Butch Harmon shares lessons from an incomparable career
Editor’s note: Starting in 2001, Butch Harmon was voted by his peers No. 1 on Golf Digest’s 50 Best Teachers in America for more than two decades. In a sport obsessed with records, it’s hard to imagine that one ever being broken. Harmon’s historic run as a coach, from Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, proves his enduring influence. Now, we’ve created a new recognition—The Legends of Golf Instruction—to honor Harmon and 20 other leading teachers who have been fixtures on our national instructor ranking since its inception in 2000. Harmon tops the list and is joined by David Leadbetter, Jim McLean, Bob Toski, Hank Haney and Dave Pelz, to name several.
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There are two things you won’t hear in a lesson I’m giving—one from me, one from my student. First, I never say, “I think.” That’s like saying, “Hey, let’s see what this does.” No. My job is to be 100 percent sure of how I can make you better. The student’s job is to try, so the second thing you won’t hear is, “I can’t.” They might say it once, but we’re going to have a conversation. If I hear a tour player utter those words, I stop cold. When you have your name on your bag, you better believe you can do anything. Skill level aside, if the player is willing, we’re ready to go.
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I learned to teach at a time when we didn’t have any technology to analyze the swing or ball flight. We had our eyes—and the ball is the ultimate teacher. If you watch what the ball does, it tells you the clubface angle and the swing path at impact, and those are the biggest things. I see teachers today who rely on technology way too much, looking at all the data more than the student or the actual swing. We’re teaching people, not robots. Find me something that works better than my own eyes, and I’ll change my tune.
Champion Tiger Woods (right) and his dad Earl (blue) celebrate with Butch Harmon (left) and Jay Brunza during the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1995
In August of 1993, Earl Woods brought Tiger to see me for the first time. He was 17, skinny as a rail, but he could unwind his body on the downswing faster than anybody I ever saw, except maybe Ben Hogan. His swing was pretty loose, and a lot needed to be cleaned up, but with that speed, I knew he’d be able to do things other players couldn’t do. Tiger had incredible natural gifts, and it turned out his work ethic was beyond belief. How do you beat that? Nobody could’ve guessed who Tiger would become, but I saw the makings of it from the very first day.
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As a young teacher working for my dad at Winged Foot, we had a member who would come up from New York once a week for a lesson. One time, he had the shanks. I thought he needed to close the clubface more at impact, so I spent 30 minutes trying everything I could to get him to shut the face. He shanked every ball. I finally went to my father and asked for help. He said, “Ah, Butchie’s got a shanker. I can see what you’re doing over there, but he’s closing the face too much—that’s why he’s shanking. You’re making it worse.” Dad came over and gave him a drill, and he hit the first one right out of the middle of the face. My lesson: It’s important to know what you don’t know. I never forgot that.
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The two biggest mistakes I see from average golfers are not taking enough club on approach shots and using too much loft around the greens. When’s the last time you saw a 90s-shooter hit a solid shot that carried past the hole? It almost never happens. Figure out what you want to hit, then add one more. For greenside shots, most amateurs just grab their sand or lob wedge without looking at the lie, hole location, nothing. If you’re Phil Mickelson, have at it with your 60-degree, but I chip with everything up to a 7-iron. You should, too.
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One misconception I constantly have to talk players out of is keeping their head still. Last I checked, the head is attached to the shoulders and upper body, and they move quite a bit during the swing. Locking the head restricts motion and speed. Let your head move back freely as you swing to the top, and then follow the ball out with your eyes. You’ll swing faster and hit the ball farther. Isn’t that what you want more than anything?
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A lot of golfers have favorite old clubs in their bags, usually a putter or a wedge. Putters I’m OK with, but not old wedges. The grooves get worn out, and they don’t perform the way they were designed to. Tour players have wedges they practice with and a second set with the same specs that they use in competition. Even the gamers are switched out a lot more often than you might think, like every few weeks. But if you have a putter you love, don’t mess with it.
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My first tour player was Steve Elkington, in 1986. Elk had a beautiful, flowing swing, the envy of the tour. When I worked with him, I remember having my father’s voice in my head: “Take what a player does well and make it better.” In other words, don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. I was lucky to start with Elk because there was a lot to love in his swing, and I treaded carefully. He introduced me to Greg Norman, who was my first big star, and my career took off. I’ve been very fortunate to get the players I did. A lot of guys came to me because of who they saw me with on the range.
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What’s the one club every golfer needs to add to the bag? A high-lofted fairway wood. They’re so easy to hit and so versatile. You look down and see all that loft on the clubface, and it just gives you confidence. If you think they’re only for bad players, you might want to tell D.J., who carries a 7-wood—and a 9-wood! The 7-wood is my favorite club. If you want to hit a lot more greens, get one.
More from Golf Digest
Before you go to the first tee, do two things. Hit a handful of bunker shots, then stroke some putts on the practice green from one end to the other. Why? Because on the first hole, you’re going to either miss the green in a bunker or have a 50-footer. I’m not trying to be negative. Golfers can’t believe the situations they get themselves into, but they probably did the same thing last week. Give yourself a chance to be successful by practicing things you’re not good at. That’s one of the big differences between you and the pros: You practice what you like; they practice what they need.
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Here’s how to get your tee shots out there another 20 yards: Move up another set of tees. Ego is the biggest killer in the game. Each of us can only hit the ball so far. The answer is hitting it out of the middle of the face and swinging at a speed you can control. I like to joke that most golfers swing as hard as they can in case they hit the ball. Make the most out of the speed you can handle, and if you’re still not reaching the par 4s, go up to the next tee.
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People ask me, what’s my secret to teaching. All I can say is, I’m a very positive person, and I think that comes across. If you want to get better and you’re willing to work at it, I’m your guy. I know the Xs and Os, but so do a lot of teachers. I know I can quickly diagnose what’s going on in your swing, but more importantly, I will convince you to come along with me. I like helping people, having fun with people, seeing that moment when something clicks. This game is all I know, hooks and slices. If they made golf illegal, I’d be in trouble.
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