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Butch and the Tiger - Hardly an Odd Couple!

By John M. Ross,
Butch Harmon
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Butch Harmon met his most famous pupil at the 1993 U. S. Amateur. (Courtesy of butchharmon.com)

Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods' swing coach and adviser, is getting to be as well known as The Man, himself. Butch and the Tiger - a strange name combination for golf, but it's a success story that builds with the passage of time as Harmon's role gets more attention.

Again and again, Butch is caught up in the glare of the lights that splash on Tiger, and in the endless questions that are fired by the media. It doesn't faze him. He sampled the aura of page-one celebrity as a youth, sitting at the elbow of his father, Claude Harmon, who reigned at the storied Winged Foot Golf Club for 30-plus years.

Butch never saw his father play the game at the level of Tiger, although Claude did win the 1948 Masters and set a couple of new records along the way. And one of the notations in the book reads that he was the only non-tour player ever to win the Green Jacket. Claude was proud of that, for it was a memorable step on a path that ultimately led him to the top of his profession as the game's finest teacher and developer of young talent.

Winged Foot members were not only happy to have him repairing their swings on the practice tee, but they also enjoyed him in the men's grill, too. He was a delightful storyteller, and there would be a rush for seats when Claude set up at midday at the big table near the bar. For a young fellow soaking up golf know-how and history, Winged Foot was an incredible starting point. Hall of Famers like Tommy Armour, Craig Wood and Fred Corcoran, members all, were an almost constant presence and they brought along a glittering array of upper echelon guests. Of course, the Winged Foot membership roll itself read like a compact version of Who's Who.

Butch and his three brothers were knee deep in golf from the time they could hold a club, but, of course, Claude couldn't have them underfoot at Winged Foot. To be sure, he got them all started and monitored their progress from time to time, but he was wise enough to get a membership for the spirited youngsters at nearby Wykagyl Club in New Rochelle, and that's where they played most of their golf.

In 1965, however, to celebrate Claude's 20 years as its head pro, Winged Foot gave Claude and his family an honorary membership and the boys almost leaped out of their spikes. With two great championship courses now at their disposal, they put their playing schedules in high gear. In the very first year of eligibility, Dick, who was 19, won the club championship. And then, in a rare piece of history for the plush Westchester club, brother Billy, just 17, came along the next year to make it two in a row.

At that point the club tactfully discouraged further participation to give the dues-paying members a chance. But Dick then teamed up with brother Craig to win the 1968 Anderson Memorial, the four-ball event staged by Winged Foot, which is one of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in the East.

Butch, who is really Claude, Jr., and the first-born, caddied for his father at the club and eventually became his assistant in the pro shop. He thus was able to absorb more and more of his Dad's sound swing theory and effective teaching methods. I sampled some of that one day when I visited Winged Foot to chat with Claude for a magazine piece I was putting together.

"I learned very early that you must teach golfers as individuals," he told me. "Sure, a lot of your golf books and magazines and swing experts might tell you that the same theory applies to all. That's a joke. Golfers come in all sizes and shapes and reflexes, and that's what you have to start with. Then you have to fit them to a swing and a game."

Harmon was one of the first club pros to use the move camera extensively in his work. Today it is quite common, of course, and the equipment is more refined and readily available in many forms. At the time, Claude had an advantage over some of the others. On the basis of his reputation, he had been able to shoot the swings of some of the game's best players, and with the help of a projection screen he'd use significant segments of the collection to stress various points in his teaching sessions.

Butch was not the only wanna-be golf pro to benefit from this on-the-job training with a master. Over the years, Claude Harmon became famous for the star-studded array of assistant pros he trained. The apprenticeship was aptly labeled "Harmon Tech," and the graduates included headliners like Dave Marr, Jackie Burke, Jr., Mike Souchak, Dick Mayer, Al Mengert and Buck Worsham, among others. There were some 44 in all - including Butch, who is now in the process of making the biggest impact ever on the game through his star pupil.

From Day One all four Harmon boys were dedicated to following in Dad's footsteps. Craig, Dick and Billy all found their way to appointments at some of the game's most prestigious clubs - places like Oak Hill, Thunderbird, River Oaks and the Newport Country Club. But Butch opted for a brief tour of the University of Houston, followed by a stint with the U. S. Army in Vietnam. When he returned, he was charged up with the idea of trying the PGA Tour before he settled into a pro shop.

He was elated when he won the 1971 Broome County Classic - forerunner to the B. C. Open - but that would be his one and only winning check. Before long, he realized he didn't have the game for the everyday pressure of the Tour, and this decision was timed perfectly with a call from his father. Claude had been shuttling between Winged Foot and Morocco for several years trying to help King Hassan II - a royal golf nut - with his game. And he had made spectacular progress, getting Hassan down from the 110-115 range to the high 70s. The king was elated, but he wasn't satisfied. Now he wanted Claude to be his full-time resident pro.

Claude didn't buy that idea, but he had a solution. Why not send Butch? He knew all Claude's theories and methods, was outgoing and well mannered - and he wasn't making any money on the Tour. Hassan acquiesced, and Butch was soon on his way to the elegant Royal Dar Es-Salam Golf Club in Rabat.

A golf career in Morocco wasn't exactly what Butch dreamed about as a youngster, and ultimately he would wind his way back to the States. Subsequent jobs at the Crow Valley Club in Iowa and the Bayou Golf Club, a Texas muni, didn't stand up to the king's royal digs, but there was one significant factor. They were over here!

The long road that finally took Butch to a rendezvous with Tiger Woods started at the 1993 U. S. Amateur, where Tiger was eliminated in the second round. (He would win the next three in succession.) Butch met Earl Woods, Tiger's father, a retired Army officer who had served with the Green Berets in Vietnam. He had molded and guided Tiger's golf almost since birth, and he was concerned now about his boy's erratic driving. Apparently, Pop Woods had heard about good work Butch had done with Greg Norman when he was beset with swing problems.

Tiger hit some balls for Butch on the practice tee that day, and Butch followed the action with his video camera. When they viewed the tape later, Butch suggested changes that could control Tiger's wildness off the tee. He told Tiger he should widen his stance, develop a bigger arc at the top of his backswing, and cut down on the movement of his body. When Tiger tried them out, he liked what he saw. So did Earl. They met again the next day, and the relationship has continued for the past eight years.

Butch was doing some work with Norman at the time, and had also helped Davis Love III get more control over his swing. But as he moved forward in his work with Woods, Butch seemed to focus only on him. He knew from the beginning that Tiger was different than all the others and had the talent to ultimately leave the others in the dust.

Butch, who is now 56, has not only refined Tiger's enormous basic skills, but has helped him polish his image. He had him lower the volume on his explosive reaction to missed putts and reduce the steam in his familiar punch at the air. And he has done all this with a gentle touch. Tiger says he's like a "big brother." And if he's not at Tiger's elbow for emergency swing adjustments he's never more than a phone call away.

The media has heaped praise on Harmon for his key role in Tiger's incredible domination of the game and his climb to his current place as a top world athlete - and perhaps the richest.

Butch has reaped rewards, too, in the form of his golf schools, books, TV shows and the like. Perhaps the biggest is the great recognition he has brought to the role of the teaching golf pro. His father would have liked that.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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