The partner from heaven

YOU KNOW those golf partners who, though they’ve never previously set eyes on you, have managed to point out a dozen things you’re doing wrong before you’ve finished even your first hole?

As your nervous opening drive heads off left into the trees, you’re informed it’s because your club-head is closed; your next shot scutters along the ground heading wide right (you’re crowding the ball), and as for your putting, well, he just can’t stand and watch any more, so you get an instant complete lesson. Before you reach the 18th, he has dismantled a game that was already falling part, but has nothing to replace it.

He’s the 18-handicap, read-a-book, know-it-all, instant expert, the partner from hell. Well, meet Butch Harmon, the partner from heaven.

The man who coached Tiger Woods for several years before he turned pro, the man who nursed the runaway world number one through those outrageously-successful early years on the PGA circuit, is an inveterate, incurable 24-hour-a-day teacher. No matter the fourball in which he’s playing, if the swing is wrong, the stance a little awry, then the urge, the in-built impulse to intervene, becomes overpowering. “I would agree with that, it’s just something I like to do”, he readily admits. “I just like to teach, it’s something I’ve done my whole life. Even when I was in junior golf, I’d help the guys I was playing with, and that continued when I became a professional. I liked to study the mechanics of the golf swing, what makes the ball go in the direction it goes.

“I can be on the (driving) range with one of my players at a tournament and I can see five other guys swinging a golf club just by looking down the line; your brain is a computer, your eye is so trained to seeing it, that just in looking down the line, boom, boom, boom, you see all these different things. I just enjoy doing that, and it comes easy to me.”

So, he’d do it in a fourball? “Sure. When you’re actually playing with a bunch of guys, then it’s really easy, you can even see their decision-making process, the way they approach each hole, most likely they’re doing it wrong. All kinds of things go into it.”

The interview took place in the magnificence of the Celtic Manor Hotel, where Butch was heading a coaching Masterclass. Next morning, a group of us were due to play 18 holes in the Wentwood championship course, home to the Welsh Open in two weeks time, Ryder Cup venue for 2010.

Butch could I play in your fourball tomorrow? “Yeah, no problem!”, he replied and genial guy that he is, meant it. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t happen, so I’ll never know how I might have prospered under the personal tuition of the great man. Butch doesn’t have a formula, there is no ‘Harmon method’, a la David Leadbetter, but there are others out there who, he believes, could benefit from a few lessons, a little tweak here and there.

“I don’t believe there is any one way to play golf. There are thousands of ways to swing a golf club, and as an instructor, you just have to try and get the best out of each person’s ability. We all have things we can do, can’t do, I’ve got to figure out in each of my students, whether it be you or Darren Clarke or Tiger Woods, how to get the best out of your ability. That to me is the challenge of teaching, and the secret.

David (Leadbetter) is very much into positions, and he’s been very successful with it, but I am not that way, I try and teach everyone as an individual, take what you have and improve on it. If I had the opportunity, I think I could really help Phil Mickelson, and I would like to have that opportunity. He has the ability, but he has to change his outlook, the way he does things. I think he’s so obsessed with distance, how far he can hit the ball, he needs to back off from that. I’ve spent a little time with him, he’s come down to see me a couple of times, we’ve had some good conversations, but I’d love to spend some real time with him, I think I could really help him. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I say it just as a matter of fact.”

A matter of fact backed up not just by Harmon’s outstanding success with Tiger Woods, with whom he still has a coaching relationship (“Oh yes, certainly, no question, just that I don’t have to do much with him anymore. He’s the best there is, really”), but with the recent US Tour successes of two Harmon students, youngster Ben Crane, winning his first event ever, veteran Fred Couples winning his first in five years.

Then there’s his work with Ireland’s own Darren Clarke, a golfer for whom Butch sees an unlimited future. “Darren is a very good friend of mine and when he called me up, told me he wanted to come and see me, it was a pleasure to deal with him. He has really, really committed himself to change. He realised that in the last year, year and a half, he did not play well, did not get the most out of himself, his ability. And he’s done really well, worked very hard, played a lot more consistently. I know he’s frustrated at the way he finished in Augusta after leading in the first round but that’s just golf, that’s just the way things happen. I think you’re going to see a lot from Darren Clarke this year, and in the future.”

Back to those ‘experts’ who feel obligated to give unsolicited lessons to everyone with whom they ever play. In the words of the great George Bernard Shaw, those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.

A flippant remark, not meant to be taken too seriously, but could never be applied to Butch Harmon in any case. Before he was a coach, he was a player. “I’ve done both. I was okay as a player. But I was a realist, I realised early I wasn’t as good as the guys I was playing against, knew I needed to look for other outlets. Teaching was a natural.”

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