The Rites of Swing

For touring pros like Greg Norman and Davis Love III—and amateurs like me—the surest way to a better golf game is a lesson with Butch Harmon.

June 1996By Comments

IN THE PANTHEON OF PROFESSIONAL GOLF instruction, the Harmon family is as renowned as the Kennedy family is in politics. Claude Harmon, Sr., its late patriarch, was the head pro at Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Florida, and Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, New York, when he won the Masters in 1948—the only club pro in the post-war era to triumph over the touring pros at Augusta National. Like Joe Kennedy, Claude fathered a foursome of sons, each of whom hacked his way out of the oedipal shadows and is now ensconced at a different golfing mecca. Craig Harmon, 50, is the head golf pro at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, the site of the 1995 Ryder Cup and past U.S. Open championships. Bill Harmon, who is 46, is the head pro at Newport Country Club in Newport, Rhode Island, where the first U.S. Open was held in 1895. Dick Harmon, 48, is the head pro at River Oaks Country Club in Houston, where U.S. and European touring pros perennially flock for instruction.

And then there is Claude’s eldest son, 52-year-old Claude “Butch” Harmon, Jr., who appropriately enough was draped with his daddy’s Masters champion green jacket at the tender age of four. As the director of golf at Houston’s Lochinvar Golf Club, Butch is rapidly emerging as the heir to his father’s legacy. But more than that, since the death of Harvey Penick the week before last year’s Masters, he is Texas’ most sought-after teaching pro. Butch first won national recognition among his peers and top-ranking touring pros six years ago, when he rebuilt the golf game of Davis Love III, another son of a domineering teaching pro. In 1992 that recognition spread around the globe as Butch guided Australia’s Greg Norman through a mid-career swing change that catapulted him from fifty-third on the PGA money list to number one. Soon after, he worked similar magic with Tiger Woods by showing the long-hitting teen phenom how to “gear down” his power game to win the 1994 and 1995 U.S. Amateur championships.

These days, Butch Harmon is sharing his teaching secrets in a new book, The Four Cornerstones of Winning Golf (Simon and Schuster), which was co-written by Golf Magazine senior editor John Andrisani and features a foreword penned by Norman. At $25, the book is a bargain compared with the $200 an hour Butch charges for nonmember lessons at Lochinvar, and the $600,000 a year he reportedly grosses as a consultant to various touring pros and wealthy amateurs. But in golf, as in life, you get what you pay for. I recently took one of those $200-an-hour lessons from Butch as part of my ongoing quest to qualify for the PGA Tour after a layoff of 25 years. I can testify from personal experience that while Butch’s book is a must-read—for my money, it’s a better instructional manual than Penick’s best-selling Little Red Book—nothing beats the real thing.

I’ll always remember watching Butch stride out to meet me on the practice tee at Lochinvar, wondering what this mysterious-looking, fireplug-shaped man with his collar turned up and a golf cap pulled down over his forehead could possibly do to improve my game. At the time, I’d been suffering from one of the same ball-striking bogeys that used to bedevil Norman—a tendency to block my shots to the right when I needed to hit a leftward-curving draw—and none of the half-dozen golf gurus I’d consulted had been able to remedy the problem. But like his father before him, Butch has an instinctive ability to diagnose swing flaws with only a few quick glances. He also has an unusually clear and complete concept of what golf is all about. In contrast to the overly mechanical tenets of a David Leadbetter or the cure-all solutions offered by so many other teaching pros, the four cornerstones on which Butch’s personal instruction and his book are based—ball striking, the short game, mental conditioning, and physical conditioning—encompass the major elements essential to shooting low scores. It took him about thirty seconds to identify my basic faults and suggest a fix.

“Have the pros you’ve been working with said anything about your grip?” he asked after watching me push three drives into the woods.

I shook my head. “Nope.”

“Well, it’s much too weak. The only way you can square the club face with that grip is to roll your wrists over at impact or come over the top with your right shoulder.” Butch directed me to strengthen my grip by rotating my left hand to the right so that at least two or three knuckles were visible to me as I looked down. He also told me to assume an extra-wide stance with the insides of my heels planted on two imaginary lines running down from the outside edges of my shoulders. “Now I want you to delay cocking your wrists as long as possible when you take the club back,” he said. “That’s gonna help widen your arc and also shorten your backswing by preventing you from letting the club drop past parallel at the top.”

After a couple of clumsy mishits, I was amazed to find myself crushing drives with newfound power and control, drawing or fading the ball at will. As I later learned reading Butch’s book, he had prescribed exactly the same subtle changes (stronger grip, wider stance, delayed wrist cock) to Norman, Love, and Woods.

Butch then led me to the putting green, where we worked on the short game. As he correctly notes, one of the major differences between touring pros and amateurs is the amount of time devoted to chipping and putting. For pros, Butch says, “practicing the short game is almost a religion.” For amateurs, it’s usually a way to kill time while waiting for the starter to call them to the first tee. The amateurs’ neglect is particularly egregious when you consider that more than 60 percent of the shots in an average round, including putts, are played from within one hundred yards of the hole.

Butch showed me a putting drill outlined in his book. First, he marked a spot eight feet from one of the cups, then he sank a pair of tees on the green six inches short of the cup so that they formed goalposts the width of a putter head. He placed a ball on the eight-foot spot and told me to put my putter behind the ball before taking my stance, rather than the other way around. Finally, he added a personal touch: He took off his cap and held it against the left side of my face so I could not possibly steal a glimpse of the cup out of the corner of my eye.

“Now stroke the ball into the hole,” he said.

I felt nearly blind, but I tried to follow his orders. I hit the ball, carefully watching it leave my putter face, and then heard the sweetest sound in golf: the plop of the ball hitting the bottom of the cup.

“That’s the sensation you should feel on the course,” Butch said. “You should never see the ball go into the hole. Just keep your head still and listen for the sound. When you’re practicing, you can use the goalposts to find out if you’re pushing your putts or pulling them.”

We were about to move onto mental and physical conditioning, the last of Butch’s cornerstones, but the clock ran out on my lesson. In retrospect, that was probably just as well. When I later read those sections in his book, I was greatly disappointed. Butch is to be applauded for noting that they are every bit as important as proper ball striking and a solid short game, yet his discussion of the “mental side/course management,” as he calls it, lacks the psychological depth and detail offered by Bob Rotella’s Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. And his strengthening and stretching exercise program falls far short of the regimen recommended for serious golfers by most qualified sports doctors and personal trainers.

I was also let down by the autobiographical opening section of Butch’s book. The members at Lochinvar almost universally praise him for being an unpretentious “blue-collar kind of guy” whose flash-and-splash lifestyle belies his effete upbringing. In fact, Butch suffered through more than his share of salad days and ribald rebellious periods before, during, and after being tutored by legendary family friends such as Ben Hogan and Tommy Armour.

The trouble is, he leaves most of the really juicy anecdotal material on the bag-room floor. We learn, for example, that Butch was an accomplished junior champion in the New York area who won a scholarship to the University of Houston in 1962, only to find he couldn’t cut it at the golfing powerhouse that would later produce the likes of Fred Couples and Steve Elkington. “I didn’t like the school or the state,” he confesses in the book, “something I find particularly amusing now since I live in Texas.” Unsure about whether to turn pro, he reports, he enlisted in the Army and spent two years in Alaska, where he won several all-military tournaments and the Alaskan State Amateur.

Actually, this was a greater feat than the innocent reader might imagine, given the true circumstances of Butch’s departure from U of H. According to informed sources, Butch’s college playing days actually came to a temperamental end after he duck-hooked a ball into a lake at a Houston country club. He tossed his entire golf bag, including a set of irons belonging to his father, into the same lake. Only then did he take off to enlist in the Army. When he called Claude Senior to tell him what he had done, the old man replied, “Well, at least you could’ve joined the f—ing Navy so you could get my f—ing clubs back.”

Even with these flaws, however, Four Cornerstones is an invaluable addition to any hooker’s or slicer’s library, if only for its recitation of Claude Senior’s instructional advice and Butch’s addendums. “The average guy on the street can’t copy Hogan’s or Snead’s swing,” the father once told the son, but thanks to the son’s book, the average guy or gal can find succinct and helpful advice on how to hack out of heather or ice plant, how to hit a wedge off a tight fairway lie, how to handle coarse sand in a bunker, and how to cure a shank.

More-advanced players may still find themselves wishing they had the same direct access to Butch Harmon that Greg Norman enjoys by virtue of owning a jet and two helicopters. Earlier this year, Norman decided that he was well enough along to take Butch off full-time retainer and seek his counsel only as needed. But after struggling through the third round at the Doral-Ryder Open, Norman spotted his former mentor in one of the television towers and begged him to come to the practice tee at once. On the spot, Butch corrected some subtle errors in Norman’s stance and alignment, and his star pupil shot a final round 66 to secure a come-from-behind victory, winning his third Doral-Ryder championship in six years.

So how to explain the Masters only a month later? Norman’s painful-to-watch final-round collapse shocked most fans and fellow pros, but I figure it was just par—or in this case, six over par—for the course. Although he and Butch had been working together in the weeks leading up to the tournament, Norman had clearly lost his once-unrivaled physical and mental consistency during their prolonged separation before the Doral. As he probably realizes too late, there may very well be a fifth cornerstone to winning golf: getting full-time, firsthand instruction from Butch Harmon not available in any book.T

Harry Hurt III, a contributing editor of Texas Monthly, is the author of Chasing the Dream: A Midlife Quest for Fame and Fortune on the Pro Golf Circuit, which will be published next spring by Avon Books.

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