Billy Harmon didn’t get much sleep last Tuesday night, which is understandable. At 65, the youngest of the fabled Harmon Brothers had begun chemotherapy treatment that day at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
“Before you get involved in your treatment, time is your enemy,” Harmon told me. “You think about too much and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. At least I got started with my chemo. I’m happy to be going, happy to be on the road.”
The ex-Marine reserve, director of golf at Toscana Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., and swing coach to both Jay and Bill Haas admitted he wasn’t so tough after learning the mild sore throat he experienced for months was really a tumor on the back of his tongue that would require radiation treatment. It would mean being fed through a tube and being unable to drink or swallow for two months.
“The funny thing about it, even when I was depressed, I never feared dying from this thing. I feared the loss of the quality of life,” Harmon said. “Your throat is everything—it’s breathing, talking, swallowing, eating … that’s your lifeline. Once I heard what the treatment was with radiation and everything … basically that scared the s--- out of me.”
Harmon smoked for 20 years but quit 20 years ago, and he has been sober for longer than that (he is the president of the Harmon Recovery Foundation). But he was discouraged enough after his first consultation at MD Anderson that he told his his wife, Robin, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t have felt better if the doctor said, ‘You’re going to die.’ ”
Since then, Billy (shown above left with brothers Butch and Craig) has received a lot of expert coaching. Mark Rolfing, the NBC announcer who underwent treatment last August for Stage IV salivary-gland cancer and returned to work in January cancer free, preached being the best patient possible. “Attitude was the big thing,” Harmon said. “I felt when I was depressed there was no way I could do this.”
During his initial treatments in Houston, Billy is staying in the home of Nancy Harmon, the widow of his late brother, Dick, who died at 58 of congestive heart failure in 2006. His brothers Craig, 70, and Butch, 72, have set up living arrangements near MD Anderson for when the radiation begins in July. “I said the greatest thing about me having cancer is the brothers are back,” Billy said. “I’d missed it. Nobody was at fault. Nobody was wrong. It just wasn’t the same since Dick died.”
Billy had been scheduled to be a guest speaker at this week’s 80th Anderson Memorial four-ball invitational at Winged Foot. One of his goals now is to be the speaker next year.
“Going back to Winged Foot for me is a big deal,” Harmon said of the heralded club where his father, 1948 Masters winner Claude Harmon, was head pro from 1945 to 1978. “Everything I’ve had in golf pretty much traces to my upbringing there. There’s no other place I’d rather speak in golf than at that dinner.”
Until then, Harmon faces 35 radiation treatments. He intends to deal with them with the quick humor and gratitude he’s known for. As he said with a laugh, “It wasn’t lost on a lot of people that my cancer was on my tongue.”
Editors' Note: This story first appeared in the May 30, 2016 issue of Golf World.