James Lawton: Harmon recruits The Big Easy to anti-Tiger alliance

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The Independent Online

The world's most famous golf guru's liking for a challenge dates back to his military assignment to the Vietnam war. Later, Butch Harmon accepted a two-year commission to teach the King of Morocco how to play the game, a challenge which contained enough moments of psychological intrigue to provoke a book called The King and I if someone hadn't beaten him to the title.

Harmon made his celebrated name on the re-making of Greg Norman in the early nineties. The Great White Shark said it was time to go but Harmon persuaded him that there was still some profitable marauding to do. When Harmon finally went into print it was to record the acrid aftermath of his brilliant but ultimately soured shepherding of Tiger Woods onto the world stage he seems to dominate a little more profoundly each day.

Yet none of this touches the degree of pressure which now comes with what might fairly be described as one of the longest shots in all of sport.

Within days of breaking from the perhaps terminally unstructured John Daly, Harmon was adding Ernie Els to a stable that already included world number two Phil Mickelson and the hugely promising young Australian Adam Scott.

This effectively makes Harmon the official head of the Anti-Tiger Alliance. Some time in the next four days of the 72nd US Masters the guru may feel that going against the Viet Cong wasn't such a reach after all.

Yet Harmon does have his best opportunity to regain some of the mystique that attached itself to him when he shaped the Tiger's record-consuming first majors win by 12 strokes here 11 years ago. He was sacked, essentially, because the student prince thought his tutor was milking the glory a little too assiduously in a stream of TV appearances.

Els, Harmon believes, is his most dazzling opportunity since the reclamation of Norman and the launching of Woods.

"I'm delighted to be working with another great player," says Harmon. "Everyone knows Els is one of the greatest natural-born golfers the world has ever seen. If he thinks I can help him regain some confidence, well, I'm very honoured."

First though, Els had to delicately remove himself from a near 20-year-old working relationship with another master of golf technique, David Leadbetter, whose portfolio includes the re-fashioning of the Nick Faldo swing that brought a return of six major titles, including three Augusta jackets.

Says Els, "David is a very good friend of mine, he's been my mentor a very long time, but I just thought I needed something different, get a different feel, get different words coming towards me, and just find a bit more about how Butch is teaching. He's obviously had a lot of success with a lot of players and I love the way he changes people's games. I've seen it before; I've seen it with Stewart Cink and Justin Leonard. I look at those guys and I like the way they swing.

"I spoke to David on the phone and obviously it's tough breaking up with a guy like 'Lead', but he'll be a friend of mine forever. So I'm taking a new direction with my golf swing."

Most would say, on the evidence of the naked eye, that Els' swing has always been at the very least halfway to heaven, but he believes it has let him down too many times; especially whenever he has felt the hot breath of the Tiger on his neck. It has happened on a serial basis, most notably here in 2001 when Woods, on the way to his third Green Jacket, overwhelmed the field over the last nine holes, and most recently in Dubai earlier this year in the Desert Classic, when the Tiger made up four shots over the final back nine. At one point Els, the beautiful swinger, found the water. His body language was so bleak his warmest admirers had to look away.

Remarkably, Els rallied sufficiently to come back with a win on the US tour and now, at 38, the alliance with Harmon surely represents his best chance to regain some of the aura which came with two US Open titles and one Open. "My work with Butch," he says, "is starting with my posture. It really got a little out of whack. I've had too much turn going back on the backswing. My hips were really turning too much, and my shoulders, and basically everything was collapsing on top.

"I'm quite a flexible guy but swinging that long I got out of sync with my lower body and upper, so I needed to stabilise and shorten my backswing a little bit and really get the club out in front of me."

For golfing aesthetes Els in this vein is somewhat jarring. He is supposed to be, pure and simple, "the Big Easy", the tall, languid but beautifully co-ordinated child of nature. But then once the Tiger was a slim package of mostly sublime talent and Harmon it was who first assembled a winning game.

"People ask me," reports Els, "if Butch will be able to press the right buttons with me. Well, he's very direct, and so far in my short stint with him I certainly know where I stand. I like this. Whether the right buttons will continue to be pressed, I don't know, but there's no problem with him challenging me. Maybe it's what I need more than anything else. I think I'm a big enough boy to take it, just as long as he can take it."

Harmon's enduringly tough style came boiling to the surface the other day when he made his break with the floundering Daly mid-way through a tournament in Florida, where Daly took a weather break as a signal for a prolonged drinking session. "I told John that I loved him but I didn't have time to work with somebody whose greatest ambition is to get drunk."

Els swears that his goal is somewhat different. He just wants to stand up in the company of Tiger Woods. But then, starting with Butch Harmon, doesn't everybody?

More on the Masters:

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Masters tee-off times for today and tomorrow

All times BST; (US unless stated)

13.00 & 16.07 B Curtis, S Micheel

13.11 & 16.18 F Zoeller, B Wetterich, H Slocum

13.22 & 16.29 M O'Meara, T Kuehne (a), I Poulter (GB)

13.33 & 16.40 L Mize, P Lonard (Aus), H Mahan

13.44 & 16.51 G Player (SA), M Angel Jimenez (Sp), D Trahan

13.55 & 17.02 J Leonard, C Howell III, N Watney

14.06 & 17.24 S Verplank, R Allenby, M Campbell

14.17 & 17.35 B Crenshaw, M Thompson (a), N O'Hern (Aus)

14.28 & 17.46 S Lowery, R Karlsson (Swe), N Dougherty (GB)

14.39 & 17.57 F Couples, J Kelly, A Hansen (Den)

14.50 & 18.08 V Taylor, M Kaymer (Ger), A Oberholser

15.12 & 18.19 J M Olazabal, L Wen-chong, R Sabbatini (SA)

15.23 & 18.30 Z Johnson, L Donald (GB), G Ogilvy (Aus)

15.34 & 18.41 M Weir (Can), P Harrington (Irl), J M Singh (India)

15.45 & 18.52 T Woods, A Cabrera (Arg), S Appleby (Aus)

15.56 & 19.03 J Rose (GB), H Stenson (Swe), T Taniguchi (Japan)

16.07 & 13.00 T Hamilton, B Bateman

16.18 & 13.11 C Stadler, J Wagner, S Flesch

16.29 & 13.22 I Woosnam (GB), R Green (Aus), S Ames (Can)

16.40 & 13.33 B Weekley, T Immelman (SA), S O'Hair

16.51 & 13.44 S Lyle (GB), J Rollins, JB Holmes

17.02 & 13.55 S Hansen (Den), D Chopra, R Sterne (SA)

17.24 & 14.06 T Watson, B Snedeker, J Senden (Aus)

17.35 & 14.17 T Clark (SA), D Toms, N Fasth (Swe)

17.46 & 14.28 R Floyd, D Weaver (a), J Byrd

17.57 & 14.39 B Langer (Ger), P Marksaeng (Thai), W Austin

18.08 & 14.50 B Watson, S Garcia (Sp), M Calcavecchia

18.19 & 15.12 A Scott (Aus), P Casey (GB), R Goosen (SA)

18.30 & 15.23 V Singh (Fiji), S Stricker, S Cink

18.41 & 15.34 P Mickelson, A Romero (Arg), KJ Choi (S Kor)

18.52 & 15.45 E Els (SA), S Katayama (Japan), J Furyk

19.03 & 15.56 A Baddeley (Aus), C Villegas (Colom), L Westwood (GB)

(a) = amateur

Four-day Augusta weather forecast

Today Temperature: High 30C

Maximum humidity: 57 per cent

Tomorrow Temperature: High 30C

Maximum humidity: 64 per cent

Saturday Temperature: High 22C

Maximum humidity: 68 per cent

Sunday Windy, Temperature: High 13C

Maximum humidity: 46 per cent

TV times: 21.00-22.30, BBC2 and 22.35-midnight BBC1

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