Golf: Little and red and well read: A golf book of uncommon sense has cult status. Robert Green reports

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The Independent Online
IN SPRING 1992, Harvey Penick was an esteemed golf teacher from Austin, Texas, with a reputation predominantly confined to the cognoscenti. Then he wrote a book. His homely advice about the game made him a household name. A first-time author at 87, he became a publishing phenomenon, a sort of older version of Mary Wesley. Harvey Penick's Little Red Golf Book has sold nearly a million copies in the United States. It is both the biggest and the fastest selling sports book of all time.

It is also unique. It breaks all the rules of golf instruction books. There are no photographs or illustrations to show the reader what he should or should not be doing. 'I insisted on that,' Bud Shrake, Penick's collaborator, says. 'I was tired of seeing badly drawn golfers.' Instead, the book has 175 pages of solid text, crammed with unpretentious advice about golf, and indeed life. There's nothing earth-shattering; just common sense. But then common sense isn't common.

The book's initial print run was scheduled to be 50,000. Then Simon & Schuster cut it to 13,000. 'It apparently sold out in about a day,' Shrake says. But why? 'There were a lot of things,' he suggests. 'I think people liked the small format. Then Golf Digest put Harvey on its cover in May '92. And there were the testimonials in the front of the book from Harvey's long-time pupils like Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, which added credibility.' When Kite won the US Open that June and Crenshaw won the Western Open two weeks later, that didn't hurt either.

Every so often, a book does succeed beyond logic. In Britain, J R Hartley had a mega-seller about fly-fishing on the back of a television commercial for Yellow Pages, and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time assumed cult status, with everyone buying it if not actually reading it. 'I think people fell in love with the purity of Harvey's soul, which shines through the book,' Shrake says. 'People yearn for old-fashioned values. A lot of non-golfers bought it, too.'

The book was issued here in October at pounds 9.99. Michael Doggart, editorial director of CollinsWillow, the UK publishers, says: 'We will have sold about 20,000. We're delighted; it's about twice what we expected at this stage.' As well as it is doing here, however, its record- breaking success is peculiarly American. CollinsWillow also publishes David Leadbetter, pro golf's hottest teacher. His Faults And Fixes, out last September, has shifted some 25,000 copies at pounds 15.99.

But John Gaustad, owner of the Sportspages bookshops in London and Manchester, says: 'The Penick book was our biggest seller on golf in 1993. We were selling it on import from the States before it was published here.' And now he is doing the same with the sequel. The Son of Little Red Book is a little green book called And if You Play Golf, You're My Friend. It is difficult to believe it will keep that title for its official UK manifestation.

'After the first book came out,' Shrake says, 'I was approached by people who told me how Harvey had helped them; things that were not in the first book. So the second one is more anecdotal, as well as giving more of a sense of what it's like to take a lesson from Harvey.'

The book was published in the United States on 6 December. This time, the print run was 550,000. Now it is where its predecessor spent several weeks - atop the New York Times best-seller list.

'The whole thing is amazing,' Shrake adds. It was 9.40 in the morning in Austin. 'I bet there are 20 people outside Harvey's house right now, waiting for him to sign a copy.'

There are no Thatcher-type signing tours for Penick. The tours have to go to him. When CollinsWillow inquired at the start of last year about the possibility of him coming over to promote the launch of the first book, they were told by his agent: 'At his age, Mr Penick does not make plans 10 months in advance.'

Harvey Penick will be 90 in October.