His life looks glamorous now. His kids are grown, he's no longer
married, he has lost a bunch of weight, his suits are
custom-made, and he's building himself a house on the outskirts
of the new capital of the free world, Las Vegas. His postmodern
academy there, the Butch Harmon School of Golf, is spectacular,
nestled into the hillocks of the Rio Secco Golf Club, a course
so shiny its fairways literally glimmer. Each year hundreds of
pupils--rich, white middle-aged men, mostly--make a pilgrimage
there to spend $500 for an hour with the master and much more at
the Rio craps tables, downtown. Harmon does his gambling off the
Strip, at the places known only to locals and insiders, Harmon
being both. Every month or two Tiger Woods jets in for tutorials
and anonymous gambling sessions. Sometimes Harmon goes to
Woods's crib at Isleworth, in Orlando, and stays in Tiger's
guest room. They hit balls, they work out, they play golf, they
watch basketball. Harmon is not only Tiger's teacher, but also
one of his best friends. He's the ultimate insider in Tiger's
insulated camp, which is to say, he is at the center of the
sporting universe. You want to see Butch? Take a number, pal.
His hourly rate is scaring off nobody.
Twenty years ago E. Claude (Butch) Harmon Jr. was broke, living
on his brother Dick's couch, drinking too much, acting surly,
driving tractors on Texas golf courses under construction. He
was a failure as a Tour player and a dropout as a club pro. He
was in a marriage headed for divorce, and his two children were
being raised in a battleground. Through it all, Butch's three
brothers will tell you, he was a cocky bastard, just as he has
always been. It was as if he could see this day coming. Last
week, during the practice rounds at the Masters and in the
practice areas, only the player, the player's caddie and the
player's coach are allowed inside the ropes. There was Butch,
sanctum sanctorum, with several hundred people leaning over a
green-and-white cord trying to hear a snippet of conversation
between teacher and pupil.
He's everywhere. If you stay at the hotel at the World Golf Hall
of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., Butch is on SpectraVision, his
taped lessons available on command 24 hours a day. Visit any
mall bookstore in the country, and two Harmon titles are sharing
shelf space with the author's alphabetical neighbor, Ben Hogan.
Put on the Golf Channel, and there's Harmon on Academy Live.
Surf over to Fox looking for a baseball score, and there's
Harmon selling his four-tape video series, Conquering Golf. He's
in the catalog of a Canadian clothing manufacturer, Jack Victor.
He's a commentator for British television at 10 tournaments a
year. Go to the dentist, excavate an old Golf Digest from the
stack of Highlights, and there's Harmon, on the cover, playing
one-handed bunker shots.
The guy's on a roll. The final of the Andersen Consulting Match
Play Championship in February featured two Harmon students,
Woods and Darren Clarke. Talk about your win-wins. In the
semifinals Woods dismantled one of Harmon's former students,
Davis Love III. After Woods nutted one of his 330-yarders a
spectator called out to Harmon, "What are you feeding him?" To
which Harmon responded, "Davis, today."
Not a kind comment, particularly considering that Love helped
launch Harmon's career as a teacher of elite players. After a
series of personal setbacks in the '70s, Harmon spent an entire
decade resurrecting his career and regaining financial control
of his life. In the course of 10 years he was a tractor driver,
a club pro at a rough-and-tumble Texas muni where he ran the
carts, worked the snack bar, sold golf balls and did trick-shot
exhibitions. Finally, at the end of the decade, he became the
director of golf at Lochinvar, a swanky club in Houston.
His first world-class student was Love, with whom he started
working in 1991. Greg Norman saw improvements in Love's swing
and signed on with Harmon late in 1991. In 1993, Woods, 17, and
inspired by Norman's progress, enrolled with Harmon, unable to
pay but more than willing to work and to learn. Anyway, no one
ever said that making kind comments was Harmon's strong suit.
Just the opposite.
His late father, the first E. Claude Harmon, a pro at two elite
clubs, Winged Foot and Seminole, and winner of the '48 Masters,
was a master zinger. Butch, the oldest of the boys and two
girls, grew up barraged by his father's wicked one-liners. When
Butch was the club pro at the rough-and-tumble muni in Texas
City, his father said to him, "All you need is a tattoo parlor
in your pro shop, and you'll be set for life." Butch learned
from the best.
Love and Butch parted ways, amicably, in 1996. Later that year,
at the PGA at Valhalla, Norman and Harmon got into a dispute
over Harmon's clothing contract, and Norman fired his teacher in
the middle of a practice round. (They have patched things up but
do not work together.) As for Woods and Harmon, they're going
strong. Clarke says the two men are wholly suited to each other.
"Those two could talk golf 24 hours a day, seven days a week,"
Clarke says. Harmon and Woods speak the same language, and they
speak it the same way.
An example: On the Sunday before this year's Masters, Harmon
played 36 holes at Augusta as the guest of a member. For the day
he played the 12th hole, the ticklish par-3, in five strokes. "I
don't know why you guys are always bitching about 12," Harmon
told his star pupil. "I made a par and a birdie there when I
played it on Sunday." Woods saw his opening. "Wrong Sunday," he
Maybe the most ticklish thing in golf these days is any evolving
relationship with Woods. In '93, when Harmon was teaching two of
the best players in the world, it was Woods who sought out
Harmon. Now the 24-year-old golfer is the most powerful person
in the game, and Harmon, who is 56, knows it. "Tiger is the
show," he says. "His caddie, Steve Williams, has one role. I
have another. We're not the show. A lot of what I have in life
is because I'm Tiger's teacher."
Woods pays Harmon an annual flat fee--said by some to be as much
as $1 million, but only Harmon knows for sure--and part of the
deal is that Harmon must always be available whenever Woods
needs him. They speak, in person or on the phone, after every
round. Last week at Augusta, Harmon didn't miss a single shot by
Woods, in practice or in competition. They were together on the
practice tee for hours at a time, invigorated by their quest for
perfection. Harmon says Woods's capacity for work exceeds that
of any golfer he has ever known, including Norman who, Harmon
says, "made tremendous personal sacrifices to be the best player
in the world." But Harmon's capacity for work is off the charts,
too. That's their ultimate link. But there are other bonding
elements, the most subtle of which is Harmon's understanding of
mixed-race marriages and mixed-race kids. Harmon's first wife
(also his third) was Lillie Duran, a woman of Mexican descent
from a working-class family. Harmon's parents did not approve of
their union, so the couple eloped shortly after high school. The
children from that marriage--a daughter, Michaele Ann, 33, who
lives in Houston near her mother, and a son, CH, 30, who works
with his father--grew up well aware of their mixed heritage,
just as Woods did. Woods has a Buddhist, Thai mother and a
black, American father, and Woods has been influenced by both
cultures. If you don't understand this about him, you don't
understand anything about him. But the pupil and the teacher
don't talk about this stuff. They don't need to.
They share other important links. Earl Woods and Butch Harmon
are former Army men, veterans of the Vietnam War. Both believe
the routines of war--preparation, discipline, loyalty,
sacrifice--may be applied to civilian life. Both men were
scarred by Vietnam. In the name of his country, Harmon descended
into Asian jungles where he killed men, stood next to friends as
they were killed, had his foot on a land mine that should have
killed him but did not detonate. Television commentators will
sometimes talk about Woods's having the courage to play certain
shots. The kid knows what courage actually is. The two most
important men in his life have it, in spades.
Bill Harmon, one of Butch's three brothers, all of whom are
prominent in the golf business, can be critical of his brother
but also very generous. "With Butch, you always go back to that
foxhole question," Bill says. "Who would you want in a foxhole
with you with your life on the line? Nobody would be better than
Butch. There's a lot of that in his relationship with Tiger.
It's, 'You and me against the world, Tiger.'"
That spirit was challenged in 1998, the year Woods won only once
on Tour, the year Woods and Harmon made subtle, important
changes to Woods's swing, the year Harmon and Earl Woods gave
conflicting advice to Tiger on his putting. Harmon will not
acknowledge this, but others do: During that year, despite
Harmon's strutting cockiness, he was nervous about what he was
doing. After all, the old swing was good enough to produce a
12-shot victory in the '97 Masters. "Tiger's season last year,
particularly the win at the PGA Championship, that was a
tremendous validation for Butch," says Bill Harmon. "You could
see the satisfaction in his face. The man can teach."
Early last year Harmon recognized that Woods was becoming
confused by the conflicting putting advice from his father and
his teacher. "I said to him, 'Forget about what your father's
saying. Forget about what I'm saying. Forget about what Mark
O'Meara is saying,'" Harmon recalls. "'Just go putt the way you
want to putt. Don't listen to anybody.'" Woods listened to
Harmon. For the most part, he has putted brilliantly ever since.
It takes confidence for a teacher to know when and where to step
aside. Harmon has it. He has always been sure of himself.
He has always been a hothead and a rebel, too. As a kid he might
play 15 holes in a couple under par, make a triple bogey on 16
and walk off the course. At one point Harmon's parents, not
knowing what to do with their first child, enrolled their little
sweetness in a Augustinian boarding school, Villanova, in Ojai,
Calif. His stay was brief. According to Bill, one day one of the
priests, upset with Butch, picked him up by the collar and threw
him against a wall. Butch was a football player, wiry and
muscular. He clocked the priest with a left hook. When his
parents went to collect him, his father asked, "Why did you
punch a priest?"
"I don't know," Butch answered, "but I guarantee you that guy
will think twice before he picks up another kid by the shirt and
throws him against a wall." His father, a man who disdained
physical violence, sighed. In raising Butch, he knew he was in
for a long ride.
Harmon played golf at Houston for part of a semester. He left
for school with a set of clubs given to him by his father, clubs
his father had used in finishing third in the '59 U.S. Open at
Winged Foot. When Butch left Houston, the clubs were broken into
so many pieces they could fit in a shoe box.
Now Harmon has his hotheadedness and his rebelliousness and his
cockiness in check. He has probably learned as much from his
extraordinary pupil as his pupil has from him. All good teachers
learn from their students.
A few days before the Masters, Harmon was teaching at his school
in Las Vegas. He was working with a student, a man in his early
60s, a corporate success, a golfing failure. Harmon sized up the
man in three swings. "You're a strong guy, in good shape, you're
taking care of yourself," the teacher said. "You need to get
more out of your swing. Sometimes we get so afraid of hitting
bad shots, we don't let ourselves hit good ones."
The man looked at Harmon, nodded his head in long, sad strokes.
He was standing before the master teacher, the man who teaches
Tiger Woods, and it was as if his whole life had been bared. The
teacher wasted no time. The clock was running. There was work to
be done, improvements to be made. The student knew it, and the
teacher knew it, too.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS Like father, like son Butch (with Claude in '51) has always taken after his dad, even in the way he tosses off one-liners.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK HAPPY MEDIUM Harmon helped his star pupil sort out conflicting advice on his putting.
Said Claude about Butch's club job in Texas City: "All you need
is a tattoo parlor in your pro shop, and you'll be set for life."
During Woods's match with Love a fan called out, "What are you
feeding him?" Harmon replied, "Davis, today."