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

Billy Harmon
Courtesy of Billy Harmon
As a junior star, Bill (center) exhibited the most potential among the Harmon boys.

Throughout his early teens, Harmon, and his game, stayed healthy. College brought him to California for a free ride at golf powerhouse San Jose State. As a freshman he emerged as the team’s top player, and, before long, its top partier, too. At a campus bash, Harmon got his first taste of marijuana in the form of a pot brownie. He liked it enough that he tried some more. Weed became his escape, a release from the cauldron of competition. But what felt like freedom would soon become a jail of his own making. The more he got high, the less he went low. That kicked off a vicious cycle, with no easy way out.

“I started failing, and I’d never failed at golf before,” Bill says. “I didn’t know how to cope with it, and I thought if I got high I wouldn’t have to feel the pain. The problem with seeking out that kind of anesthesia is that before you know it, the anesthesia has a hold on your life.”

It was a burden that all the Harmon boys 
 had shouldered to one degree or another. “Being Claude Harmon’s kid cut both ways,” Butch says. “On the one hand it opened doors. On the other, there were the expectations. If you played great, people would say, ‘Figures. He’s Claude Harmon’s kid.’ And if you played like sh--, they’d say, ‘Can you believe how bad he’s playing? And he’s Claude Harmon’s kid.’ ”

By the end of Bill’s freshman year, golf, once a pleasure, had become a form of torture. Despondent, directionless and struggling to break 90, Harmon dropped out of school, “a truly stupid decision” that he backed up with another: A hardened renegade, he signed up for a year in the Marine reserves. “Here I am, a guy who doesn’t like yield signs much less stop signs, and I join the Marines?” Harmon says. “Obviously, I’m not exactly thinking straight.”

Through that troubled time, and others that came after, he dreaded playing golf, but the industry itself remained a refuge. Someone was always willing to hire a Harmon. In the early ’70s, he landed at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where his father, following his stint at Seminole, worked as the head pro during the winter. For Bill, it was a new place for the same old habits, which by now included drinking. More than once, he was suspended for mouthing off to clientele and colleagues.

“The way I saw it, there were always too many bosses, too many members,” Bill says. “But that was my problem, not anyone else’s. I was fighting everyone and everything.”

He couldn’t live with golf and he couldn’t live without it. He bounced around unhappily from one club to another until 1977, when he stumbled on a niche. An emerging star named Jay Haas was looking for a caddie.

From their first tournament together, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Harmon and Haas were a case of opposites attracting: the self-loathing lost soul, and the grounded gamer; the soft-spoken up-and-comer who knew exactly what he wanted, and the pedigreed dropout who had no clue who he was. In Harmon, Haas admired what appeared to be a free spirit. In Haas, Harmon saw his inverse, and he liked it: a precocious talent, driven and unburdened by self-doubt.

“I respected everything about Jay—his talent, his humility—and I felt intensely loyal to him,” Harmon says. “Turns out I was much happier pulling a club on the 12th hole at Augusta with the wind blowing than I was folding polyester shirts in a pro shop.”

If caddying gave Harmon a job he loved, it also enabled his destructive lifestyle. Evenings found him at the bar, downing beers with fellow loopers. He did cocaine when it was offered, smoked joints when they were around. He was a functional lush, not a falling-down drunkard. He never missed a tee time, never lost a club.

One year, at the Tour stop at Colonial in Texas, Haas and Harmon finished early on a Friday. Harmon went on drinking late into the night. The next morning, when Harmon arrived on the first tee, bleary-eyed and wearing blue jeans in withering Fort Worth weather, Lee Trevino, who was in the same pairing, looked Harmon over and remarked, “I hope it was worth it.”

At that point in his life, Harmon still acted like it was.

In 1992, Harmon was working as the head pro at Newport (R.I.) Country Club when three friends approached him. They had something to tell him. It was the defining moment of his life.

The previous five years had been a whirlwind. In 1987, he’d parted ways with Haas so he could help his brother, Craig, in Rochester as Oak Hill prepared to host the U.S. Open. He’d gotten married and continued to drink. He’d moved to Newport and done the same. He and his wife, Robin, had welcomed their first child—a high point in Harmon’s life and a low point in his addiction.

“We had just had this beautiful son, and all I wanted was for us all to be happy together,” Harmon says. “But deep down, I realized that if I kept up my drinking, I was going to severely hurt my chances of doing that.”

When his three friends intervened, asking if he thought he had a drinking problem, Harmon was ready, his reply a blend of sarcasm and submission.

“Nah,” he said. “Ya think?”

---

Bill Harmon was born on August 28, 1950. On August 27, 1992—almost exactly 42 years later—he says his life began. In the two decades since, Harmon says, he hasn’t touched a drink or drugs. His days revolve around his wife, their two sons and his sobriety. He attends AA meetings six mornings a week. “I’ve never stuck to anything like I’ve stuck to this,” he says.

Two years ago, he deepened that commitment when he and Robin launched the Harmon Recovery Foundation, which supports drug and alcohol treatment programs through fund-raising events that attract well-known golfers such as Curtis Strange, Jeff Sluman and Ian Baker-Finch.

Golf, Harmon says, is “what I do, but it’s not who I am.” Still, he’s a Harmon, and the game is the prism through which the world perceives him. After Tiger Woods’s struggles at this year’s Masters, rumors swirled that Harmon might replace Woods’s current coach, Sean Foley. Harmon says the rumors were just that.

He’s not like his brother Butch—though he says they’re close—a famously hard-driver whose stable of students, past and present, is a who’s who of modern golf: Woods, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson. The list goes on, to Bill Harmon’s amazement. “I admire what Butch does,” he says. “But his capacity to work with Tour pros is well beyond mine.”

Aside from the two Haases, Harmon occasionally works with Tour veteran John Merrick, and he finds satisfaction in working with the Nationwide Tour’s Alex Coe. “A guy who hasn’t made it yet,” Harmon says. “I like that idea. A guy who’s fighting hard to get somewhere.”

His own experiences have brought him so far that his former life, his pre-sobriety existence, is a distant blur. He looks back, he says, “only as a way to learn and as a means of helping others,” but he also conjures the past to remember fondly.

A small room in his La Quinta home doubles as a shrine to his brother, Dick, the longtime head pro at River Oaks Country Club in Texas who died six years ago of complications from pneumonia. Another is a hideout filled with Harmonography, its walls given over to family photos that could pass for a Hall of Fame exhibit.

In one corner: a snapshot of Harmon’s father, standing on the tee box with Hogan as Jimmy Demaret uncorks a drive. A few frames over, another of Claude, at the 1952 Masters champions’ dinner, grinning in a group that includes Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Survey the display, and you’re struck by the legacy that runs through the Harmon bloodlines. But you’re also struck by something else. There, amid the pictures of the game’s giants, are images of Bill Harmon, posing with his brothers, smiling with his father, looking very much like he belongs.

“In retrospect, I realize that one of the reasons I drank is that I didn’t feel like I was living up to this body of work that the Harmon family had created,” Harmon says. “I’m not sure I’m adding to it today. But I’m pretty sure I’m not subtracting from it, either.”

The August issue of Golf Magazine is now on newsstands; it is also available free for subscribers on tablets at golf.com/allaccess.

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