considered that the phone was left off the hook to discourage my calling. At 11, I drove to the house.
Following precise directions, I arrived at the Penick home, situated in a beautiful part of town. Apprehensive about coming without calling, I sheepishly knocked on the door. When a nurse answered, I asked for Mrs. Penick. She was out shopping, but the nurse asked if I would like to visit with Mr. Penick. After traveling such a long distance I was aching to say yes, but I declined. “I think I’d better wait to see if it’s okay with Mrs. Penick first.” The next several hours were awe-inspiring and would change the course of my personal and professional life.
Outside, in this pristine setting, I became aware of changes, faint at first, in my sensory perceptions. The colors of the flowers were distinctive and bright. A gentle breeze blowing, the air was crisp and clear. Rich, pleasant aromas abounded. I heard several birds and could distinguish the differences in each of their songs. My body tingling all over, I was captivated by a heightened sense of awareness, actually feeling a part of nature. For a cold, calculating, bottom line guy like me, this was a first.
I remember seeing a squirrel on the opposite side of the street. I closed my eyes, believing the squirrel would come closer and to my delight, he did. Closing my eyes again, I knew he would come right beside me. Well, nobody’s perfect. This trance like state lasted for what seemed an eternity yet lasted only thirty minutes or so. Mrs. Penick arrived and asked me to come in.
The bedroom resembled a hospital ward with tubes and machines everywhere. Mr. Penick was glad that I had come, eager to talk golf and share his wisdom. His love for the game was obvious and talking about golf seemed to lift his spirits. There was a glow about him as he shared with me a lifetime of teaching, peoples, and stories. He asked about my personal life, my game, and how he might help me. What we discussed is almost irrelevant, for I knew that I was in the presence of greatness.
His son Tinsley stopped by the house and our session continued. From his deathbed, he would pass away the following week; Mr. Penick was giving me a golf lesson. Incredibly perceptive, from our conversation he could detect my flaws. After a few hours, I could see how tired he had become so I excused myself to see if I should go. Though Mr. Penick wanted to continue, Tinsley felt it was time for rest. I thanked them all and left. How remarkable this family is. At a time when most people would only think of themselves and their troubles, they welcomed me into their home as if I was a life-long friend. I made a conscious decision to live my life and play the game of golf, according to a higher principle, Harvey Penick’s way. Meeting him altered my life.
To make a long story short, that encounter led to my writing The Secrets to the Game of Golf & Life and Tinsley agreed to write the forward. I still get goose bumps every time I read it. Among other thoughts in his forward, Tinsley wrote that his father and I became “kindred spirits and soul brothers” and that “Leonard has brought that special feeling to the pages of his new book.” I am now firmly entrenched in the golf community, as a writer and consultant. Meeting Harvey Penick helped me to become a better golfer, but more importantly, a better person. I look at both golf and life from a different perspective, more aware, and more appreciative.
After “The Secrets” was published, I went to Austin again, this time to visit Tinsley. I asked if he was a spiritual person and related my experience outside the Penick home to him. He was spiritual he said, but not to the same extent as his father. Tinsley did agree that something very special occurred the day of my “pilgrimage” and he felt that it was possible that… I was touched by the spirit of Harvey Penick.