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Butch Harmon: What I’ve Learned From My Players

The best lessons my players have taught me and how they can help you

Nathaniel Welch

November 07, 2021

I STARTED WORKING WITH GREG NORMAN in 1991, shortly after he lost his No. 1 ranking to Nick Faldo. Greg had developed a flaw in his swing. He’d slide his hips so hard toward the target on the downswing that the club would drop behind him, sometimes causing a fatal block to the right. I knew we had to get him to rotate his hips earlier coming down to take away some of that slide. Greg is the most focused person I’ve ever been around. When he wants something, he’s relentless, and he committed to making the change. It was grueling at times, but two years later, he got back to No. 1. The lesson for me was, great players can physically do whatever you ask them to do—it’s a very transparent process. You’re either right or wrong, and you better be right.

During the past three decades, I’ve been fortunate to work with some phenomenal players, and I’ve learned so many lessons: rhythm from Fred Couples, short game from Phil, feel from Seve, sheer grit from Tiger. Whenever I’m working with players who have a special way of doing something, I want to know how they do it. I’ll ask them what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. The player in me has a curiosity about these things. The teacher in me knows that finding out how the best players perform their best skills will help me with all my students. Along the way, I’ve learned how to deal with people—when to give them space, when to push them, when they need a laugh or a hug. People ask me the secret to teaching, and I say, “I don’t teach golf to people; I teach people to play golf.” And in return, they teach me back. —with PETER MORRICE

Tiger Woods

IN THE 10 YEARS I worked with Tiger [starting in 1993], I learned that the best way to motivate him was to tell him he couldn’t do something. He’d play with a guy who had a certain shot he liked, and I’d say, “That’s not for you. That would take too long to pick up.” Tiger would go work his butt off to show me he could learn it, and of course, he pretty much always did.


In 1998, at the Mercedes Championships at La Costa, we were on the range early in the week trying to hit a fade with his long irons. He just wasn’t getting it, and he was losing patience. I noticed down the right side of the range there was an opening in the fence where the range cart would go in and out, about 240 yards away. I said to Tiger, “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks you can’t hit a high fade through that opening. I’ll give you five chances.” He rolled in a ball, gave it that Tiger glare, and knocked it through on the first swing with a perfect left-to-right curve. I handed over the hundred, but I knew we’d just made major progress on the fade. None of us is Tiger Woods, but sometimes a little challenge can get us going in the right direction.


Photo by Nathaniel Welch

Dustin Johnson

DUSTIN used to hit booming, high draws with the driver, but every once in a while he’d hook one off the planet. On the practice tee, he’d mix in some fades in case he needed one. I taught him the old Nicklaus version of the fade: Aim the clubface where you want the ball to end up, align your body well to the left, then swing along your body lines. Dustin would hit these beautiful, controlled fades—and they’d go miles. I knew this was the best shot for him off the tee, but I didn’t push it. I just made sure he kept hitting them in practice and using them when they made sense on the course.

One day about three years ago, he said, “I get it in the fairway more with the fade; why don’t I just hit it every time?” I thought, Thank you very much. Now, Dustin is deadly with his driver fade. When he’s hitting it well, I don’t think anybody can beat him.

The lesson for me: Some-times you have to plant the seed and let the player come to it on his own. There’s nothing like seeing success from your own great idea.

“The first day, Butch told me we weren’t going to change my [bowed] left wrist. he said, ‘You play great with it. If we change it, maybe nobody will ever hear from you again.’” —Dustin Johnson

Phil Mickelson

WHEN I started working with Phil a few weeks before the Players Championship in 2007, I noticed something during practice rounds: On greenside shots, he would play the ball either way up or way back in his stance, nothing in between. I’d always taught pitching from a middle ball position, moving the ball progressively forward to add loft and progressively back to take away loft. I asked Phil about it, and he confirmed that he has two ball positions for chip shots: off the front foot and off the back foot.

To be clear, Phil has a million different shots with different clubs, but the ball position is always in one of these two spots, no gray area. The forward position allows him to slide the club under the ball for a higher trajectory; the back position creates a trapping action and a low spinner.

I tried out Phil’s system on some amateur students and quickly realized that using two positions was simpler and easier to learn. So a lot of times now, that’s how I teach it. And yes, it helps when you can tell golfers, “By the way, this is how Phil Mickelson does it.”

“Butch understands that as a player you want knowledge, but you also have to go out and play. What’s special about him is not only what he tells you, but when and how much.” —Phil Mickelson

Seve Ballesteros

In 1995, Seve asked me to come to Spain for a couple weeks to work with him on his swing. I saw immediately that he was an amazing feel player who had gotten wrapped up in trying to make a mechanically perfect swing. I knew we had to get him back to a simple process of seeing the shot and hitting it.

Every day we’d go on the course with a caddie who would stand out in the fairway and shag balls. I tried to get Seve freed up, but he was so bogged down in technical thinking. Finally, out of desperation, I walked out 30 yards and said, “OK, I’m going to tell you what shot to hit, and you just hit it over me.” In his thick Spanish accent, Seve said, “Bootch, I kill you.” But eventually he was willing to try. So I’d hold up my right hand and say, “Hit me a fade from here.” He did. I’d hold up my left hand: “Hit me a draw.” He did. “Now a high one right over my head.” He did. We kept going like this, and I swear the caddie didn’t have to take two steps left or right to retrieve those balls. See it, hit it.

The lesson was one my father [Claude Harmon, 1948 Masters champion] had taught me years earlier: Find out what a person does naturally, and improve on that. I see so many players, pro and amateur, who fight their instincts and try to become something they’re not. Identify what you do well, and build from there.


Photo by Nathaniel Welch

Rickie Fowler

RICKIE and I have worked hard on his full swing since we started together in 2014, but I’ve always admired how he clips his pitch shots perfectly, especially off tight lies. This is something I’ve struggled with in my game.

A couple years ago before the Houston Open, we were practicing at Lochinvar, where I was the pro in the ’90s, and I told Rickie I needed to know his secret. He showed me how he keeps the clubhead low to the ground on pitch shots so it slides along the turf through impact, instead of crashing down on the ball. Players who struggle with these shots tend to hinge their wrists quickly on the backswing and end up sticking the clubhead in the ground. Rickie’s style is to go wide on the backswing and then focus on turning his body through the shot, which shallows the swing and allows him to brush the ball off the grass. He sets up with his hands just ahead of the ball and pictures returning to that spot at impact.

It clicked for me that day, and I started hitting these soft little shots. I love the concept: Skidding the club on its sole is much easier than trying to drop the clubhead precisely on the back of the ball. Try it.

“When Butch agrees to work with you, it means he believes in what you can do. You’re accepted. He’s going to take on players who have a chance to be great.” —Rickie Fowler

Fred Couples

BY THE time I started working with Fred [2003], he had been on tour for 20 years. I’d seen him at so many tournaments, but still, standing on the practice tee with Fred was a mesmerizing experience—that long, flowing swing, always in perfect rhythm. Like I did with Rickie, I wanted to pick his brain about a particular shot, in this case the half-wedge.

Fred’s swing is so unhurried on wedge shots, and I, like so many golfers, tended to get short and fast. He has a consistent routine with the wedges: Make a couple of smooth practice swings to see where the club hits the ground, then step in, get the ball in the right spot, and go. His swing is even easy on the ground, just sweeping or bruising it, never taking much of a divot. After a while working with Fred, I’d get a 40- or 50-yard wedge shot and think, Just like Freddie. And now I use that cue with students. I’ll see a guy sweating over a half-wedge and say, “Give me a Fred Couples.”

No player in the modern era is more associated with a swing trait than Fred is with rhythm. Simply visualizing his oily swing can make golfers relax and just hit the shot. It really can be that easy.

Jose Maria Olazabal

I MET Jose Maria through Seve in the mid-’90s, and I could watch him hit chips and pitches all day. One of the best I’ve ever seen. He puts a lot of backspin on the ball, because he has a unique down-cocking move where he increases his wrist hinge as the club moves toward the ball. That puts a little more zip on the swing at impact, which adds spin. But that’s not the lesson I want to share.

Jose Maria does something very simple on greenside shots that all golfers should try: He plays from a square or even closed stance. Golfers are often taught to open up so they can see the line better or to pre-set the turn through the ball, but that advice only sets their progress back.

When I asked Jose Maria about squaring up, he explained that when you take an open stance, your back leg gets in the way of the downswing, so you instinctively push the club away from you and then cut across the ball from out to in. That can affect contact and also put left-to-right sidespin on the ball, so it doesn’t roll true. I’d never heard anyone explain it like that, and it made perfect sense. This tip from Jose Maria changed how I teach the short game—now it’s everything from a square stance.

Jimmy Walker

JIMMY'S dad was a very good amateur player, and he used to tell him as a kid to take his most lofted wedge into the back yard and hit as many shots as he could imagine. That was wonderful advice, because it developed in Jimmy a skill for manufacturing shots on command.

When we started working together six years ago, Jimmy was using his 60-degree wedge to hit every shot around the greens. I grew up in the school of thought that you chipped with everything from a sand wedge up to a 5-iron. But when I saw Jimmy doing it all with one club, I had my father’s voice in my head: Don’t mess with something a player does well. I still teach most golfers to use different clubs around the green, but Jimmy has opened my eyes to another way of getting it done. And when I do come across players who have fallen in love with one club, I let them stick with it, because I see it working for one of the best short-game players in the game. It goes to show you, there is no textbook. What works, works.

Greg Norman

I ALREADY gave you a lesson from Greg, but I can’t help but bring up one more, because it has changed not only my golf and my teaching . . . but my life.

Greg Norman was a brand in golf almost from the beginning of his career. Blessed with charisma and leading-man looks to go with his spectacular game, Greg had so many things going on in his life: business deals, public appearances, sponsor events. He developed a keen ability to manage his time. I was always amazed how he could give every little chunk of his day 100-percent attention. When we had two hours on the practice tee, it was pure golf swing for two hours. As engaging as he is, there was very little chitchat and absolutely no hanging around. He taught me how to focus when you’re surrounded by craziness—a great skill.

Sometimes at a major or a Ryder Cup, I’ll have four or five players who want time with me. I know I have to give them all what they need, but I can help only who’s in front of me. At those times, I still think of Greg. Focus, next task; focus, next task. I know I wouldn’t be the teacher or person I am without Greg’s influence.

It’s funny to think about: For 40 years, my job has been to teach, but I’ve ended up learning so much more.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in 2019.