The guru's secret: swing the thing

Paul Trow explains why the world's best look to Butch Harmon

When it comes to knowing a good thing on the golf course, pundits do not come any cuter than Butch Harmon. The 56-year-old American golf guru may not have an army of high-profile professionals on his books, but the pupils he does instruct are straight out of the top drawer.

When it comes to knowing a good thing on the golf course, pundits do not come any cuter than Butch Harmon. The 56-year-old American golf guru may not have an army of high-profile professionals on his books, but the pupils he does instruct are straight out of the top drawer.

Foremost is the 24-year-old world No 1, Tiger Woods, who looks set to be crowned Open champion today and the youngest winner of a full set of Grand Slam titles. Rapidly climbing the ladder is the current European No 1, Darren Clarke, who demolished Woods 5 and 4 in the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship in California five months ago. And taking his first steps on the foothills of professional stardom is a 20-year-old Australian, Adam Scott, who is attracting an avalanche of plaudits.

An integral part of Harmon's approach to teaching is that he is determined to make his protégés feel good about themselves. "I pride myself that I treat each one of my golfers very much as an individual. I don't believe in imposing straitjacket methods because every golfer has different natural abilities and flexibilities," said Harmon, whose father, Claude, won the 1948 Masters.

Harmon, who was also christened Claude, played on the US PGA Tour from 1969-71, "but I wasn't very successful so I became a club pro in Houston". From this unpromising beginning, he blossomed as a teacher as did his three younger brothers - "we're all rated in the top 100 teachers in the United States."

The turning point in his career came in the early 1990s when he remodelled Greg Norman's swing to such devastating effect that the Australian won the 1993 Open at Sandwich. Soon afterwards, he met Woods, who was then aged 17.

"Tiger had been knocked out in the second round of the US Amateur Championship and his father brought him over for the weekend because he was impressed with what I had done with Greg.

"We hit it off straight away - I liked what he had to say and admired his appetite for hard work. He does a lot on his own. A lot of his practice is in seclusion, so no one really knows how much he puts into his game. He has an inward desire to be the best player the planet has ever seen."

Three US Amateur Championship victories later, Woods was ready to turn pro in the autumn of 1996 and he went on to annex the Masters the following spring by 12 shots. None the less, Woods, with Harmon in agreement, felt he needed to change his swing if he was to enjoy golfing longevity.

A year ago, the new method fell into place. Woods was on the practice range at his home in Orlando where he had spent many long, lonely hours working on the refinements. "I can't hit a shot," Woods would say sarcastically. Harmon was not unduly alarmed and one day Woods called his mobile phone for a conversation that the teacher will always remember. "I got it, Butchy," Woods told him. "I got it."

"There was total joy in his voice," said Harmon. "It was like the light went on. Everything we had been doing, all the changes, felt natural. He had gotten his confidence back. He was at the point where he knew he could not be beaten if he played his game."

The last 14 months spawned one of the most prolific spells in golf history with Woods winning no fewer than 16 times, culminating in his astonishing 15-shot procession in the US Open at Pebble Beach last month. "I take tremendous satisfaction out of this," Harmon said. "We built this golf swing together."

Harmon resides in his golf school in Las Vegas and also spends time at a similar one on the Algarve, in Portugal. Surprisingly, given the obvious affection in which Woods is held by our golfing public, there are no plans for Harmon to expand his operation into Britain in the same way that David Leadbetter did a few years ago.

However, if Clarke continues to improve at the rate he has since coming under Harmon's aegis 18 months ago, he may have to review that decision. "Darren outplayed Tiger in the matchplay final - it was a great victory and has given him great confidence. He is getting much better and is learning a lot more shots."

If confidence is the key to the 31-year-old Ulsterman's game, it is even more so for Scott, who missed the cut by three shots this week. "Adam is the best young player to come along since Tiger. Indeed, his game is better than Tiger's at the same age." The same generosity of spirit which Harmon extends to his pupils is seen in his assessment of other players, most notably Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. Like many others, he is baffled by Faldo's recent demise and feels the six-times major winner will rise again.

"I really believe Nick can win another major. His game suits big tournaments and he has everything a champion needs. He has determination and nerves to handle the pressure. I disagree with those people who don't believe he can win another Open. He can if he can sort out his putting.

"His ball striking is always great and it has been encouraging to see his form in recent weeks. I was delighted to see him do so well in the US Open."

For Montgomerie, Harmon has advice as well as encouragement. "To my mind he is the world's No 2 player, but I feel he should come to play more in America. He has handled our public well but even Tiger still gets the occasional racist remark because there are always one or two people who want to have a go."

It is self-evident that Harmon knows what he is talking about when discussing golf. So his blunt response when informed yesterday by the chairman of the R & A's championship committee, Hugh Campbell, that a couple of tabloids were to carry stories about him wagering £1,000 on a Woods victory and that betting was not allowed on the course, should not really have come as a surprise. "What I do is my business," he said.