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Instruction

Butch Harmon, golf’s iconic coach, leads our first class of legends

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Butch Harmon accepts the inaugural Golf Digest Legends of Golf Instruction award from executive editor Peter Morrice in Las Vegas.

Sports fans love a good debate on who’s the greatest of all-time. Is it Jack or Tiger? LeBron or Jordan? Federer or Djokovic? But when it comes to evaluating golf instructors—a small but highly influential niche in our game—there is no debate. Butch Harmon has coached more tour players to more wins, more major championships and more World No. 1 rankings than any other teacher ever. And it’s not even close.

Twenty-two years ago, Harmon was voted No. 1 by his peers on Golf Digest’s 50 Best Teachers in America, an honor he has held ever since. Now, Harmon highlights the inaugural class of Golf Digest’s Legends of Golf Instruction, a recognition created to celebrate long-standing teachers who have shaped golf instruction in the modern era.

“My mentors were my father [Claude Harmon] and John Jacobs,” Harmon says. “I think my dad was the greatest teacher ever—he had the best eye, could tell you what you were doing in two swings. And John Jacobs was all about how the ball is your teacher and what the ball does tells you all you need to know. I still use their teachings every day.”

Harmon, who turned 80 this year, is known for his no-nonsense style and his ability to make the learning process simple and fun. He says he tries to make it easy enough so a second-grader could understand. His stories alone, spanning decades with legendary players, presidents, celebrities, sports stars and more, would be worth the trip to Las Vegas, where Harmon runs his school and offers private instruction.

“I’ve always believed that as teachers, we have a choice: We can either teach golf to people, or teach people to play golf,” Harmon says. “I’ve always done the latter, because every student is different. We’re not robots, and there’s no swing or method that works across the board.”

Harmon’s career as a coach to tour players started in 1986 with Steve Elkington, then Davis Love III and shortly thereafter his first international superstar, Greg Norman. A steady stream of top players followed, from Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Fred Couples to Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Harmon’s most famous student, Tiger Woods. It seems that almost every great player of the past 40 years has landed on Butch Harmon’s lesson tee.

“I was fortunate to get some of the players I did, when I did,” Harmon says. “There’s no doubt that some guys came to me because of who they saw me working with on the range—and who was winning.”

Harmon was coaching four different players when they rose to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking: Norman, Woods, Johnson and Adam Scott. “I like to joke that I took four players to No. 1, and they all fired me. But that’s the business. I was able to help all my players get better, and I didn’t try to get any of them to swing like anyone else. I’m proud of that.”

Joining Harmon on the new Legends of Golf Instruction are 20 other teachers who have been fixtures on Golf Digest’s national instructor ranking since its inception in 2000. They include, to name a few, David Leadbetter, Jim McLean, Bob Toski, Mike Adams, Pia Nilsson, Hank Haney and Dave Pelz, a collection that proves golf has been blessed with brilliant teachers.

But the G.O.A.T. is Harmon, and now he can add “legend” to his resume.

The full legends list will appear online Dec. 14.