Butch Harmon: Masters and pupils; golfing guru who nurtured Tiger to top of food chain
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Monday 28 March 2005
At next week's US Masters, a burly figure with a twitch in his left eye that, when it gets going, is reminiscent of Herbert Lom's in the
Pink Panther films, will practically set up camp on the Augusta National practice ground.
At next week's US Masters, a burly figure with a twitch in his left eye that, when it gets going, is reminiscent of Herbert Lom's in the Pink Panther films, will practically set up camp on the Augusta National practice ground.
Butch Harmon is coach to 18 of the world's best golfers, among them Darren Clarke, Justin Leonard, Adam Scott and Fred Couples. Yet none of his charges pays him a retainer, so he dispenses advice as he sees fit, and when it suits him, not them. This was not the case with his former pupil Tiger Woods, who paid $50,000 (£26,600) a year for his undivided attention. It was a sum which, I venture provocatively, can hardly have made a dent in Tiger's wallet, let alone his bank account. Harmon laughs with what I fancy might be a note of bitterness.
Whatever, his modus operandi has changed. At Augusta, if he thinks Darren needs him more than Justin, then Justin will have to wait.
"I am not contractually obligated to any of them," he says. "I don't charge them a dime, and that's the way I prefer it. At the end of the year, I tell them that if they're happy with the work we've done, to write me a cheque." And what if the cheque is not to his liking? "That's fine," he says.
I am reminded of a restaurant in north London that used to invite customers to pay what they thought the meal had been worth, even permitting them to leave without paying anything at all. Not surprisingly, the novelty did not stand the test of time. But I don't suppose anyone takes Harmon for a ride. Butch by name, he is incontrovertibly butch by nature. The twitch, indeed, is possibly a legacy of the Vietnam War, in which he led a mortar crew. In 1966, when he and a buddy were out looking for landmines, they came under attack and his buddy died. But I don't ask because the rule when interviewing Harmon is that you don't mention the war. He rarely talks about it even to his wife, although they did once visit Washington DC to look at the monument to those who died.
"When he saw the memorial he just lost it, just cried uncontrollably," she later recalled.
I am none the less tempted to ask Harmon what he thinks when people use phrases such as "the heat of battle" to describe golf tournaments. But again I resist. After all, Corey Pavin, who wore a combat cap during the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, and revelled in its depiction as "The War on the Shore", is a pupil of his. Moreover, Harmon takes golf as seriously as anyone. And so he should. It is the game that not only gives him a handsome living, and won his late father, Claude, the undying friendship of several US presidents, but also provides for his three brothers, and now his son, too. The Harmons are one of the great dynasties of American golf.
Claude Harmon won the Masters in 1948. "So it has a special place in my heart," says his eldest son. "Except when I was in the military I have gone there my whole life, and every year we have a family reunion there.
"It's special because it's the only major always at the same location, so history is made in the same places every year. It's the championship that's most cherished by the guys who've won all of them [the four majors], or some of 'em. I sure know how much my dad, years after he quit playing, looked forward to the Tuesday night champions' dinner. That's a unique fraternity."
Harmon was only five when his father won at Augusta, and has only his mother's word for the fact that he was there. The Masters victory that gave him most pleasure, therefore, was that of Woods in 1997. He first clapped eyes on the prodigy in August 1993, when Earl Woods asked him to take a look at his son's swing.
"Greg [Norman, another pupil] had won the Open Championship that year, for which I'd got a lot of credit. Tiger had just lost in the second round of the US Amateur and Earl brought him over to see me. I'd heard about him, but never seen him. We spent Saturday and Sunday together, and I watched him hitting the ball unbelievable distances, probably further than he hits it now.
"That was the start of 10 great years together. It was a joy for me to watch him go from a teenager to a young man to a man, both in golf and in life. He went from an amateur golfer to a professional golfer to the greatest player in the game. I have never seen anyone play better than he did in the year 2000, and that's no offence to Vijay [Singh] last year or Byron Nelson [who won 11 consecutive tournaments in his annus mirabilis of 1945]. He won the US Open that year by 15 shots, and the Open by eight. Things that had never been done in the history of the game."
And yet Woods was still not satisfied with his swing, which was the beginning of the end of his professional relationship with Harmon. After winning the 1997 Masters, Woods had decided that he didn't like the position of his clubface at the top of his backswing. Harmon agreed that it could be better, so together they adjusted his swing plane, and although 1998 was a relatively lean year - "we only won once," says Harmon, cheerfully using the first-person plural - the records duly started tumbling.
But when Woods wanted to change his swing again three years later, his mentor disagreed. That is one reason why they parted company; another is said to be that Woods likes his entourage to keep a low profile, and felt that Harmon was trading just a little too overtly on their association. It was for the same reason that he sacked his original caddie, "Fluff" Cowan.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Harmon thinks that the partnership had run its course. "Only time will tell if the changes he is making now are the right ones," he adds. "His swing is flatter now. He was more upright when I had him. But he is still the fittest player in the game, still the strongest, both physically and mentally. He has an unbelievable desire to win, and you can't teach that."
I ask whether he thinks his former protégé will eventually overtake Jack Nicklaus as the most prolific major winner of all time?
"Three or four years ago I'd have said it was a given. Now I'm not sure. The gap has closed in two directions; the guys behind have got better, and he came back some. I actually think that Ernie Els is the best player in the game right now, whatever the rankings say. But Tiger's the only one who can truly dominate."
Tiger certainly dominates the walls of the Butch Harmon School of Golf, at the Rio Secco Golf Club in a plush suburb of Las Vegas. If there is any lingering antipathy between divorced master and pupil (and it is known that Woods does not always appreciate Harmon's analysis of his swing on Sky Television), then it is not reflected in the signed photographs and flags.
But then it would be perverse for a coach who has instructed the game's colossus not to have a few keepsakes dotted about the place.
Less of a colossus, but still a formidable player, is the man Harmon is coaching when I turn up at Rio Secco. As soon as I get out of the cab I recognise the languid swing: under Harmon's close supervision, Freddie Couples is whacking balls into the bright blue Nevada yonder.
Later, I ask Harmon whether being asked to fiddle with the Couples swing, technically imperfect but still a thing of beauty, is like being asked to fiddle with the Mona Lisa? He laughs.
"Fred has a lot of flaws, but he saves himself because his rhythm is so good. Couples and Els have the greatest rhythm in the game, and these last three years Fred's been hitting the ball better than ever. If his back stays healthy he could do well at Augusta. He's made 20 straight cuts in the Masters, you know. He loves the place."
And how highly does he rate the chances of his British pupil, Clarke?
"Clarkey definitely has the talent to win majors, but he gets down on himself. He beats himself up and the great champions tend not to do that. I hope he can overcome that. I will say that of all the relationships I have had with guys I've taught, the two I cherish most are with Darren and Greg Norman. They're just great fun to be around."
Harmon learnt the rudiments of teaching by watching his father, whose pupils numbered President Eisenhower and Henry Ford. The old man certainly left his mark: a recent Golf Digest survey of the 50 best teachers in the United States included all four of his sons, with Butch at the top.
"Growing up, I never realised how lucky I was. My dad's best friend was Ben Hogan, and as teenagers it was nothing for us to play with Mr Hogan, who I would have to say is the greatest ball striker I've ever seen, with Lee Trevino second. The way they could control the ball through the air was incredible."
In 1969, Harmon joined the US tour himself. "And in 1971 I did a great thing for the tour," he says. "I left it." I take my cue and laugh. "I was an average player," he continues. "I was a good ball striker but I was very temperamental. I expected every shot to be perfect, and when they weren't, my temper got in the way. In my teaching and the way I run my businesses I am still a perfectionist, but that's a good thing. As a player it worked against me. And for a pretty average player there wasn't much money. I remember when Arnold Palmer became the first man to win over $100,000 in one year. We all thought that was phenomenal."
So Harmon became a humble club pro, although first he had to defeat tougher opponents than he ever had on the golf course: alcoholism and a disastrous gambling addiction.
"I hit rock bottom," he recalls. "I was drinking, gambling, doing all the wrong things. I was broke, I got divorced. The one who saved me was Dave Marr, who'd been my dad's assistant and was like an older brother to me.
"Dave created a job for me in his golf course construction business, and driving tractors from sunup to sundown changed my perspective on life. Then I joined a little blue-collar club in Texas City, down towards Galveston, Bayou Golf Club. And that was the hardest I ever worked in my life. I owned the bar, the restaurant, the shop, the carts, the driving range, and it was an all-cash business, you had to be there 24/7 or someone was going to rob you blind. I was there for seven or eight years, and gradually I moved up the food chain."
When Harmon was at Bayou his father observed, whether affectionately or cattily or perhaps a bit of both, that all he needed was a tattoo parlour at the back of his shop and he'd be set for life. Claude, the last genuine club professional to win a major, had been the pro at Winged Foot during the summer and Seminole in the winter, which were Wentworth and Sunningdale to Bayou's Bootle Municipal. Still, at 62, Harmon can take pride in having got to the top of the food chain the hard way.
Butch Harmon commentates on golf for Sky Sports, on events including the US Open and USPGA. Coverage of the BellSouth Classic begins on Sky Sports 2 on Thursday.
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