January 4, 2010

America's Fifty Greatest Teachers

Butch Harmon

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.

Of brother Butch's obsession with learning, Billy, a teaching pro who has caddied and been a sounding board for Jay Haas for years, says, "What people don't know is that he studies every tour pro's swing in case he's asked something about it. He's watched hours and hours of video. If Stuart Appleby turned to him on the range and said his teacher wasn't there and he had a question, Butch would already have the answer. He isn't intimidated by good players—he tells them what he thinks, and if they don't like it, they don't have to listen."

To be a Harmon growing up with an iconic and demanding father, you had to validate it, Billy says. "It's still a driving force with the three of us. Butch and I took the path of most resistance and finally realized our name wasn't a negative. I believe the turnaround for Butch came one day at the Texas Open in San Antonio. At the time he was at the most public course you ever saw in Texas City—the only thing it lacked was a tattoo parlor.

"I was caddieing for Jay, on the range with him, and he was leading the tournament. Dick was on the range with Lanny. Butch was sitting in these Spartan metal bleachers watching, and I remember looking back at him and thinking how funny it must feel for him with his little brothers inside the ropes and he's outside the ropes. I believe it started that day in the bleachers when he didn't like being outside looking in."

When Butch got inside the ropes, he found he had a talent for teaching, Billy says. "Once he got a taste of success, it was intoxicating, and he became more driven than he lets people know."

MATCHING UP WITH MICKELSON

The alliance with Mickelson appears to one who knows the two to be a risk-risk situation, especially commencing after the season was well underway. "It's Butch's nature to be up for a challenge, and Phil's, too," this observer says. "That's how they got where they are. But will Phil listen well enough?"

Their main objective is straightening out Mickelson's driving, through better lower-body control and a tighter swing.

"That's the goal, the driver," Mickelson says. "That's why I went to Butch, primarily. There are a lot of other things he brings to the table, but he's led two players to No. 1 in the world, and they both were great drivers of the ball. That's what we've been focusing on."

Phil and Butch

Mickelson will pick Harmon's mind about other aspects of the game as well; with the voluble coach it's hard not to. Mickelson says he's heard a lot of good stories—hardly any repeatable in a family golf magazine.

Harmon says, "My wife asked me if I wanted to step back into that circus again. But I like Phil and felt I could help. I think he's the only guy who can catch Tiger right now, the only guy with the talent, experience, desire and work ethic. People don't see his work ethic."

As for making changes in the heart of the season, Harmon says he has learned that patience is an over-rated virtue with superstars. The best players, he says, are the most impatient. "They want it now. They have the guts to put it under the gun to see if it gets results. Tiger's always been that way. I think one of the reasons we split up after 10 years is he kept wanting new stuff, and I'm of the belief that if it isn't broken, you don't try to fix it."

Today, Woods says, "You have to believe and buy into what that particular coach wants you to do, and you have to believe that's the best way for you to swing the golf club. Not every technique can work for each individual."

Six years ago, before the split, Harmon told Golf Digest the story of how an instructor had designs on becoming Tiger's teacher. "I threatened him with bodily harm," Harmon said at the time.

Earlier this year, after Mickelson's rather awkwardly handled change of coaches, including two public confabs with Harmon on the range, Butch called Rick Smith.

"I told him I knew exactly how he felt," Harmon says. "That it was a business decision, the two of them would remain close, and not to let the press beat him up over it."

JUGGLING THE SUPERSTARS

It has been reported that Harmon doesn't charge tour players for his time. That's the tip of the story. He confirms that Tiger paid him $50,000 a year, and if that doesn't sound like a lot, Butch's net worth grew quite nicely from the association, thank you. But Harmon decided he didn't want a contractual arrangement again. He professes not to miss being at Tiger's beck and call (at tournaments, Harmon says he couldn't work with anyone else until Tiger left the course). He prefers to be available to all of his clients.

There's a definite pecking order, he made clear to Mickelson, that starts with Scott, who has been with him since he was a teenager and is now ranked No. 4 in the world. You can bet that Mickelson will get his fair share of attention, and Harmon keeps close track of his progress by talking on the phone to Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay, almost daily.

"I charge the players only my travel expenses, based on how much time I spend with them at a tournament," Harmon says. "They all know I'm on the range from sunup to sundown—with time out at the majors to do commentating for [British] Sky Sports television—and if they need me I have my cell phone in my pocket on vibrate and can tell them exactly when I can see them."

The caveat to the free instruction: Harmon tells his pros that if they have a good season they can write him a check at the end of the year, or not. Scott is nearly the youngest but writes the biggest checks, in the six figures. Other players like Fred Couples give Harmon expensive hours on their private jets. After winning the British Open, Norman had replicas made of the claret jug for Harmon and caddie Tony Navarro, at a hefty cost.

Johnny Miller says Scott, 26, "has the best on-plane swing" on tour. To which Harmon says, "Fundamentally he has the best swing. People think I taught him Tiger's swing, they're so similar, but Adam had that swing when he showed up here. His dad was a golf pro in Australia, and the swing fits his physique, which is like Tiger's.

"Scotty needs to keep developing a variety of recovery shots and more consistency with his putting to win majors, and we work on that, and he will. Like so many young guys today, he's a little too mechanical when he putts. Sergio Garcia plays from tee to green with feel and imagination but putts like a robot. I don't think the great putters have worried that much about their strokes, but a lot of these kids, that's all they think about. They need to get out of that mind-set and just putt."

Scott was a surprise drop-by at Harmon's teaching summit the week after he won the Tour Championship, casual in T-shirt, jeans and tousled hair after attending Justin Rose's bachelor party the night before. Scott and Harmon re-enacted a five-minute lesson that led to his victory at East Lake.

Harmon was on the range Tuesday of tournament week with Lucas Glover, whose teacher had been Dick Harmon, when Scott teed off on the nearby seventh hole. He hit a poor shot with a 3-wood and told Harmon his game was in a funk. Based on observing that swing Harmon told him, "You dragged the handle off the ball, your right hip slid and the clubface was shut. Take another ball."

Harmon went behind Scott on the eighth tee, held his right leg and told him to turn around that leg and feel as if he was leaving the clubface open. Scott did and hit a lovely little draw. "That's it?" he said. And went on to play a textbook tournament.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Butch is the No. 1 teacher," Scott said outside the meeting room. "He has a gift to see the golf swing better than anyone else, break it down in his head and find a way to communicate to each of his players, whether it's me or Stewart [Cink] or Jose Maria [Olazabal]. That's why he's a great coach."

Essentially a serious young man, less outgoing than your usual Aussie sportsman, Scott says Harmon's levity appeals to him. "When you work and have fun, you're going to get more accomplished. He keeps the mood lighthearted, and if I'm not getting it he'll say, 'OK, let's take a break and have lunch, because it's getting to be no fun. We'll come back and work on it in an hour.' He reads his players so well because he was a player himself. He played in majors and knows what the game's about from our standpoint."

Butch and Tiger

Harmon says, "If there's a secret to my success teaching tour players, it's that I treat each of them differently. They all have their own personalities and swings, and I don't try to make them swing alike. My father taught me never to take away what someone does naturally, just try to make it better."

Doubtless the most unorthodox natural swing in Harmon's tour contingent belongs to Natalie Gulbis. "She's so flexible she could get her hands on the other side of her head on the backswing," he says. "I didn't take away her turning motion, just tried to create a better clubface angle at the top, working from the ground up." Gulbis calls Harmon before and after nearly every tournament round. Butch heard that her father, John, her former coach, said this spring that she was quitting Harmon, which Natalie emphatically denied. "She loves him," Harmon says, "but he and I need to have another sit-down. It's like he went to Woodstock, and he's still there."

As for the psychology of relating to tour pros, "Some of them you have to cuddle, some of them you have to kick in the teeth," Harmon says. "You have to know when to back off, when to push and how to push. Sometimes they have to vent and take it out on somebody, and you're there, and you have to realize it isn't personal."

What is it about Harmon's eye that so impresses his students? (Presumably it's his right eye, because the left one can seem to look sideways and is prone to a twitch that defies medical diagnosis—unless, specialists say, it's because of stress. Harmon rejects rumors that it's a war injury from Vietnam, where he saw heavy action as a gunner on a mortar crew, saying the eye has a mind of its own.)

"Every time I look at a swing, my head's like a computer," he says. "I see about 20 things at once: grip, ball position, alignment, swing path, clubface angles, arm angles. . . I've been a golf pro for over 40 years, and I'm blessed with a very good eye that sees things quickly. That was one of my father's strengths, and I absorbed a lot watching him."

Harmon has brought along young pros like Scott and Nick Watney, who earned his first PGA Tour victory this season, and has helped slumping veterans like Couples and Corey Pavin win again. "He's big on width in the swing," says Pavin, "and getting everything on top of the ball and going toward the target at impact. He can tell you in very few swings what you need to work on, and he keeps it very simple. Then it's story time."

Cink says he does most of his work with Harmon in Vegas, but at majors he prefers just to hear his stories to stay relaxed. Cink had heard from several analysts that his swing was too long and left him tilted back at impact, but when Harmon told him, it registered: "I knew it must be right if Butch said it."

TEACHING PROS VS. AMATEURS

Pavin has watched Harmon teach average golfers and been impressed that his coach is just as dedicated and effective as he is with tour players. "To have the balance to teach on all levels shows why other teachers respect him so highly," he says.

Craig Harmon says he hates to do a free ad for his brother but can attest that students at his schools get the full Butch persona. "If you want to learn, he's 100 percent committed to helping you. He's very authoritative and has the presence to back it up. You aren't there for a haircut, you're there to get better, and he believes you're going to."

What's the difference between teaching tour pros and teaching golf schools?

Butch says, "With tour pros, you have to be very precise every time you tell them something, because you're dealing with their livelihoods. They're extremely talented individuals, so they pretty much can do what you want them to do. With amateurs you can experiment more. You can say, 'That didn't work; let's try this.' "

His schools are associated with the Rio Secco Golf Club in Henderson, Nev., a scenic Rees Jones course winding through canyons. The setting spectacularly overlooks the hyperglitz of the Vegas Strip, 20 minutes away for the stretch limos that shuttle school participants from hotels down in the desert valley. The facilities offer the requisite modern technology and practice areas, but more important offer Harmon himself for 32 two- or three-day sessions this year.

Ten students attend each school, overseen by Butch and staffed by five instructors in matching caps, shirts and Bermuda shorts, the outfits changed daily. (The staff itself seldom changes.) Stay-and-play packages start at $3,900 per student.

Harmon, a burly 5-feet-8 and 240 pounds ("he's doing a Pilates video for round people," cracks Craig), tanned as if he has been dunked in a vat of Coppertone, is emphatically in charge. He could be mistaken for a defensive-line coach at a Southeastern Conference football power.

He will demonstrate by hitting shots, occasionally mixing in trick shots he developed doing exhibitions to bolster his income in leaner times. During individual work, he moves briskly from pupil to pupil, barely favoring a chronically sore hip. Often he raises his voice so the entire group can hear.

"Average players stare at the ball; pros stare at the target," he barks. "You don't need to lock on that ball as if somebody's gonna run off with it."

A student mentions that he saw a tour player hit a full wedge shot cross-handed on TV. Harmon says, "You can teach me that shot if you learn it."

He tells the class, "Good players I teach hit a lot of balls in slow motion, teed, to ingrain the proper mechanics. As we'll see on video, feel and real are seldom the same thing." Harmon says he doesn't need video to know what students are doing but uses it to show them what he's preaching. He says he's the only teacher who doesn't take a camera on tour.

To a bleary-eyed pupil stuck in slow motion: "You went to bed at 4 a.m.? The bikini blackjack tables must have been open. You want some more Red Bull?"

To a student with a driver: "You're 6-4 playing like 5-8, Bob. Stand taller and swing your hands higher. That's good; that's a beauty, pal. We'll try longer clubs, too."

In an aside he says, "There's no reason not to have good fundamentals, yet everybody who comes to us has terrible posture. The first thing we do is change it to allow them to do what their bodies are capable of doing."

For a student committing the common fault of coming over the top, he puts a taped-up club carton outside the ball "which she'll nail if she keeps doing it."

A segment is devoted to expanding options for playing the same shot, this one from 15 yards out to a back-hole location on a green open in front. Harmon says the ball can be chipped, lobbed, putted or hit with a hybrid club, and shows and tells how to execute each. "I taught the hybrid shot to Tiger when he was a teenager," he says. "You stand closer to the ball and the loft gets it up, then it rolls smoothly."

He amazes the students when he says that Tiger uses four grips for shots around the green: his normal interlocking grip, an overlap, a 10-finger and a putting grip. Interestingly, Harmon says, Tiger's practice swings are made with his normal grip, then when he addresses the ball his hands automatically assume whatever grip feels right for the shot.

During lunch in the posh Rio Secco clubhouse, Harmon is in full raconteur mode, going from Hogan stories to the latest gossip on tour. Between occasional bites of a salad entrée, he reports that he spent the weekend with Kenny G in Malibu, attending one of his concerts and checking up on his golf game. (Other celebrity clients have included Will Smith, Joe Pesci and Bruce Willis.) Kenny G is beyond avid about his golf.

"His personal learning center is about as well-equipped as mine," Harmon says. "His swing mechanics are very good. He's a scratch golfer, but he gave the Nationwide Tour a try, and the speed of the greens got him. I told him he needs to play more."

Steve Seach, a Texas entrepreneur with a bad back that Harmon works around, carries a 12-handicap, down from 24 when he first attended the school several years ago. He says half the fun is hearing the stories. "The man rivals Mark Twain," Seach says. "He told me his dad's pal Hogan showed him how to hit sand shots as a kid, so I can say I learned from Hogan."

Sam Reeves is a 72-year-old pupil in investments who carried a low handicap that's going up with age. "He gets my hands higher at the top for more extension, and the rest falls into place," Reeves says. "He likes to say he prefers to fix one thing that will cure four other things. He encourages you but doesn't mince words. You won't get 'pretty good' from him."

Reeves was in Harmon's first school in 1997 and has attended every year since, always with family members. This year, Reeves is buying out an entire three-day session for three generations from ages 9 to 72. "Butch is great with the kids," Reeves says. "He makes it fun."

Approaching Social Security age, Harmon doesn't expect to keep up his sometimes-frantic pace of golf schools, tour coaching, television assignments and corporate outings too much longer (though he's considering doing some course design with old Army buddy Bob Cupp). "I'll put in three more good, hard years, until our son, Cole, is in high school," he says. "Then I'll slow down and enjoy life a little more. But I'll never stop teaching."

His wife, Christy, in her mid-40s and an occasional golfer along with Cole, does his schedule a year in advance and is trying to persuade him to lighten it. But she says he's good at getting completely away from the game for family time.

"He's in a different place in his life financially, which makes it easier for him to say no," she says. Harmon credits David Leadbetter for enhancing instructors' careers: "All of us who do what I do owe David a tremendous amount of gratitude because he's the first teacher who made people aware that good instruction costs more than normal instruction. He was the one who was out in front, and we've all reaped the benefits."

The Harmons have moved into a new house in Henderson, primarily to gain a bigger yard and bigger pool for their two classically bred English Labrador retrievers, Rio and Hunter, large, intelligent, high-spirited animals. Butch talks to them as if they were his favorite students, tossing a weighted putter cover for them to chase. At one point, he even quizzes them to find out which perpetrator dug a hole in the range.

Christy says, "I've always loved dogs, but he'd never had a pet, and his affection for these guys surprised the heck out of him. Away from golf he has a real soft side. He cannot watch a war movie, and he becomes extremely emotional at the sight of a sick child. He told me he has a lot of skeletons from Vietnam, and he eventually opened up to me about some of that, but he doesn't want to discuss it with other people. I think he feels extremely fortunate to have survived it when so many others didn't."

Harmon leaves his clubs at home during family vacations. This summer the three will go to London a week before the British Open to see Parliament, Shakespeare's birthplace and, Christy says, "anything Harry Potter." The dogs will stay behind at an upscale kennel in California.

The dogs and Harmon go first-class these days. As the song goes, sometimes you're the bat and sometimes you're the ball, and he prefers being the bat (and coaching the swing). He's been down and he's worked hard to be up, and he's enjoying the improved lifestyle. He drives a sporty top-of-the-line Mercedes and favors Palm steakhouses, calling ahead to request that vintage wines be opened in advance to breathe.

"Being chosen No. 1 teacher in America again is a great honor because you're voted on by your peers," he says. "It means more to me now because I'm no longer with Tiger and it's about the work I'm doing with my other pros and the amateurs."

Beyond the schools, Harmon no longer gives individual lessons to new students at $600 an hour, but of course there's always a way. Dan Tzivanis is a club professional in Connecticut who approached Harmon at this year's PGA Merchandise Show with a ticket from Butch's lone PGA Tour victory, a one-day satellite event in 1971 that eventually grew into the B.C. Open.

"This guy was from that area in upstate New York," Harmon says, "and he showed me this ticket. I'd even signed it on the back. I told him if he could get to Vegas, I'd be happy to give him a lesson. He came, and I gave him a lesson. That ticket's in a glass block on my desk."

A Tip From Butch

Number Two: David Leadbetter