Long before Tiger and Hank, there was Tiger and Butch.
It was Butch Harmon’s unerring eye that chaperoned Woods’ early swing onto golf’s Big Stage. It was Harmon’s instructional supervision that helped enable Woods to realize, so quickly, the vision he had dreamed as a small child.
Harmon knew about these kinds of dreams because he had sat, as a young boy, at the foot of Ben Hogan. Hogan played practice rounds with Butch’s father, Claude Harmon, who himself won a Masters and who many still believe was the greatest teacher who ever lived.
The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. For more than a decade now Butch Harmon has been recognized by his peers as the No. 1 teaching professional in the game. His students have included Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson and Woods, just to name a precious few.
Harmon recently spent time with Brian Hewitt, The Post’s Editor-in-Chief, for an engaging Q&A. As usual, Harmon pulled no punches.
What will Tiger’s future bring? Why is Phil the modern-day Arnold Palmer? How do Tiger and Phil really get along? Who has the best swing in golf? Who has Butch’s favorite swing? What was the secret behind Hogan’s secret? Who has the best hands in golf? Of the current great players, which one would Harmon liked to have worked with but never did?
For the answers to all of these questions and much more, read on.
THE POST: First, a question about you. You’ve worked with several world No. 1s. As a teacher, what does it mean to you to be recognized as No. 1 in the world at what you do?
BUTCH HARMON: Well, I think a lot of times in life, no matter what profession you’re in, you win awards or accolades, but when you get something that people who do what you do consistently vote you number one, it means a lot because of who the voting people are and they have that belief over the last 11 or 12 years. It’s very gratifying in knowing that part of that work that other people appreciate as much as I do.
THE POST: Is there any one player now, or from the past, that you haven’t worked with that you would love to have worked with?
BUTCH HARMON: Well, I don’t solicit any business. I’m not one that goes out behind another teacher’s back and talks to people and sort of like, ‘I can help you,’ like a lot of guys do. But if there was one person that I wished I had an opportunity to work with that I think I could help and I still think I could help, it would be Retief Goosen.
THE POST: I’m not sure that a lot of people would have guessed Retief Goosen would have been the answer to that question.
BUTCH HARMON: If you look at Retief’s history, under a lot of pressure down the stretch, at times, he tends to hit some quick pull hooks. And for me, I think there’s a little bit of a flaw in his mechanics that create that and I would love to have the opportunity to try and help him. But once again and I’m not saying I’d ever contact him.
THE POST: On the subject of hooking the golf ball … didn’t Hogan say hitting a hook was like finding a snake in your bag? Or words to that effect?
BUTCH HARMON: Both my dad and Hogan hooked the ball a lot in their early careers. So they hated the hook. Both of them, through their years of practice together and working, said you had to draw the ball when you had to. But in reality they hated to see a hook.
THE POST: If Hogan were around today, and still in his prime and he came to you and said, ‘Butch, would you take a look and see what you could help me with?’ would you leave it alone or would you have to take today’s equipment into consideration?
BUTCH HARMON: I think you have to take equipment into consideration but I don’t think you’d ever change anything that Ben Hogan did. His work ethic was above anybody.
THE POST: So Hogan would have adjusted better to today’s game than today’s players would have adjusted to conditions and equipment from a previous era?
BUTCH HARMON: I truly believe that it’s very hard to judge eras in any sport. But if you brought the great players of yesteryear forward they’d be so much better now with new equipment because the new equipment has made the game so much easier. But I do believe if you take these young superstars today back 40 years, they would have a hard time adjusting. So, I wouldn’t change anything, mechanically, that Ben Hogan did. He might have to change the lofts on his clubs different – new balls and things like that. But he was a machine.
THE POST: So what was Hogan’s secret? Everybody seems to have an opinion. But your vantage point was better than almost anybody’s.
BUTCH HARMON: It was a change he made. What he did, what it was, according to my father, who was his best friend and they practiced together, was this: He got his left wrist in a cuppy position. He had a fairly neutral grip and he got his left wrist in a very cupped position, which meant the clubface is more open at the top of the swing and he could use his right side so much faster through the ball and not fear the ball going to the left. You read so many different things and so many opinions of what people think. But that, in my opinion, because I heard it right from my dad’s mouth, is what Mr. Hogan changed.
THE POST: Who is the best student – and I emphasize the word ‘student’ not ‘player,’ that you ever worked with at taking information, processing it and bringing it to the course?
BUTCH HARMON: I think Greg Norman and Tiger Woods would be the two best. Greg really – I changed his swing pretty radically back in the early 90s. When I changed his swing, I think he grasped it beautifully. He has a tremendous knowledge of the golf swing. And then you’d have to say Tiger Woods because he’s changed his swing so many times and still is a great player. He obviously has knowledge of the golf swing and whether we agree with the way he swings it or not is immaterial.
THE POST: Tiger gets criticized, by some people, for feeling he has to change it so often. Is that something that’s just in his nature – that he’s always going to feel like he wants to be working on something new?
BUTCH HARMON: He always feels he can get better. He’s not complacent. When he and I went our separate ways, I was of the belief that if it’s not broken, we don’t need to fix it. He always liked to tinker with it. When he had his phenomenal year in 2000 and then in 2001, he drove with a steel shaft with 43 ¼ inch shaft and he was hitting 71 percent of his fairways and was the second longest hitter in the game. That’s pretty phenomenal if you think about it. Then everybody started using more graphite and longer shafts and he wanted to use that because he wanted to hit it farther and I didn’t think he needed to. And that’s kind of why we started falling part as far as to what we felt, swing-wise.
THE POST: Is it realistic to think Tiger could ever get back to the level he reached in 2000 and part of 2001?
BUTCH HARMON: I don’t think so. I don’t think that any one player can dominate like he did then. It’s different times. Equipment has changed. That was 12 years ago. Players have changed. Tiger has changed. His body is different. He’s had, what, two or three surgeries since then? He’s had two children. He’s gone through a very ugly divorce. So many things have happened. Can he get back to a level of winning consistently as much as he did? Personally, I think that’s going to be difficult. I don’t think it’s a physical thing. I think it’s mental.
THE POST: Yours is a unique perspective. What’s the one thing the media or the public don’t get about Tiger’s and Phil’s relationship?
BUTCH HARMON: Well, I think there is a tremendous respect for each other and with each other. I know Phil has a tremendous amount of respect for Tiger and I think that Tiger has a tremendous amount of respect for the way Phil plays. I think they get along a lot better than people think they do. Are they going to dinner every night and to each other’s birthday party? No. It’s just not their personalities. They like different things in life. But I think when I’m with them, in the locker room where I see them together, when they play, I think they get along fine. I don’t think there’s any hatred there.
THE POST: Moving on to more Phil: You were quoted recently, after he shot the final-round 64 to win at Pebble, as saying that when Phil has to dial back a little bit, whether it’s weather or conditions – i.e. the final round at last year’s British – he plays his best when he has to back off little bit. True?
BUTCH HARMON: There’s no doubt about that. I think he plays more under control in tough weather conditions or wind conditions. You don’t see him jumping off the ground, trying to bomb the drive over a bunker or something like that. You see him take what the course gives him. He takes what the weather gives him and I think his concentration level is so much better that way because he gets away from 100 percent aggressive play.
THE POST: Knowing that, is there any way you can try to trick him into pretending that those conditions exist when they don’t?
BUTCH HARMON: Well, I have tried but that just isn’t his personality. Phil is a modern day Arnold Palmer. He wears it right on his sleeve. He is an aggressive player, I mean, he’s always going to be aggressive. It’s not that he doesn’t play aggressive in adverse conditions, he just tends to dial back a little and play a little more under control. And we talk about this every week so it’s nothing new. It’s just a matter of him buying into the situation and in the type of day and the type of course that he’s playing.
THE POST: Not many people know that Jose Maria Olazabal is one of your favorite players and people. What is it about the way Jose Maria goes about his business and the way he plays golf?
BUTCH HARMON: Olazabal is a dear friend of mine. We have been friends for a long time. I was with him and his family at his induction to the Hall of Fame as an invited guest. He is just a phenomenal person when you watch how he plays. People say to me, when Tiger was so phenomenal, what is the closest thing to Tiger Woods you have ever seen and I will always say Jose Maria Olazabal.
THE POST: Of the top players, who gets the most out of the least amount of talent?
BUTCH HARMON: That’s a good question. Right now, I would have to say Webb Simpson. I think it’s a big year for him this year because he’s going to have to deliver on what he did last year and he’s going to have to validate that and he has an unusual looking swing. He had such a phenomenal year last year, I think he gets a tremendous amount out of what he does and how he plays. I think he gets the max out of it.
THE POST: And then the flip side of the question is, who’s getting the least out of the most talent?
BUTCH HARMON: I think the biggest underachiever that I know is Darren Clarke, and I say that affectionately. Darren is a dear friend of mine. I love Clarkie and I was so, so happy for him when he won the Open Championship last year, but this man is a tremendous talent and I don’t think he has ever achieved the status that those of us who know him, those of us that have worked with him, ever thought that he could because he has so much talent. But you know, it’s just his nature and personality but I think he’s probably the biggest underachiever of all the players.
THE POST: Couple of quick hitters: Who has the best golf mind of anybody – player or teacher – you’ve ever seen?
BUTCH HARMON: I would have to say my father had the best. He was phenomenal. Not only was he a phenomenal player, he was a phenomenal teacher. He had the ability to see and diagnose, teaching faster than anyone I have ever seen and he had the credibility. He would have to be at the pinnacle for me.
THE POST: The best hands in golf that you have ever seen?
BUTCH HARMON: Of modern-day players, it would have to be Bubba Watson. When you look at his swing on film, you wouldn’t think that he could break 80. Watch him play and he is a phenomenal player. He does it all with his hands. From what I understand, he learned how to play golf as a kid with a whiffle ball. Where he would just curve it around trees in the backyard and around everything. And so I’d have to say he’s got the most phenomenal hands of anyone I have ever seen.
THE POST: There are Seve fans who would read that and cringe.
BUTCH HARMON: Well, but we’re not just talking about the short game, we’re not talking about hitting shots out of trouble, we’re talking about every shot he hits.
THE POST: Got it.
BUTCH HARMON: Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree about Seve or Olazabal. You’d have to put Seve and Olazabal on the same boat there as far as the way their creativity was, that was more when they were in trouble or with the short game. Bubba Watson does it on every swing. And with modern equipment and these modern balls, they don’t curve near as much as they used to and he has the ability to curve the heck out of them.
THE POST: Who has the best swing in golf?
BUTCH HARMON: The swing that I like the most, that if I could imitate it myself or of anyone, is Jeff Sluman’s swing. It’s very simple. It’s probably the simplest swing I’ve ever seen as far as someone could copy it. The best swing that I’d ever seen was Tiger Woods in 2000. Technically, it was the most sound swing I think I’d ever seen. If you watch it on film and you watch the positions he was in, you can’t find a flaw with it. Of the modern day players, I’d say Adam Scott probably fundamentally has as good a swing as anybody in the game.
THE POST: Finally, your new video – “Butch Harmon About Golf.” It’s unique. It’s almost like a reference library. A player can come in after a round and find the area that covers what he or she was struggling with and watch that part of the video.
BUTCH HARMON: It’s an accumulation of everything I’ve tried to learn in my life, from the golf swing about how to play golf. I’m very happy with how it turned out. Normally, when you do videos, and I’ve done a bunch of them, when you finally get it out there, you always wish I wish could have done this, I wish I could have done that. I don’t think there’s anything in there that I wished that we could have done that we didn’t do.