Life of HarmonJanuary 11, 2018

My Shot: Claude Harmon III

Claude III on his famous family, famous pupils and the blank canvas that was Tiger Woods.
With Guy Yocom
Claude Harmon III
Photo by Nathaniel WelchMy Shot: Claude Harmon III | 48 | The Harmon Home, Jupiter, Florida

U.S. Open at Pinehurst, 2014. During practice rounds, players are asking Dustin Johnson his strategy on the par 4s and 5s. On every tee they ask, "What are you going to do here?" His answer was always the same: "Sending driver," he said, meaning he's just going to bash driver everywhere. Today it's part of the vernacular among my guys and my dad's. Ask Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker or even their caddies what they're going to do on a hole, and they say to each other, "Send, bro, send. Gonna send it." It's an inside joke. They all know that nobody sends it like Dustin.

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DUSTIN IS THE POSTER CHILD for everything sport psychologists recommend but what nobody is really able to do. After he three-putted the last hole at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and lost to Jordan Spieth, we all knew he'd be crushed. An hour later, I was in the garage of his rental house, loading up the cars to go to the airport. Dustin came out, looked at me and smiled. "I played so [bleeping] good today," he said. And that was it. He never mentioned it again, at least not to me.

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I'VE NEVER HEARD DUSTIN say a bad word about anybody. That's rare for anybody. In fact, it's the opposite. Players can get gossipy and bad-mouth each other; it's no different than any workplace. When somebody starts to go off on, say, a really slow player, Dustin always interrupts to say, "Ah, I think he's a good guy," or, "He isn't that bad." It's impossible to make his mind drift to unproductive or unhappy places. For him to shrug off what happened at Chambers Bay and win the U.S. Open at Oakmont the next year, especially with the ruling that happened during the last round, combined with the episode at the [2010] Whistling Straits PGA, I think was one of the most amazing psychological feats in golf history.

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BROOKS KOEPKA IS NOT YOUR STANDARD-ISSUE GOLF NERD. He has all the qualities of an athlete in a pro team sport. He likes having a big team around him. He loves the training, the practice, the physicality of it, the process of getting better. When he plays poorly, he's like a baseball player who maybe just struck out three times—he doesn't sulk or dwell on it, he just wants to get in the batting cage with his coach and fix it. He's not passionate about golf history and doesn't watch it much on TV. He loves golf simply because it feeds his desire to compete.

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MY FAVORITE COACHING MOMENT came with Brooks. He began the final round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills one shot out of the lead. Brooks might not be a golf nerd, but he knew this could be the defining moment of his career. In a moment like that the tendency is to play the way others think you're supposed to play—tactical and a little guarded. That is not the way you want Brooks Koepka to play golf. Just before he left the putting green to go to the first tee, I locked him in. I told him, "Today you are going to be aggressive. Whatever happens out there, play your game. Be you." Man, was he ever him. You saw the power, the freedom, the fearlessness. He birdied the first two holes. On the back nine, he grabbed the golf course by the throat, made three birdies coming in to win by four. I was so proud of him and took a lot of satisfaction knowing that my message to him was the right message.

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WE CALL IT "THE VIDEO." It's a VHS tape, time-stamped Aug. 23, 1993, of the 17-year-old Tiger Woods taking his first-ever lesson from my dad. Tiger and his father, Earl, had driven up to Lochinvar Golf Club in Houston after Tiger lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at Champions Golf Club, which is nearby. My dad was teaching Greg Norman at the time, and Greg had just won the 1993 British Open, so Tiger and Earl thought they'd listen to what my dad had to say. I was 24 and just starting out, helping my dad where I could, learning to teach, running video and closely observing his lessons. The three of them were talking, and suddenly Tiger decides to hit balls. My dad was cool on the outside, but inside he was excited. He whispered to me, "Get that video camera going, now." Tiger was just a skinny kid. He didn't even have a glove with him, just his clubs and a beat-up pair of golf shoes. What Tiger did that day was historic, the first view of what he could do. The clubhead speed, the sound he made at impact, the ball flight, was unbelievable. Watching Tiger, my dad was quiet for a long time. Tiger was hitting 8-irons so unbelievably high and far, I think my dad had trouble picking up what his clubhead was doing through impact. It was just a blur. You never see Butch Harmon puzzled, so this was a first. When Tiger switched to driver, forget it. More silence from my dad, followed by a very good question: "What's your philosophy when you swing that club?"

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TIGER SAID, "I know I hit it farther than everybody, but not always very straight. I just hit it and go find it." It didn't seem like a great philosophy at the time, but Tiger was exactly the prototype of what the best teachers are looking for now. Give me 15 juniors, and I'll take the one who can't hit the range, he's so crooked, but who has speed and strength to burn. You can teach a player to hit it straight and to repeat. You can't teach speed.

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AFTER THE LESSON BROKE UP, we didn't know if my dad would become Tiger's teacher. On the drive home he was quiet again, lost in thought. I said, "So what do you think?" He said, "I don't know if I'll get the chance, but if I could work with that kid, I'll make him the greatest player the world has ever seen." One thing that impressed him was, he would tell Tiger to hit a shot he knew he'd have trouble hitting. Tiger would say, "I can't hit that one, but if you show me how, I can do it." My dad would give him a thought and a feel, and bang, Tiger would hit it. No matter what it was, he brought it off, first try, on command. Tiger was the kind of blank canvas that comes along once in a lifetime, and my dad knew it.

“WE CALL IT ‘THE VIDEO.’ ... WHAT TIGER DID THAT DAY WAS HISTORIC, THE FIRST VIEW OF WHAT HE COULD DO.”

TIGER HAD CALLUSES on the insides of his forearms. Think about that. He rotated his hands and arms so aggressively through impact, kept his forearms so close together, that they rubbed against each other to the point he'd built up extra layers of skin. Over time, the skin there would crack and bleed. It's one of a hundred ways Tiger was unique.

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AFTER TIGER AND MY DAD DECIDED TO WORK TOGETHER, Tiger would stay at our house in Houston. I was charged with looking after him. I picked him up at the airport. He never had any money, and I made sure he got out to McDonald's to eat.

I had to wake him up in the mornings, which wasn't easy. I'd wake him up, go shower, then wake him up again. It was long before he had Lasik surgery, and he had really thick glasses. I remember him fumbling around on the nightstand for them when he finally did get up.

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TIGER WAS JUST NORMAL, an average kid. There have been times since when he seems almost unrecognizable from the Tiger we knew in his college years and early years as a pro. After we moved to Las Vegas, Tiger would practice during the day, then we'd all go out to dinner at night. He was inquisitive, approachable and people didn't bother him too much. He initiated conversations, if you can imagine that. It was kind of a normal existence. But it changed, especially after he left my dad. His circle got smaller, and he became more isolated.

A bubble formed. One of his biggest strengths was the intimidation factor, and he put that part into overdrive. He adopted kind of a Darth Vader persona, always a procession in front of him and security everywhere. Everything but the "Star Wars" music. Darth Vader is not about having fun, and the fun was gone. I started feeling when I approached him that Steve Williams might tell me to back off, which, considering how long I'd known Tiger, seemed very strange. The isolated nature of his life made me feel sorry for him. Tiger is a cautionary tale about fame and success. At the Presidents Cup last year, there were signs he's coming out the other side, and it's wonderful to see.

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DURING THE 2013 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP AT MUIRFIELD, a guy asked me what my hobbies were. I said, "I like to work out." He laughed and said, "Exercise isn't a hobby." On the flight home, his comment bothered me, because it's true. All I did when I wasn't at home with my wife, Lisa, and our 14-year-old daughter, was work. This needed to change. I'd taken some art-history classes in college and loved them. So I went to a local craft store, bought some canvases and oils, set up a studio in the garage, and started painting. Make no mistake, as an artist I'm a 20-handicapper, but I'm getting better, and in a way it doesn't matter. When I'm painting, I'm not worrying about my players, teaching and the business of golf. When I come in from the garage, I'm a new man.

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WHEN JORDAN SPIETH WON THE BRITISH OPEN, he had six players waiting for him to finish so they could fly back to the States together. Can you imagine Tiger, Vijay, Ernie and Phil waiting for one of the others to finish so they could do that? The relationships between Dustin, Jordan, Justin, Rickie and Brooks are much friendlier, and although they might lack a certain Darth Vader-versus-Luke Skywalker drama, it's healthier. The Europeans figured out years ago that being friends was a better way to go, especially when it came to the Ryder Cup. Over the next 10 years you're going to see some amazing Ryder Cup performances from the Americans. Europe is facing a real problem because they'll be playing against guys who from top to bottom truly have each other's backs.

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IMAGINE ALABAMA FOOTBALL COACH NICK SABAN making a rule stating you can't play there if you have dreadlocks or tattoos. He could do it, but then who would he get to play for him? The younger generation doesn't respond well to the old-school, father-like, do-as-I-say leadership style. That was the lesson we've learned from some of the past Ryder Cup captaincies. When you enforce a regimented rule on the young guys—say, demanding they play an 18-hole practice round—it goes against a looser trend toward guys wanting to play only nine holes. Guys start exchanging the same I don't want to play 18 holes looks, and next thing you know, they checked out mentally. Today's players can be pointed in a direction, and they'll go there with all the energy and commitment you could ask for, but they want to go there in their own way.

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WILL WE EVER SEE ANOTHER TIGER WOODS? No. He was a complete outlier. When you look at the nature of his dominance—the insanely high percentage of cuts made, his stroke averages, his winning percentages, the majors and all the incredible metrics over a 20-year period—it's quite clear that no one's ever going to do what he did. Remember the excitement over Rory McIlroy, who at his best is the closest we've seen to Tiger? Rory is turning 29 [in May], and in retrospect, the idea he could dominate like Tiger did when there are players like Dustin, Jordan, Jason and Justin on the scene doesn't seem fair to him.

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BUT IT DOESN'T MEAN there won't be outliers in certain ways. Take Jordan Spieth. The player going down the stretch with Jordan has to know he's up against it, because he's his own intimidation factor. He's not a freak athlete who will beat you up with the driver, and he won't wear you out with his irons. He beats you by being Jordan, a personable kid from Dallas who won't go away and gives off this sense of the inevitable, a feeling he's going to pull off a huge shot at the worst possible time for you. With Jordan, you're playing against more than a great golf game.

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I'VE WATCHED DUSTIN JOHNSON spend three hours a day in the gym, seven days a week. When he's out on tour, there are no days off. I've watched him pay the price. To want to roll back equipment and put him and guys like him in a box, so they're confined to old benchmarks, drives me nuts. Is there another sport as determined to go backward as golf? Dustin is almost a physical freak to begin with, 6-4 and unbelievably strong and coordinated. When he hits a 9-iron 185, the TV commentators usually react with a laugh and an incredulous tone, as if it's the equipment more than the unbelievable clubhead speed and technical precision. It's just wrong.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA has come by the Floridian for lessons a couple of times. He's left-handed, aims a mile to the left with his shoulders way open, then comes way over the top. I told him he needed to aim his shoulders more to the left, and he said, "Claude, I'm rarely told I need to aim more left." He's curious, asks a lot of questions. He said that when he came into office he had to make a choice whether to practice or play, that he wouldn't have time to do both. He's one of those semi-serious golfers who alternates between making jokes about his bad shots and being disgusted by them.

Painting: Florilegius/Getty Images • Frame: DEA/J.M. Zuber/Getty Images

I DIDN'T PLAY GOLF GROWING UP. My dad's father was Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion. He was a legendary figure in golf, as a player and club pro. He was loved and respected by outsiders. He was a convivial man and truly great golfer. But he was hard on my dad and uncles, Craig, Dick and Billy. The approaches with each varied a little, but in general he was a product of his time and took an old-school, tough-love, no-praise approach. Ultimately it got results, but it wasn't always pleasant for them. My dad in particular had a complicated relationship with him. He loved him, feared him, sought approval that didn't come and rebelled against him for a while. It got better toward the end, but I think the experience was so hard on my father that he didn't want to push golf on me or even make an effort to put it in front of me.

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ONE DAY WHEN I WAS 13, my dad arranged for my grandfather to give me a golf lesson. At the time I didn't really play golf—I preferred other sports—but who wouldn't jump at a lesson from Claude Harmon? So I got warmed up on the range at Lochinvar, and up he drove in a cart. He parked it directly across from me, not three feet away, and said, "Let's see what you got." His tone made me nervous. I began hitting, and for some reason started shanking. He gave me a couple of quick pointers, but after a few more shanks, he stopped me.

"Do you play other sports?" he asked.

"Yes sir, football," I said. "Wide receiver."

He asked, "When the coach tells you to go out 10 yards and turn to the right, what do you do?"

I answered him. He then did a similar thing with each of the four sports I played, asking what I did specifically when the coach told me to do something.

He said, "Here's the problem: I've been telling you what to do for 10 minutes, and you haven't done a thing I've told you yet. My synopsis is, you've got no talent, and I'm going to lunch." With that, he put the cart in reverse and left. After a few minutes of standing there, I walked back to the clubhouse and, in tears, told my dad what had happened.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "I've gone through that my whole life."

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IT'S JUST THE WAY HARMONS are with each other. In my early years working for my dad at the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Las Vegas, I approached him to ask for some time off. I began with, "I've been working really hard, and ... " He cut me off and said, "Get this straight right now: I hired you to work hard. If you wait around for me to thank you for working hard, you're going to wait forever." Man, did that make an impression. Some years later, I was running the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai. One of our young teachers, Justin Parsons, told me I'd been pretty hard on him, that I expected too much and he needed time off to see his family. When he added, "I've been working really hard, and ... " I went into full Harmon mode, telling him word for word what my dad had told me. Today, Justin is running the Dubai school. And it cracks me up how, three times a year, he calls me to complain about the young guys always wanting time off.

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BACK TO CLAUDE HARMON SR. In 1987, I went to my first Masters. I was 17, and the game still didn't appeal to me, in large part because of the family deal. He was still this scary guy to me, but he took me everywhere he went throughout the week. He'd turn to make sure I was with him. Into the Champions Locker Room and onto the veranda. All the legends—Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros—treated him with this incredible respect and affection. It really hit me what this Harmon thing was all about. He lived only another two years. I really wish he were still around, if only to see what became of his grandson who had the shanks.

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I NEVER DID BECOME A GOOD PLAYER, although early on I did try. It's led to some skeptical looks. But I've always felt there are ways it has worked to my advantage. For one, I truly know how hard golf is. I can relate to the struggles. I never ask a player to perform some crazy-difficult movement that teachers who are good players sometimes assume anyone should be able to do. I don't try to make them swing like I do, which would be a disaster. My job is to teach golf, not play it, and I spent a lot of years studying closely as the best teacher in the world—Butch Harmon—taught Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Steve Elkington, Davis Love III and so many others.

“I TEACH A LOT OF SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS PEOPLE. ... IF THEY RAN THEIR COMPANIES THE WAY THEY RUN THEIR GOLF GAMES, THEY’D GO OUT OF BUSINESS.”

ONE THING I CAN DO, though, is hit the ball equally well right- and left-handed. I learned this from Mac O'Grady when I spent a lot of time with him 20 years ago. He said learning from the other side would give me a big advantage as a teacher because it would remind me how hard the game is and show me what the pupil is going through.

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ONE OF THE BREAKTHROUGHS Dustin made last year was improving his game from 80 yards and in. I wish I could take more credit for it. He owns a TrackMan, and all I did was tell him to focus on hitting them precise distances and forget the other stuff. Dustin was making more of a fade swing with his longer clubs anyway, which with the wedges translates into a slightly steeper angle of attack, better contact and distance control. Over the winter he became probably the best wedge player in the game, and he did it by himself. After making the TrackMan suggestion, I just got out of his way.

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MY DAD DOESN'T USE TRACKMAN MUCH, not because he's stubborn but because he simply doesn't need it. He's no technophobe; he was one of the very first, along with Carl Welty, to use video. My dad's eyes perform for him what TrackMan performs for everyone else. Beyond the precision of what he sees with ball flight, club and body movements, he has a genius for addressing the root of any swing problem. It's especially true at the highest competitive level, where the adjustments are very small. Bottom line, my dad is as great at teaching as Tiger was at playing.

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I TEACH A LOT OF SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS PEOPLE. Golf is a game that confuses a lot of smart people, and often I've thought that if they ran their companies the way they run their golf games, they'd go out of business. No plan or clear picture of what they're trying to do. Bad fundamentals. Trying a bunch of different strategies, hoping one sticks. When a 15-handicapper shoots 78, they're more confused than if they shot 92. They have no idea how they did it. I tell them, "Golf-wise, let's get your 'company' to where it isn't losing money. Let's stabilize things, take stock. Then we'll tackle one thing at a time."

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INCREASINGLY IT'S ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP. My dad has always been the best at that. When Tiger and my dad broke up in 2002, I was secretly furious at both of them. My dad always knew far more about Tiger's life than he knew about mine, which made me envious of Tiger and resentful of my dad. Years before they split, I remember my dad getting me up to date on the girls Tiger was dating and thinking, He doesn't even know if I have a girlfriend, let alone know her name. It hurt. One day, after they split, they walked past each other without either guy acknowledging the other. I thought, You guys don't know how good you had it. It made no sense to me. Still doesn't.

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I'VE HEARD TEACHERS SAY, "Tiger was so good, he would have been great working with anybody." Maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't. All we know for sure is, my dad did it, and they didn't.

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TEACHERS END UP GETTING FIRED by players for the same reasons they got hired. In the beginning, they love you because you care so much about them, are always around and talk about them a lot. When they let you go, it's because you're after them to practice more, hover over them and talk too much.

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THE OVERWHELMING REASON golfers don't improve is obsession with the direction the ball goes. Amateurs should concentrate more just on solid contact, doing whatever it takes to hit the ball solidly. If you can improve your percentage of times you find the center of the clubface, the direction issue improves immediately.

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MOST GOLFERS SLICE. It's always been that way and always will be. My approach is not to turn that slice into a draw. The out-to-in path that causes a slice isn't such a bad thing with modern clubs and a ball that spins less. My goal is to make the out-to-in path less extreme, take it from 12 degrees to only 6 degrees. Turn the slice into a slight fade, and you can play darned good golf.

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I'M 48, so I've been around a while now. In that time, there have been three players that had an aura about them you could feel, the kind that would bring any room they entered to a standstill. One was Tiger. The second was Greg, who oozed self-confidence and a sense of being comfortable in his skin. The most amazing was Seve Ballesteros. I remember him arriving at a tournament one time. He was wearing a pressed white shirt with a royal-blue sweater draped around his shoulders. Gray slacks, black shined shoes and gold wristwatch. As he got out of the car, the people gathered let out this collective "Ooh." I have to admit, it gave me chills.

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I'VE ALWAYS ADMIRED Ernie Els for the way he handled having to go through the prime of his career playing against Tiger Woods. At the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta, Tiger had been struggling. I was on the range with Ernie early in the week, and a young player said flippantly to another, "I guess Tiger won't be a factor this week." Ernie turned to me, seething. He whispered so only I could hear, "They have no idea." He'd spent the past 15 years never experiencing a week when Tiger wasn't a factor in a major, which was kind of a curse. The young guys didn't know how good they had it, not having to worry about getting their butts kicked by him. Ernie never complained, never showed any bitterness, always spoke highly of Tiger. The ultimate in class and dignity.

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WHEN BROOKS was on the 15th hole Sunday at Erin Hills and it became apparent he was going to win, I started crying. See, my grandfather was Ben Hogan's best friend. My dad taught Tiger Woods. My uncle Craig taught Jeff Sluman, my uncle Billy helped Jay Haas and my uncle Dick taught Fred Couples. I felt I had finally added my personal stitch to that Harmon quilt. I felt worthy of wearing the Harmon family uniform, which early on was maybe too big for me.

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WHEN MY UNCLE DICK passed away in 2006, it was a tough loss for me. I'd always gravitated toward him, probably because his family, his relationship with his four kids was so stable. At the funeral, my uncle Billy gave the eulogy. He said, "I know Dickie is in heaven, and that when he walked in he first gave our mom a big hug. Then he went over to my father and they hugged, too." Everyone in the church was weeping, and Billy let the beauty of that scene sink in for a minute, then he said, "And as Dickie and my father came out of the embrace, my dad said, 'By the way, how did Butch mess up that Tiger deal?' " It brought the house down, people laughing and crying at the same time. A perfect Harmon ending.

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