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Beyond Augusta: How Ben Crenshaw's Golf Guru Helped Shape The LPGA

Harvey Penick spent more than 70 years as a golf pro at the Austin Country Club in Texas, teaching many of the women who starred in the LPGA. AP Photo/Ted Powers

When Ben Crenshaw finishes his final Masters this week, he'll remember the man who placed a golf club in his hands. So will lore. Harvey Penick, for more than seven decades a golf professional at Austin Country Club in Texas, died at age 90 on the Sunday before the 1995 tournament, which Crenshaw won by a shot. That stirring week at Augusta National remains one of the most endearing stories of friendship between two men.

But Penick was more of a man among women. He influenced the founding of the LPGA, after all, meaning the likes of Lydia Ko and Stacy Lewis and Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez owe a quiet debt to the well-mannered teacher who thought the secret to golf was in the grip and the stance, not the courtesy title. Judy Rankin, Peggy Wilson, Patty Berg, Betsy Cullen, Judy Kimball, Mary Lena Faulk, Sandra Palmer and Mickey Wright sought Penick's stewardship. He played with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the 1932 Olympic medalist, in her first exhibition as a professional. She and the other women he helped won more than 240 tournaments on the LPGA tour, which even named a tournament in Austin for him in 1999. "Harvey would be so pleased," his widow, Helen Penick, said of the Harvey Penick Invitational.

Crenshaw announced last spring that the 2015 Masters would be his last. It was a nod to symmetry and symbolism. This week is the 20th anniversary of Penick's death and Crenshaw's triumph in grief, and while it's hard to assign more meaning to one over the other, we do know this: As Crenshaw walks one more time among the azaleas and tea olives and loblolly pines, golf rightly will salute Penick as a shaper of champions -- many of whom could not even play in the Masters. Will golf remember them this week in the same spirit of reverence?

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It began in the late summer of 1937, when Betty Jameson enrolled as a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. She found Penick in his shop at the Austin Country Club before she even learned her dorm assignment. Penick insisted on formal sit-down meetings before first lessons, and in his first visit with Jameson he learned that she already had won the Lakewood Country Club women's championship, the Dallas women's city championship and the Texas women's amateur championship. Jameson also told him about the time she qualified for the Sunset High School golf team, beating 22 boys to become the first girl to earn a place on a varsity high school golf team. She was 13 years old when she made Texas history.

Jameson and Penick formed an intimate working friendship that lasted through college and beyond. She won the 1947 U.S. Women's Open under his guidance. Three years later, she and 12 other women -- five of them friends and golf disciples of the gentleman-golf shaman from Austin with wavy, dark hair and a bony build -- formed the LPGA.

Penick taught many elite players at Austin Country Club. Crenshaw. Tom Kite. But most of his best players were women.

One was a Phi Beta Kappa in physics who met Harvey after her family moved to Austin at the end of World War II. Betsy Rawls had no golf options at Texas. The university was decades from having a women's team. But she had Penick. His sensible, simple instruction -- made famous after the publication in 1992 of his best-selling "Little Red Book" -- helped her win 55 tournaments, including four U.S. Women's Opens.

In those early years of the LPGA, Rawls and her peers caravanned around the Southwest in noisy sedans, sharing hotel rooms and playing for small sums of money. When the circuit dipped into Texas for the events such as the Betty Jameson Invitational at Brackenridge Park or the Dallas Open at Glen Lakes, Rawls fit in a quick drive to Austin to see Penick. All of the women who studied with him did.

"Everyone in Texas knew Harvey" by that time, Rawls told me in 2013. "It was the first thing you asked another Texas golfer. Do you know Harvey? People from West Texas, South Texas and Houston, they all knew him. He was the reason there was a great bond between Texas golfers on the tours. You'd mention Harvey, you'd always smile and tell stories."

The fifties represented the apex of Penick's wide, paternal influence in women's golf. Jameson continued to contend, but she was nearing retirement. Rawls won 31 tournaments in the decade, including a dominating season in 1959, when she won 10, including two majors. Penick found reasons to be proud nearly every week he opened the Sunday American-Statesman to scan the LPGA results.

"I have always loved teaching women," Penick wrote near the end of his life. "I tell them, 'Be at ease. You won't do anything I haven't seen before.' The golf club doesn't care if it is being swung by a woman or a man."

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He left his deepest influence on Kathy Whitworth, who was 17 when she and her mother drove the 450 miles from Jal, New Mexico, to meet Penick. Her childhood instructor, Hardy Loudermilk, recommended the teacher in Austin. "I've taken her as far as I can," Loudermilk wrote to Penick in advance of her trip.

Whitworth spent three days with Penick. Each night, she rehearsed his lessons in a mirror in her motel room and memorized his aphorisms. Penick changed her turn away from the ball. He changed the way her fingers held the handle of the club. They began to build a swing that would win 88 tournaments in a 23-year, Hall of Fame career. The impression remains. Whitworth now teaches golf herself. Penick is her muse. "I still marvel at how all this started," Whitworth told me. "How lucky that was! When you look back on it, it's like fate. It seem preplanned."

Now, Penick's legacy in women's golf is found in pages of books -- his own and those written by his players -- and in the minds of those who recall him fondly. Rawls, Whitworth and the others remember a decent, humble and chivalrous man who called them "miss" and assured them that a good short game and a sound putting stroke could beat any man in town. He was right.

The Masters coverage this year might take the time to note the vast contributions Penick gave to women's golf. It might not. But to the women who knew him, that's exactly what they'll think about when Ben Crenshaw holes his last putt soon at Augusta National.

The club, incidentally, admitted it first two female members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, in 2013.

Harvey would have been so pleased.

Kevin Robbins is a former sports writer for the Austin American-Statesman who wrote frequently about golf. He now teaches sports journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is writing a biography of Harvey Penick for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.