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Head Man
Michael Bamberger
April 17, 2000
Butch Harmon is at top of his profession, and His relationship with Tiger Woods is only part of, the reason
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April 17, 2000

Head Man

Butch Harmon is at top of his profession, and His relationship with Tiger Woods is only part of, the reason

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Woods pays Harmon an annual flat fee—said by some to be as much as $1 million, but only Harmon knows for sure—and part of the deal is that Harmon must always be available whenever Woods needs him. They speak, in person or on the phone, after every round. Last week at Augusta, Harmon didn't miss a single shot by Woods, in practice or in competition. They were together on the practice tee for hours at a time, invigorated by their quest for perfection. Harmon says Woods's capacity for work exceeds that of any golfer he has ever known, including Norman who, Harmon says, "made tremendous personal sacrifices to be the best player in the world." But Harmon's capacity for work is off the charts, too. That's their ultimate link. But there are other bonding elements, the most subtle of which is Harmon's understanding of mixed-race marriages and mixed-race kids. Harmon's first wife (also his third) was Lillie Duran, a woman of Mexican descent from a working-class family. Harmon's parents did not approve of their union, so the couple eloped shortly after high school. The children from that marriage—a daughter, Michaele Ann, 33, who lives in Houston near her mother, and a son, CH, 30, who works with his father—grew up well aware of their mixed heritage, just as Woods did. Woods has a Buddhist, Thai mother and a black, American father, and Woods has been influenced by both cultures. If you don't understand this about him, you don't understand anything about him. But the pupil and the teacher don't talk about this stuff. They don't need to.

They share other important links. Earl Woods and Butch Harmon are former Army men, veterans of the Vietnam War. Both believe the routines of war—preparation, discipline, loyalty, sacrifice—may be applied to civilian life. Both men were scarred by Vietnam. In the name of his country, Harmon descended into Asian jungles where he killed men, stood next to friends as they were killed, had his foot on a land mine that should have killed him but did not detonate. Television commentators will sometimes talk about Woods's having the courage to play certain shots. The kid knows what courage actually is. The two most important men in his life have it, in spades.

Bill Harmon, one of Butch's three brothers, all of whom are prominent in the golf business, can be critical of his brother but also very generous. "With Butch, you always go back to that foxhole question," Bill says. "Who would you want in a foxhole with you with your life on the line? Nobody would be better than Butch. There's a lot of that in his relationship with Tiger. It's, 'You and me against the world, Tiger.' "

That spirit was challenged in 1998, the year Woods won only once on Tour, the year Woods and Harmon made subtle, important changes to Woods's swing, the year Harmon and Earl Woods gave conflicting advice to Tiger on his putting. Harmon will not acknowledge this, but others do: During that year, despite Harmon's strutting cockiness, he was nervous about what he was doing. After all, the old swing was good enough to produce a 12-shot victory in the '97 Masters. "Tiger's season last year, particularly the win at the PGA Championship, that was a tremendous validation for Butch," says Bill Harmon. "You could see the satisfaction in his face. The man can teach."

Early last year Harmon recognized that Woods was becoming confused by the conflicting putting advice from his father and his teacher. "I said to him, 'Forget about what your father's saying. Forget about what I'm saying. Forget about what Mark O'Meara is saying,' " Harmon recalls. " 'Just go putt the way you want to putt. Don't listen to anybody.' " Woods listened to Harmon. For the most part, he has putted brilliantly ever since. It takes confidence for a teacher to know when and where to step aside. Harmon has it. He has always been sure of himself.

He has always been a hothead and a rebel, too. As a kid he might play 15 holes in a couple under par, make a triple bogey on 16 and walk off the course. At one point Harmon's parents, not knowing what to do with their first child, enrolled their little sweetness in a Augustinian boarding school, Villanova, in Ojai, Calif. His stay was brief. According to Bill, one day one of the priests, upset with Butch, picked him up by the collar and threw him against a wall. Butch was a football player, wiry and muscular. He clocked the priest with a left hook. When his parents went to collect him, his father asked, "Why did you punch a priest?"

"I don't know," Butch answered, "but I guarantee you that guy will think twice before he picks up another kid by the shirt and throws him against a wall." His father, a man who disdained physical violence, sighed. In raising Butch, he knew he was in for a long ride.

Harmon played golf at Houston for part of a semester. He left for school with a set of clubs given to him by his father, clubs his father had used in finishing third in the '59 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. When Butch left Houston, the clubs were broken into so many pieces they could fit in a shoe box.

Now Harmon has his hotheadedness and his rebelliousness and his cockiness in check. He has probably learned as much from his extraordinary pupil as his pupil has from him. All good teachers learn from their students.

A few days before the Masters, Harmon was teaching at his school in Las Vegas. He was working with a student, a man in his early 60s, a corporate success, a golfing failure. Harmon sized up the man in three swings. "You're a strong guy, in good shape, you're taking care of yourself," the teacher said. "You need to get more out of your swing. Sometimes we get so afraid of hitting bad shots, we don't let ourselves hit good ones."

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