America's Fifty Greatest Teachers
63 / HENDERSON, NEV. / $600 an hour / 402 votes
STUDENTS: Stewart Cink, Fred Couples, Lucas Glover, Natalie Gulbis, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal, Corey Pavin, Adam Scott, Nick Watney
Butch Harmon, at home on the range or anywhere else golf is taught and talked, was addressing attendees at the Harmon Brothers Teaching Summit in Las Vegas. "Anything you learn from me that screws anybody up, blame me," he said. "Because I took two guys to No. 1 in the world, and they both fired me. You're not gonna hurt my feelings."
The tone was typical Harmon: disarmingly candid and self-deprecating and fun . . . and reminding listeners who needed no reminding that he shepherded Greg Norman and Tiger Woods to the pinnacle of the game and just might do it again with a team that includes Phil Mickelson as well as Adam Scott.
The golf world is watching intently to see how Mickelson fares after his shift from the companionable Rick Smith to the assertive Harmon this year. Their oddly timed start has been more than promising: Mickelson tied for third twice and hit 16 of 18 greens in the final round to win the Players, where Harmon's clientele claimed four of the top six spots. But both Mickelson and coach can be cement-set in their ways.
"Do I have an ego? Of course I do," Harmon says. "I think anybody who's good at what they do has an ego. But I just like being around people, especially golfers. I like helping them and entertaining them, whether they're tour stars or high-handicappers at our schools. We Harmons always say if b.s. were dynamite, we'd be atomic bombs."
His outsize personality and record with tour pros help make Harmon the most popular teacher in golf but are merely the fancy wrapping on an expensive gift. His peers and pupils, amateur and professional alike, cite his quick eye, his focus on major faults and his ability to communicate in simple language, several ways if necessary, as the skills that underpin his reputation.
The age of information overload has not spared golf instruction, making Harmon's clear-minded approach all the more appealing. Says one woman at a Harmon school, "He is ultra, ultra confident about what he's doing, and he has an uncanny sense for the obvious that others don't seem to see or explain as well."
The delightful curmudgeon Jackie Burke is not high on modern teaching but has nothing negative to say about Harmon. Burke has known him for more than half a century, and gave Butch his first lesson when Jackie was an assistant professional at Winged Foot under Harmon's legendary father, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion. To occupy junior, Burke took him to the tee on the 10th hole of the West Course, so he could get the ball airborne. It wasn't all downhill for a rebellious Butch growing up, as has been well-chronicled, but it pretty much is now.
"He teaches people, not systems," Burke says. "Some of these guys have a system for using a toothbrush. There's a swing in everybody—but you gotta find it. Butch tries to."
Harmon employs an anti-method method, delivered in a blunt but ingratiating manner. Peter Kostis, the teacher and TV analyst, says of Harmon's tour stature, "The relationship—the likability factor—between teacher and pro is every bit as important as the quality of instruction. Butch makes sure he doesn't hurt anybody, because at the tour level it's easy to hurt more than help in the process of trying."
Teacher Jim Hardy of "one-plane/two-plane" swing fame prefaces his take on Harmon's approach by recalling their playing days together on the tour. "We both had real tempers," he says. "Lanny Wadkins still loves to tell a story about the first PGA Tour tournament he ever played in when he was a student at Wake Forest, the Greater Greensboro Open, and he was paired in a qualifier with Jim Hardy and Butch Harmon. I'm not sure how we meshed with that young man's dreams of the tour. He said he was worried that we wouldn't wind up with one set of clubs between us."
Hardy's barometer of a good coach is simply whether the players get better. "His players do. Look at Adam Scott. Everyone's impatient with young players, but I don't think his career shows a backward notch."
Hardy likes that Harmon doesn't get involved in criticizing other teachers' philosophies. With Woods bringing broader media coverage to the sport, some of that internecine carping approaches soap-opera proportions. "He promotes himself through the sheer excellence of his students," Hardy says.
Eddie Merrins, a 70-something teacher of high repute, brings an elder statesman's perspective to the question of why Harmon is No. 1: "A good teacher helps a student to help himself. Butch is a good teacher and has become renowned as a great teacher because he has high-profile students. His brothers kid him that he really isn't a good instructor, he just knows how to pick clients."
Harmon's rise to the top of his field started late and slowly but accelerated stunningly. Merrins saw it develop. "When Butch was working in Houston, his friend Steve Elkington urged him to build a stable of young tour pros and recommended him to Greg Norman. Norman liked Butch so much they got together, and Butch had a stable of one, who happened to become the top-ranked player in the world."
It got better still. "Tiger Woods was a young California amateur who admired Norman and the way he played," says Merrins. "Lo and behold, now Butch had a stable of two, and they happened to be the best professional in the world and the best amateur in the world. Butch took it from there."
Teacher Josh Zander says Harmon learns from being around great players. Harmon agrees. "Teaching is all about learning," he says. "Learning from players, from other teachers, from looking at film of golf swings, from watching people make golf swings—from watching the worst swing you ever saw hit it straight. Everything I know, I've learned from someone else. I've developed my own theories and ways of presenting them, but the fundamentals are still the fundamentals. Swing path and clubface angles are still the important things."
Sharing knowledge, he maintains, is vital for the teaching profession. He says that's why he and his brothers started their teaching summit, with leading guest teachers whose methods differ from theirs and who are passionate about their calling.
The inaugural summit last fall featured, in addition to Craig and Billy Harmon, Jimmy Ballard, Hardy, putter designer Scotty Cameron, course architect Tom Fazio and sport psychologist Dr. Richard Coop. Missing was Dick Harmon, the well-known Houston club professional who died last year of complications from pneumonia at age 58. Two full days of indoor sessions passed quickly even as sunny weather might have shortened attention spans. Harmon says he didn't want to present yet another boring seminar, and he wanted a diversity of thinking. "You can learn from people you most disagree with," he says.