I have picked up the phone to call Butch Harmon at various times through the years -- to talk about his players, to rap about other players -- and I have always left the conversation smarter in golf.
During the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, I wondered about Phil Mickelson’s state of mind while his wife, Amy, was battling breast cancer 3,000 miles away. Phil had been zipping all over the country, from San Diego to Memphis, back to San Diego and finally to New York.
“Amy pushed him to play,” Butch explained. “Phil Mickelson is a very resilient human being. He has come back from a lot of adversity and been criticized on the course for a lot of things. He always comes back.”
Last year, on the eve of the Masters, I needed insight into Lee Westwood’s quest to win a major. Butch doesn’t coach Westwood, but he likes him. Why is Westwood always contending but not able to find that extra shot or two during a major?
“I love Lee,” Butch said. “The one thing that holds him back is his pitching around the greens. I’d say he’s below average at a tour level, and I think that’s what hurts you the most at major championships because of the severity of the golf courses. On a day when you don’t have it, you have to rely on your short game to bail you out and that’s what the Mickelsons, Woodses and Elses have. Short game is probably the only weak link in his armor.”
Butch loves golf. He tells it like it is. He has become a go-to guy for a legion of golf writers.
Earlier this month I was invited to a dinner Butch hosted during the Wells Fargo Championship to celebrate the release of what he says is his final instructional video: Butch Harmon About Golf.
Harmon had the needle out as always, but he was also emotional as he talked about his journey through the game. He was proud that so many of his pupils, past and present, had contributed to the video.
Mickelson. Greg Norman. Fred Couples. Adam Scott.
“This is the last thing I wanted to do for the public,” Butch said. “It’s my life’s work.”
“Is Tiger in the video?” someone at the table asked.
The room got quiet. Surely, Tiger wouldn’t have agreed to it. All that water under the bridge? All those pointers Butch gave Phil about playing against Tiger?
“Tiger’s in it,” Butch said.
And Tiger is.
“Butch has got some invaluable knowledge and invaluable wisdom and understanding of how to play the game,” Tiger says, staring into the camera.
“One thing I’ve learned through the years with Butch is, he’s a wonderful communicator. He was able to give his point of view on how he thinks you should play and how a person can hit the golf ball and, not only that, he’s a great motivator. Wonderful at giving them confidence before they go out and play even though they may not be hitting it very well. I certainly have been in that boat many a times.”
Woods continues as video is shown of a younger Butch working with a younger Tiger. Butch is svelte, Tiger is a string bean. The date on the screen says Aug. 25, 1993.
“A couple things I learned from Butch was how to practice but also understanding playing feels,” Tiger says. “You can work on something on the range because it looks pretty, it looks great on video, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to good golf shots down the stretch on Sunday. Sometimes we as players want to have a picture-perfect swing, we want to do things that look good on video, but they don’t necessarily translate to results when it matters the most. I think Butch was wonderful at that type of perception, how to communicate that, and really encouraging us to develop our playing feels. Certainly was instrumental in developing me as a player in the early part of my career.”
Tiger and Butch may never work together again, but there is obvious respect between them. Butch and Tiger reached their highest of highs together. Tiger appreciates the history of the game and knows that Butch and the Harmon family occupy a sizable portion of it. Butch knows that working with Tiger made him a better teacher and, unquestionably, a wealthy man.
The entire video is fascinating and funny. One minute Butch and Norman are talking about wearing out 2 irons, the next Norman is getting on Butch about being overweight and making too much money. (Butch has actually lost around 40 pounds since the video was filmed).
At one point during the evening I pulled Butch aside. A friend wanted me to ask him about his late father, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion and former head pro at Winged Foot.
“Do you mention Bethlehem Steel anywhere in your instructional video?” I asked.
Butch laughed. He hadn’t mentioned the long-ago company, but he immediately caught the reference. On the lesson tee, his father would sometimes tell students that their left wrist should be firm at impact, strong as Bethlehem Steel.
Butch then got into a set-up position and mimicked a golf swing, stopping at his imaginary golf ball.
“Which one are you going to be?” he said. “Linguini or Bethlehem Steel? Whoever told you to ask me that knew my father.”
Harmon choked up. It was time to eat.