The annual Pro-Member at The Floridian always has something to see—namely, the tour players and A-list celebrities who stuff the lineup at the exclusive club north of Palm Beach. Rickie Fowler is a staple at the event, but his partner was the one drawing more of the attention this past December.
Butch Harmon came in fit, happy and ready to share news that he had been contemplating for at least the last few years. The legendary instructor told his players—Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Gary Woodland and Nick Watney—that 2018 was his last year teaching out on tour. He’d be enjoying his new-found “retirement” in Las Vegas working on his own game, headlining golf schools for high-rolling amateurs and helping the occasional tour player who comes to visit.
“I’m 75 years old. It’s time for me to work on my own game and just enjoy life,” said Harmon, who holed a chip on The Floridian’s 16th hole in front a squadron of spectator-filled carts to send one match to the next hole. “I’ve been traveling on tour for 35 years, and doing the majors for Sky TV for 23. That’s enough. I’m done. It was just the right time.”
The three most prominent of Harmon’s students have moved on, but they haven’t gone far. Three months into the 2019 season and on the eve of the year’s first major, Harmon’s son, Claude Harmon III, has taken over the main coaching role for Johnson, Fowler and Walker. Speaking to GolfDigest.com, Claude explained that he’s expanding on the work he has been doing with all three over the last few years, working alongside his father at The Floridian and as a regular presence on the road.
“A couple of years ago, my dad said this was coming, so I started spending more time week-to-week with DJ, Rickie and Jimmy,” said the younger Harmon, a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher who comes with his own credentials, having taught Brooks Koepka since his days on the European Challenge Tour. “This year has been very similar to what I’ve been doing. We’re trying to do the same things my dad did, but maybe do them in a little different way. We’ve teamed up to keep things simple. I use some more technology than he did, and that’s different, but it can also help them look at things a little differently.”
For Fowler, it has meant using 3D technology to measure progress in a change to his arm position in the backswing. With Johnson, it’s operating as a set of confirming eyes—“He’s more on auto-pilot from week-to-week”—while Walker is in the middle of rebuilding the confidence that made him a major winner in 2016.
The early results speak for themselves. Johnson won both the WGC-Mexico Championship and the Saudi International in February to go with five other top-10 finishes, and he took back the No. 1 ranking in the world from Justin Rose. Fowler won the Waste Management Phoenix Open and tied for second two weeks later at the Honda Classic. Walker continues to make strides from a debilitating bout with Lyme Disease and is back to playing a full schedule.
The transition appears to be going smoothly for the players, but it’s also come with an appreciation for what they had in the first place. “Butch is not going to be around you and put the time in if he doesn’t believe in what you’re capable of,” Fowler said. “Also, seeing the guys he’s been around and taught—some pretty good credentials. If you get accepted, it’s a confidence boost. He’s not going to take on a charity case. He’s going to take on players who have a chance to be great. Plus, you can’t help but have a good time around him. We have fun.”
Managing the games and schedules of a full roster of prominent players is first-world problem Claude III is excited to tackle. “I’m lucky that Jimmy and Rickie are good friends and play a lot of practice rounds together,” he said, “and that DJ and Brooks are good friends and play a lot together.”
Claude III knows his father set a high bar, just like Butch experienced with his own father—the original Claude Harmon won the 1948 Masters and had a 40-year career as a legendary club professional at Winged Foot and Seminole.
“My dad has taught two of the greatest players of all time [Tiger Woods and Greg Norman], along with so many other players, and nobody I’ve ever been around works harder,” said Claude III. “He’s never been afraid to get on guys when they need it, but he always knows what to say and what not to say. By force of will, he can make you believe—and that’s the secret sauce that’s hard to recreate. We’re talking about a guy who is on the Mount Rushmore of golf instructors. My job is to continue to be me and build on the foundation he established. I’m proud players would trust me to take over the day-to-day. That means a lot. I hope can make my dad proud and continue to help them with their games.”
It isn’t as though that “secret sauce” is disappearing completely. “Being home gives me time to spend with some of the young players who want to come out for a look,” said Butch, who will make one last appearance for Sky Sports at the Masters next month. “Danielle Kang is out here a lot, and Ollie Schniederjans has been out two or three times. When they come, they just pay my hourly rate—$1,500.”
Plus, the famously old-school teacher has embraced a bit of modern technology. “They all have phones with cameras, so when they need a look they text me videos,” Butch said. “The bottom line is, the guys can always have my help. That will never change.”
As in touch as Butch Harmon might be staying, some of those tour text messages might take a little longer to answer than before. Claude Harmon says he’s never seen his father hit the ball better, as evidenced by the heroics on display at The Floridian Cup. After all, he has the game’s most decorated teacher working on his swing full-time.
Las Vegas pigeons, beware.