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A Gift To Golf

May 26, 2009

Three Texas legends ham it up for a 1950s Christmas card (clockwise from the bottom): Bud Shrake, Blackie Sherrod and Dan Jenkins.

Photo: Dallas Morning News

For most of his life, Bud Shrake didn't have much to do with golf.

Growing up in Fort Worth, he had become instant friends with Dan Jenkins in seventh grade. And though Shrake, who died May 8 at 77, had the wit, he didn't have the playing chops to hang with Jenkins' gang of sharpies in money games at munys like Goat Hills.

"Bud was a horrible golfer as a kid," remembers Jenkins. "He didn't really start playing golf until his doctor told him he'd be dead in a year if he didn't quit drinking. Then he played all the time, mostly with Willie Nelson. Golf gave him another 25 years of life."

It was during this time that Shrake applied his novelist's ear and philosopher's head to the wisdom of a legendary golf teacher. The result was the most successful sports book of all time, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. Shrake's plan was to make reading the bite-size parables in the compact book as irresistible as eating peanuts, and by somehow transforming golf instruction into universal self-help, he did. The original in 1992 and its four sequels have certainly outsold and probably outcirculated Chairman Mao.

"I remember when he was working on it, everybody told Bud that the book would never be published," says Shrake's frequent golf partner and fellow writer Turk Pipkin. "But he kept saying, 'I think I've got something here.' Bud could see what others couldn't."

Shrake made the bite-size parables as irresistible as eating peanuts.'

The book was taken from Penick's tattered red notebook, but because of Shrake's talent for seizing the essence of a thing and putting it in easy-to-digest language, the result has heart and satisfied the technically overloaded golf world's hunger for something authentic. The best example is the truest tip ever written, one that we intuitively know has applied to everyone from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods: "Once you address the golf ball, hitting it has got to be the most important thing in your life at that moment. Shut out all thoughts other than picking out a target and taking dead aim at it."

The books gave Shrake an influence on golf writing that in a way nearly matches that of Jenkins, which is fitting. Both attended Paschal High in the late '40s (causing it to be known as Sportswriter High, although Ben Hogan was also an alum) and wrote for the school newspaper, the Pantherette. They attended TCU together and worked on the crack sports staff at the Fort Worth Press under Blackie Sherrod, and each went on to storied tenures at Sports Illustrated and as contributors to Golf Digest while writing novels and screenplays.

"We always fed off each other," Jenkins says. "Especially when we were young, we were trying to be Steinbeck or Fitzgerald or Lardner. It made us both better."

They had different styles, Jenkins a master humorist, Shrake more serious. But both attacked life with a Runyonesque jauntiness that used to be at least half the fun of being a writer. Shrake in particular worked a vast and eclectic circle of contacts and sources, from billionaire Lamar Hunt to nightclub owner Jack Ruby in Dallas. In Manhattan he was a regular at Elaine's and P.J. Clarke's. He opened one of his plays in London, and in later years his friends included Nelson, whose autobiography he ghosted, and actor Dennis Hopper. Shrake, who will be buried next to his longtime companion, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, was sometimes referred to as The First Gent.

Throughout, he and Jenkins remained each other's touchstone.

"He took part of my life with him," says Jenkins. "We couldn't have been any closer. We knew everything about each other. There was no such thing as a secret. It's why we could always make so much fun of each other, but also why we could always talk. We knew the details. We felt like everyone should be an open book."

We aren't, of course. But gifted connectors like Shrake can make people that way in print. It was his gift to Harvey Penick, and his gift to golf.