Want to get to know Oak Hill? Just ask the head pro, Craig Harmon

Monday August 5th, 2013
Many pros will no doubt line up to pick the brain of longtime Oak Hill head pro Craig Harmon, including defending champ Rory McIlroy, shown here in June.
Montana Pritchard / Getty Images

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- No one knows Oak Hill Country Club, the site of this week’s PGA Championship, better than Craig Harmon.

Harmon, 67, has been the head golf professional at the prestigious club for 41 years and, yes, he’s one of those Harmons. His legendary father, Claude, was a Masters champion and long-time head pro at Winged Foot. His brothers include Butch, one of the game’s highest-profile teachers (no one else has coached Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman), and Billy, who caddied for Jay Haas on Tour for years and has now regularly appears on Golf Channel. His late brother, Dick, was also a highly respected and decorated club professional. So it’s not a stretch to call the Harmons the First Family of Golf.

Craig was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and has ranked among Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers since the roster originated in 1996. His history spans much of Oak Hill’s five-plus-decade run as a major championship site. He was there when Jack Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA; when Curtis Strange won the 1988 U.S. Open and when Shaun Micheel won the 2003 PGA. He knows the course better than any man alive. So why write about him when we could be listening?

Here is some wit and wisdom from Harmon himself, a.k.a. The Oak Whisperer

On makes Oak Hill such a test for major championship golf:

“It’s one of the all-time great driving courses, the fairways are anywhere from 16 to 24 yards wide. They don’t narrow it down for a major championship. We play it that way all the time. We don’t play with the high rough that’s going to be there. If you hit a drive off-line or you’re in the rough, it’s not like Doral where there are no trees in your way. You have these huge trees in your way.

“In 1968, the average driving distance in the U.S. Open at Oak Hill was 246 yards. Lee Trevino won the event at 244. Nicklaus was the longest hitter in the field at 271. Now there will be nobody in the field who hits it just 271. The course back then played about 6,900 yards long. So for the players today to hit the same shots that Jack Nicklaus hit into the greens, the course would have to be about 8,300 yards. Over that period of time, we have only had 10 people break par in all of the medal play championships at Oak Hill; not 10 in one tournament, 10 total.

“So you would have to say the course has stood the test of time, even though the length has changed. By modern standards, it’s a short course. I would say most players won’t use driver more than half the time. I would be shocked if someone hit seven drivers at Oak Hill.”

On Oak Hill’s greens:

“The greens are benign looking and just don't break like people think, so you have some subtleties on the greens to challenge them. There are so many greens that slope from front to back, and they are kind of flat so you can't really see the break. There are so many greens at Oak Hill when you're putting side-to-side or back-to-front where you cannot quite tell what it's going to do. It looks like it's going to break and it doesn't.

“That has to be part of the defense of the course, the mystery of the greens. The modern player doesn't come in weeks in advance like they used to. The older guys used to come in and play the course backwards and forwards. Now they all have their charts and think they can learn these things in a few days. So I think the nuances of these greens would require a lot more attention to detail. They just won't be here to putt on them enough to know the nuances.”

On changes to Oak Hill since the 2003 PGA Championship:

“The greens on 5, 6 and 15 have been altered for better pin placements that they did not have in 2003. The 15th hole is a par 3 and it will be an incredibly hard hole. If you miss a green long and left and you might be 15 feet off the green, you'll be chipping back toward the water that's to the right; I'm not sure you can keep it on the green. And people won't know that. They will try it. The rough there is maybe the thickest rough I've ever seen in my life. The green slants that way, and it's probably 30 feet wide, and it would take a remarkable pitch shot if you're actually going for it.

“Now, say someone has the lead, they hit it over the green, they try and pitch it back, it trickles and it goes in the water.  They have to drop it back where they are, go to the other side of the water.

“17 and 18 were lengthened a little bit. They were two long holes to begin with -- 17 is the hardest hole at Oak Hill. It always has been. And 18 is one of the hardest. They have added about 15 yards. So there are 500-yard par 4s. When I played with Rory McIlroy, he hit a drive and a 4-iron to the 17th hole -- it was playing 515 yards.”

On the Harmon family:

“My dad (Claude) was the big guy. He was the Masters champion and to me, the greatest club professional of all time. Growing up around him at Winged Foot and sitting at the big table with Tommy Armour and Jackie Burke, Dave Marr -- to say we kids got a head start on golf is a tremendous understatement.

“Now, Butch is the No. 1 guy in the world and he's get tired of being introduced as Claude Harmon's son, but I think we are getting more tired of being introduced as Butch Harmon's brother.

“My late brother, Dick, was an outstanding PGA professional. Dick and I were the stalwarts and straight-arrow guys. We wanted to be club pros. Billy and Butch were the two rebels of the family. They wanted to play. When that didn’t work out, they gravitated to teaching.

“Butch went to the University of Houston on a four-year golf scholarship, and Butch had the worst temper of all-time. My dad gave him the irons he used to finished third in the ’79 Open. I don’t think Butch lasted a week. My dad hadn’t heard from Butch in a couple of weeks, called him and asked what he was doing. Butch said, ‘I quit Houston, I couldn’t take it. I broke all the clubs, threw them in the lake and joined the army.’ My dad said, ‘Well, the least you could have done was join the navy and get my goddam clubs out of the lake.’ That’s a true story.

“We had a good head start and if we didn’t have golf, we didn’t know what we were going to do. When I got the job at Oak Hill, I remember my dad saying, ‘You never would have gotten the job if your name was Craig Schultz,’ and he might be right. But I kept the job as Craig Harmon. The Harmons have been inside the ropes of golf for a long time -- the gift our dad gave us. Why wouldn’t we be doing what we’re doing? We are so fortunate.”

On 41 years at Oak Hill:

“My dad would say I’m crazy, what am I doing there that long? Really, he was a role model as a PGA professional. I always wanted to do what he did and I used his ideas all my life. One of his great lines is that to be a golf professional, you have to have a duck’s back, meaning the water never gets inside the feathers and the people never bother you. People do bother my brothers on occasion. They marvel at how I can stay at a club this long but I can because nobody bothers me. I enjoy everybody and I allow them to be who they are. Everybody has their idiosyncracies and I kind of like them.”

On helping Tour players figure out Oak Hill:

“I have this little secret bible. I have something written up on how to play Oak Hill. For example, at 13, the great par 5, the left side of the rough is like concrete and the right side is mush. So if you drive it in the left rough, it might bound another 30 yards into the creek there. That’s where all the cart traffic goes all year. Players wouldn’t know that. It’s full of nuances like that. It’s a very secretive bible. I do have something in writing that I give only to the players my brothers work with. I have some outlines on some of the putts. If someone asked me, I would pretty much tell them the same thing.
                 
On Shaun Micheel’s famous 7-iron approach to two inches at the 18th in the 2003 PGA:

“There's a plaque about the size of a piece of paper on the spot where he hit it, and, yes, there are a lot of divots around that flag. When he came to that hole, Chad Campbell had driven it down the fairway, and Micheel actually hooked his drive, and I don't know how it didn't bounce up. It hit that first cut of rough and just kind of stayed there. Had it gone just another foot to the left, he would have been in the four-inch rough and not been able to hit the green and Chad Campbell might have won.

“I chatted with Chad Campbell a few weeks ago out on Tour, and I said, ‘I remember that shot you hit, a beautiful shot to about 15 feet.’ But his came after Shaun Micheel's. He said, ‘I knew it was close but I didn't know it was two inches.’ There's plaque there for Micheel, and if you are going to hit the 7-iron from there, you're going to come up about 40 yards short. That was a pretty long 7-iron.”
                 
On memories of Ben Hogan: 

“I got a chance to play with him when I was 18. I didn't know until my dad and I were on the tee. We both hit our shots to the third hole, a par 5, and I had to walk up the fairway, 240 yards, side by side with Ben Hogan and I thought, ‘Oh my God he's going to ask me a question. I'm just a kid, what's he going to ask me?’ I was a nervous wreck.  We walked 50 yards, 60 yards, 80 yards, 100 yards, he didn't say a word to me. I thought, ‘My God, maybe he wants me to ask him a question. What could I possibly ask Ben Hogan?’ We get to the 200-yard mark and I ask him about the speed spot at the end of his driver, the curve that they carved in, and he told me about the speed spot.

“On the 15th hole, he popped up his drive.  And I've never heard my dad swear, and Ben Hogan didn't swear. But as he was picking up his tee, he goes, ‘God, I hate that freaking shot’ under his breath. He didn't say freaking, he said something else. And I had a great day with him. I played around in 69. When we walked off the 18th green, Hogan says, ‘Pleasure playing with you, Craig. You’re a very fine golfer.’ Within seconds, my dad was behind me, rubbing me on the shoulders. He said, ‘Hogan doesn't just say that. He said you were a fine golfer. He doesn't just give compliments.’ Obviously, I was pumped up to work pretty hard on my game after that.”

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