His life looks glamorous I now. His kids are grown, he's Hi Hi no longer married, he has lost a bunch of weight, his suits are custom-made, and he's building himself a house on the outskirts of the new capital of the free world, Las Vegas. His postmodern academy there, the Butch Harmon School of Golf, is spectacular, nestled into the hillocks of the Rio Secco Golf Club, a course so shiny its fairways literally glimmer. Each year hundreds of pupils—rich, white middle-aged men, mostly—make a pilgrimage there to spend $500 for an hour with the master and much more at the Rio craps tables, downtown. Harmon does his gambling off the Strip, at the places known only to locals and insiders, Harmon being both. Every month or two Tiger Woods jets in for tutorials and anonymous gambling sessions. Sometimes Harmon goes to Woods's crib at Isleworth, in Orlando, and stays in Tiger's guest room. They hit balls, they work out, they play golf, they watch basketball. Harmon is not only Tiger's teacher, but also one of his best friends. He's the ultimate insider in Tiger's insulated camp, which is to say, he is at the center of the sporting universe. You want to see Butch? Take a number, pal. His hourly rate is scaring off nobody.
Twenty years ago E. Claude (Butch) Harmon Jr. was broke, living on his brother Dick's couch, drinking too much, acting surly, driving tractors on Texas golf courses under construction. He was a failure as a Tour player and a dropout as a club pro. He was in a marriage headed for divorce, and his two children were being raised in a battleground. Through it all, Butch's three brothers will tell you, he was a cocky bastard, just as he has always been. It was as if he could see this day coming. Last week, during the practice rounds at the Masters and in the practice areas, only the player, the player's caddie and the player's coach are allowed inside the ropes. There was Butch, sanctum sanctorum, with several hundred people leaning over a green-and-white cord trying to hear a snippet of conversation between teacher and pupil.
He's everywhere. If you stay at the hotel at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., Butch is on SpectraVision, his taped lessons available on command 24 hours a day. Visit any mall bookstore in the country, and two Harmon titles are sharing shelf space with the author's alphabetical neighbor, Ben Hogan. Put on the Golf Channel, and there's Harmon on Academy Live. Surf over to Fox looking for a baseball score, and there's Harmon selling his four-tape video series, Conquering Golf. He's in the catalog of a Canadian clothing manufacturer, Jack Victor. He's a commentator for British television at 10 tournaments a year. Go to the dentist, excavate an old Golf Digest from the stack of Highlights, and there's Harmon, on the cover, playing one-handed bunker shots.
The guy's on a roll. The final of the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship in February featured two Harmon students, Woods and Darren Clarke. Talk about your win-wins. In the semifinals Woods dismantled one of Harmon's former students, Davis Love III. After Woods nutted one of his 330-yarders a spectator called out to Harmon, "What are you feeding him?" To which Harmon responded, "Davis, today."
Not a kind comment, particularly considering that Love helped launch Harmon's career as a teacher of elite players. After a series of personal setbacks in the '70s, Harmon spent an entire decade resurrecting his career and regaining financial control of his life. In the course of 10 years he was a tractor driver, a club pro at a rough-and-tumble Texas muni where he ran the carts, worked the snack bar, sold golf balls and did trick-shot exhibitions. Finally, at the end of the decade, he became the director of golf at Lochinvar, a swanky club in Houston.
His first world-class student was Love, with whom he started working in 1991. Greg Norman saw improvements in Love's swing and signed on with Harmon late in 1991. In 1993, Woods, 17, and inspired by Norman's progress, enrolled with Harmon, unable to pay but more than willing to work and to learn. Anyway, no one ever said that making kind comments was Harmon's strong suit. Just the opposite.
His late father, the first E. Claude Harmon, a pro at two elite clubs, Winged Foot and Seminole, and winner of the '48 Masters, was a master zinger. Butch, the oldest of the boys and two girls, grew up barraged by his father's wicked one-liners. When Butch was the club pro at the rough-and-tumble muni in Texas City, his father said to him, "All you need is a tattoo parlor in your pro shop, and you'll be set for life." Butch learned from the best.
Love and Butch parted ways, amicably, in 1996. Later that year, at the PGA at Valhalla, Norman and Harmon got into a dispute over Harmon's doming contract, and Norman fired his teacher in the middle of a practice round. (They have patched things up but do not work together.) As for Woods and Harmon, they're going strong. Clarke says the two men are wholly suited to each other. "Those two could talk golf 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Clarke says. Harmon and Woods speak the same language, and they speak it the same way.
An example: On the Sunday before this year's Masters, Harmon played 36 holes at Augusta as the guest of a member. For the day he played the 12th hole, the ticklish par-3, in five strokes. "I don't know why you guys are always bitching about 12," Harmon told his star pupil. "I made a par and a birdie there when I played it on Sunday." Woods saw his opening. "Wrong Sunday," he said.
Maybe the most ticklish thing in golf these days is any evolving relationship with Woods. In '93, when Harmon was teaching two of the best players in the world, it was Woods who sought out Harmon. Now the 24-year-old golfer is the most powerful person in the game, and Harmon, who is 56, knows it. "Tiger is the show," he says. "His caddie, Steve Williams, has one role. I have another. We're not the show. A lot of what I have in life is because I'm Tiger's teacher."