Now 20 years sober, Bill Harmon is making a name for himself by helping others

Bill Harmon, with family
Courtesy of Billy Harmon
Bill Harmon (right, in blue pants) with, from left, brothers Craig and Butch, father, Claude, and, far right, brother Dick.

Ask Bill Harmon where he learned his fundamentals—the compact backswing, the explosive pass through impact—and he credits his father, the late Claude Harmon, who won the Masters and passed his tough-love teachings to all four of his sons, along with the burdens and the blessings that came with carrying the famous family name. Ask the younger Harmon where he picked up his bad habits, and he’s just as certain: He’ll tell you that he has only himself to blame.

He could take the easy route and attribute his struggles to outside expectations, the pressures of playing for paternal approval, the weight of living up to lofty pedigree. But that would be a cop out, and Harmon is finished with the shortcuts and denial, just as he is through with the booze and cocaine.

Sure, his father pushed him, and yes, he was a needler (That’s a great grip, son—if you want to shoot 80), but nothing Harmon dealt with was any different from what his brothers faced. Butch, the oldest, became an instructor to the stars. Craig and Dick, respected club pros in their own right, came through the crucible okay.

Bill alone opted for the path he followed. No one else suggested that he give up on his talent, or slam shut doors that opened just because of his name. No one else compelled him to drift into dark decades of escapism in drugs and alcohol.

You can praise Bill today for the good fight he’s been fighting, 20 years sober and the co-founder, with his wife, Robin, of a charity aimed at helping others overcome addiction. You can call him “smart and funny and fiercely loyal,” as his best friend, Jay Haas, does. You can even hail him as an underrated instructor, a sharp-eyed TV analyst, and the straight-talking guru who guided Jay’s son, Bill, to the FedEx Cup title in 2011.

Bill just won’t like it. Now 61, at ease with who he is and what he’s up to, he’s not seeking your applause any more than he’s looking for your pity. “Some people have tried to tell me that I’ve had it tough, but that’s bulls--t,” Harmon says. “I’m one of the Harmon brothers. How many good breaks do I need?”

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If there’s a soundtrack to Bill’s story, it’s an outlaw’s ballad, a tune about a young man tilting against his privileged life. He was born into golf royalty, his father the ’48 Masters champ and the heralded head pro at Winged Foot Golf Club, the prestigious redoubt just north of New York City. In claiming the green jacket, Claude became the last club pro to win a major.

He was also a three-time semifinalist in the PGA Championship, then a match-play event. In winters, he’d retreat to the head pro post at Seminole, in Florida, where he played money matches against his buddy, Ben Hogan, winning as often as he lost.

Bill Harmon was four when his father put a golf club in his hands. His dad was a tell-it-like-it-is kind of teacher. When Bill groused that a new grip didn’t feel right, Claude would reply, “Son, the ball is inanimate, and the club is inanimate. Tell me what your feelings have to do with this?”

All the Harmon boys learned early, but Bill, the youngest, was the most natural talent, more gifted even than the firstborn, Butch, who played for a brief spell on the PGA Tour. At 14, Bill was shooting in the 60s. At 16, he won the Winged Foot club championship, trouncing his brother Craig along the way.

“I think I gave him his toughest match,” says Craig, the head pro of 40 years at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. “And he beat me something like 7 and 6.”

Adds Butch: “We were brothers. We were always trying to beat each other’s brains out. But as juniors, it was no contest. Bill was by far the best of us.”

As Bill tells it, Craig and Dick were the dutiful sons, he and Butch the rebels. “If Dad said the sky was blue, we’d say it was purple,” Bill says. “We were more likely to reject his teachings.”

Today, their father’s insights shape the work they do, but, as Bill discovered, swing tips only change the trajectory of golf shots. They’re not much help when your life veers off course.

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"This is going to be uncomfortable,” Bill Harmon says. “But that’s okay. I need to make you uncomfortable for a while.”

It’s a bright midmorning in Indian Wells, Calif., the desert sun already set on swelter, and he’s on the range at Toscana Golf Club, the posh oasis where he heads instruction, consulting with his first student of the day. His charge is a middle-aged retiree with a 12-handicap and an overly strong left-hand grip. It’s a problem Harmon has noted before. Harmon isn’t given to touchy-feely talk, but listen to his lessons, and it’s hard not to hear a hidden meaning in his message, to tease out the metaphor in what he’s saying.

“We always go back to what’s familiar,” he says, prodding his student toward a more neutral position. “But that’s got nothing to do with golf. It’s about being human.”

The 12-handicap swings and hits a single-digit draw.

Harmon inherited what his brother Craig calls “the Harmon eye”—the knack for singling out the root cause of a problem. It’s a talent that recently helped Bill land a job as a panelist on Golf Channel’s On the Range, a weekly program that spotlights Tour pros on the practice tee. Harmon’s on-air commentary is both frank and folksy. “Bill is one of those guys who’s great on television in large part because he’s not trying to be great on television,” says Harmon’s co-host, Gary Williams. “He’s just telling you what he thinks in a straightforward, intelligent way.”

Television calls for frame-by-frame analysis, but Harmon’s own leanings are low-tech. On the range at Toscana, he rarely uses video. His star pupil, Bill Haas, hasn’t seen his own swing in four years.

For roughly a decade, in the ’70s and ’80s, Harmon caddied on Tour for Haas’s father, Jay, an employee-boss relationship that blossomed into a friendship. Jay Haas learned the game from his uncle, the Masters champion Bob Goalby, but Harmon was his de facto traveling instructor and remains his sounding board today.

“He can set me straight with just the simplest observation. Ball position, maybe, or alignment,” Jay explains. “What sticks with me most from our time together is that you don’t change 10 things to fix one problem, you change one thing to fix 10.”

Says Harmon: “My dad was always less interested in what you were doing than in why you were doing what you did. He wanted to get to the source of the infection. Otherwise, you’re treating the symptoms and not the disease.”

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