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