Golf: Uncle Butch's tee and sympathy

Bruce Critchley says Harmon is a friend to those who need him
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The Independent Online
NOTHING PLEASES a racehorse trainer so much as saddling a couple of winners on a given afternoon and if those two winners should be in different countries then there is added international kudos to the whole affair.

Butch Harmon achieved something similar last Sunday when two of his charges, Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods, won either side of the Atlantic. Harmon was in San Francisco at the time but followed Clarke's progress each day on television while eating his breakfast and then discussed what he saw with the Irishman on his car phone as he drove home. Later in the day it was much the same with young Tiger. Both victors would acknowledge Harmon's part in their success.

Woods has been with Harmon since his amateur days but as he had already won the first of his three US amateur championships before they got together Harmon's role has been to refine rather than to introduce radical change. Clarke, on the other hand, first spoke to Harmon this spring when he was playing in America prior to the Masters, and both form and confidence were at a low ebb.

Woods and Clarke have much in common. Both are blessed with great natural ability, and Harmon much respects that. In an age when so many gurus are dissecting and analysing, Harmon's gift is to polish what is there rather than take a hammer to it in the hope that the pieces can be put back together better than they were before.

If Woods and Clarke have a common fault it is that they speed up - hit harder at the ball - in times of stress. There were several such moments during Clarke's victory last weekend when only wise counsel from his caddie, Billy Foster, got him back on track. Woods' path to victory was not smooth either. Several times early on he hit wild shots which could only have been the result of surplus adrenalin. Only some unbelievable recovery play - thrilling for the crowd but not an acknowledged route to victory - kept him ahead.

Peter Thomson once said that the greatest asset in golf was the gift of calmness. Neither Clarke nor Woods are blessed with it, but having Harmon in their corner is the next best thing. Highly articulate, though never using five words where one will do, he is very much in tune with the temperament of those he works with and dispenses wisdom calmly and clearly in his rich baritone. With Woods in particular his role has been as much benevolent uncle as "Keeper of the Perfect Swing".

He first came to public notice when Greg Norman turned to him after his humiliation at the hands of Nick Faldo in the 1990 Open Championship at St Andrews had led to the only prolonged slump in his career. He went more than a year without winning, in the process squandering several good chances of victory.

"I have always studied the great swings in golf and had a plan should Greg ever approach me," recalls Harmon. "For a tall man he had a narrow stance and an upright swing, a combination that led to a lot of hand action and that tell-tale backward slide of the right foot at impact. It was also the cause of those blocked shots at crucial moments that have blighted his career. So we broadened the base, widened and shortened the swing, made it more rounded."

Quite significant changes and ones that took Norman a year to master before leading to the best competitive spell of his life. In 1993 he won the Open at Royal St Georges in awesome company and should have won the US PGA three weeks later only to three-putt to lose a playoff to Paul Azinger. The best, though, was the 24 under par at Sawgrass in The Players' Championship the following spring. By the time Norman suffered his spectacular collapse against Faldo at the 1996 Masters, he and Harmon had gone their separate ways.

This week the TV and telephone can be put away as Harmon and his men take on Pinehurst. The advice will be minimal, the words designed to bolster confidence, not introduce change. And any opinions given may be along the lines of his reputed advice to Clarke last Saturday: "Hit it with your arms, not your arse."