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.

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

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