Harmons' legacy in spotlight at Oak Hill
By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM Columnist
Some of the hundreds of storylines from this week’s 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., have the potential to be very special. The true golf fan – which we’ll assume you are since you’ve made it to the second sentence – will have no difficulty identifying them by first-name only:
- Tiger will be seeking his sixth win of the season, his 80th PGA TOUR victory and his 15th major championship
- Phil could win his second major of the year, the sixth of his career and become the fourth player since World War I to win The Open Championship and PGA in the same season.
- Rory, the defending PGA champion, will see if he can find the brilliance mostly absent since his eight-stroke win last year.
- Adam, who became the first Australian winner of the Masters this year, is on form to become the first Aussie to win two majors in a season.
Besides being one of golf’s four major championships, the PGA Championship is a celebration of America’s 27,000 club professionals, the men and women who are the backbone of the game. You may know them as the folks behind the counter who daily make sure the tee sheet is in order, the shop is stocked, the carts are charged, the pins are set and Mr. and Mrs. Jones are taken care of. And that’s just from 6 to 8 a.m.
The late and very great columnist Jim Murray once described the profession, “Sometimes and for most pros, it’s standing out on a murky tee at dawn with a truck driver or an industrialist taking lusty swipes at the damp morning air with a loop in their backswing, demanding in exasperation, “How do you hit the damn thing?”
He wrote that in a column nearly half a century ago about Claude Harmon Sr., whose prowess as both a player (he won the 1948 Masters) and teacher (among his pupils at Winged Foot and Seminole Golf Clubs were Henry Ford, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and a 19-year-old Dave Marr) has not been matched since and whose unparalleled legacy as the father of a foursome of sons who all became top-50 club pros and teachers will likely never be equaled.
As happens whenever golf’s massive extended family gathers at a big event, the extraordinary Harmon family is a major presence at Oak Hill this week. Their influence is palpable and inescapable, from patriarch, Claude Sr., to his namesake and first-born son, Claude Jr., better known as Butch, to Craig Harmon, to the late Dick Harmon, who tragically died seven years ago of pneumonia at age 58, to the youngest son, Bill Harmon, who is 62, to Butch’s son, Claude III.
It’s appropriate this week to start with Craig Harmon, 67, the second of the four Harmon boys born to Claude and Alice Harmon, and head professional at Oak Hill for the past 41 years. Oak Hill’s historic East Course, designed by Donald Ross, has hosted the 1956 and ’68 U.S. Opens, 1980 PGA Championship, 1989 U.S. Open and 2003 and 2013 PGA Championships. It also was the site for the 1949 U.S. Amateur, 1984 U.S. Senior Open, 1995 Ryder Cup, 1998 U.S. Amateur and 2008 Senior PGA Championship.
Like all the Harmon sons, Craig reveres his dad’s memory and accomplishments and usually defers to his older brother, Butch, whom he calls “the No. 1 guy in the world.” But he, like his brothers, doesn’t hesitate to reveal glimpses of his father through the sometimes-barbed humor Claude passed on to each of the boys.
“When I got the job at Oak Hill I remember my dad coming up,” Craig said, “and he said I never would have gotten the job if my name was Craig Schultz. And he might be right there. But I kept it as Craig Harmon.”
Fathers, sons and golf can sometimes make for the sweetest combination in sports, and there can be no doubting the strength of the lifelong bonds among the Harmon brothers. Butch, who credits his father for imparting his knowledge of the game and wisdom about life and his late brother Dick for helping him get through some rough times decades ago, nonetheless recalls the difficulties of being measured against his famous father.
“Being Claude Harmon’s kid cut both ways,” Butch said in an interview last year. “On the one hand it opened doors. On the other, there were the expectations. If you played great, people would say, ‘Figures. He’s Claude Harmon’s kid.’ And if you played (bad) they’d say, ‘Can you believe how bad he’s playing? And he’s Claude Harmon’s kid.’”
But it ultimately gave each of the boys a stronger sense of their own identity, once they came to grips with the real-life struggles. Bill Harmon, the youngest of the Harmon boys, measures his life from the day he embraced sobriety two decades ago. The most talented and best player of the four brothers, Bill shot in the 60s when he 14 and won the club championship at Winged Foot when he was 16.
He might have been able to make it inside the ropes had he not run into the buzzsaw of drugs and booze. But, true to the tenets of the drug and alcohol program he has worked for 20 years and that he now supports with his wife, Robin, through the Harmon Recovery Foundation, he makes no excuses and asks no “what-ifs.”
“Some people have tried to tell me that I’ve had it tough, but that’s bull,” he once said. “I’m one of the Harmon brothers. How many good breaks do I need?”
The Harmon brothers, one and all, inherited Claude’s no-nonsense approach to things that have importance. Funny how no-nonsense guys always seem to have the pithiest, driest and best senses of humor. In “The Pro,” the 2006 book he wrote with author Steve Eubanks about his life around golf, and growing up with his famous father, Butch related the story about how Ben Hogan had called when Claude was near death, and told him, “You are one of my very best friends.”
Claude’s response, “Well, hell, Ben, there aren’t very many.”
The friends of Claude and his sons in the game of golf are legion. Butch, who can be as brutally direct as his dad was, is lauded on a current commercial for his instructional videotapes by the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players in the world.
His former student, Tiger Woods, says, “Butch has got some invaluable knowledge and invaluable wisdom and understanding about how to play the game.” The new British Open champion, Phil Mickelson, who has won two of his five majors and a PLAYERS Championship since he began working on tightening his action in 2007 with Butch, says, ““I’ve enjoyed working with you Butch and you’ve been able to take one of my weaknesses and turn it into a strength.”
Claude Harmon would be proud of the brothers Harmon. All of them.