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Butch Harmon: I constantly try and evolve as a coach

Dubai: From nightmarish visions of serving in the Vietnam War, to golden memories of having helped mastermind some of golf’s greatest moments, Claude “Butch” Harmon can certainly lay claim to having experienced the vicissitudes of life.

Widely renowned as the greatest golf instructor in the game, Harmon will, of course, forever be inextricably linked with the genesis of a genius of golf – Tiger Woods – after overseeing the world number one’s stunning rise to prominence and then heady ascent to superstardom between 1993 and 2004.

But the amiable, avuncular American’s history extends beyond that gilded era and encapsulates both tragedy as well as torrents of triumph in one rich capsule.

He witnessed triumph at an early age in the form of seeing his father, Claude Harmon Senior, winning the 1948 US Masters at Augusta before enjoying a brief career as a professional golfer himself in the early 1970s.

But prior to that, Harmon spent three years in the US Army and fought in the mother of all tragedies, the Vietnam War, the imperishable memories of which are too horrendous for the 70-year-old to contemplate to this day.

In the early 1980s, he briefly battled alcohol and gambling addictions but, as Harmon revealed in an exclusive telephone interview with Gulf News, such negative experiences were all part of life’s rich tapestry and were essential towards his journey towards enlightenment.

He said: “Vietnam is something I don’t talk about very often. War is an ugly thing. I saw a lot of traumatic things and it took me many, many years before I stopped having nightmares. But they also made me a better person. My foundation ‘Harmon’s Heroes’ helps military veterans because of my experiences. Such things I have experienced are part of my life and where we get to in life is a product of where have come from. We all make mistakes. We’re all human beings and I made a lot of them at a young age. The fact I’ve achieved what I have achieved shows that if you hang in there and you work hard, the opportunities [to succeed] are there.”

And what Harmon has achieved is the status of the undisputed sultan of swing, the go-to man for elite golfers needing some refinement in their game to reap rich dividends.

From Greg Norman and Fred Couples to Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson, Harmon’s past and present proteges are a who’s who of golfing greats – and that’s without taking into account his trophy-laden association with Woods, which spawned eight Major wins, or current propitious partnership with Mickelson.

Of his Midas touch, he said: “The thing I am most proud of as far as tour players is that nobody has come to me and gotten worse. They’ve always got better, even though they’ve stayed with me or not, because it’s inevitable that people move on.”

The secret for his success lies in old-fashioned virtues of experience, intuition and straight talking, he explained.

“Number one, I played the tour and played in major championships, so have been under the stress of that, although not at the level of the players I teach,” he said.

“I have a great understanding of what they’re going through emotionally and mentally when they’re playing in these big events. I am brutally honest and not a guy who will hold your hand and tell you how good you are. I’m the kind of guy who will kick you in the rear end and get you going and get you working harder. You almost have to be a psychologist as well as a golf instructor. You have to know when to give a guy some space and back off and you have to know when to kick him in the rear end. You have to know when to give them a hug and have to know when to make them laugh.”

And how do top players with humongous egos to match their voluminous talents cope with being scolded?

Harmon replied: “Anyone who works with me, they pretty much know my personality. I don’t sugar coat things, but they know I have their best interests at heart. I make them better at what they do. You need to give people some tough love as well as some cuddly love. I am very honest with my players and I tell them what I see. I am straightforward. If something isn’t good or right, I am gonna tell them that. If something is good, I’ll tell them how great they’re doing.”

However, despite having reached the pinnacle of the game in coaching terms and being perennially rated as the bible of golf in the United States – Golf Digest – as the world’s top instructor, Harmon reveals that his longevity owes much to his dogged refusal to rest on his laurels.

“Yes, I constantly try and evolve as a coach,” he said. “You have to keep an open mind. What I taught 10 to 15 years is not how I teach today due to the changes in equipment, changes in golf balls and changes in ergonomy. I’ve always try and read everything I can read and I try and watch everybody’s videos, listen to people, talk about what they do and find out their philosophies. I try and think outside the box and do things that aren’t necessarily normal.”

When pressed on what he meant by “thinking outside the box”, Harmon said: “You can take [American golf star] Dustin Johnson’s swing for example. He gets the club at the top of the swing with a bow left wrist and the club is very closed. Everyone says: ‘Why don’t you change Dustin Johnson? Why don’t you change this and that?’. But he’s played this way his whole life and would be hard for him to change. That’s the way he swings naturally. I could get him in a better-looking position, but he wouldn’t be able to play from there. I think it’s important to have people do what they do naturally and then try and improve on it. You don’t necessarily have to make a complete change but try and make them better at what they do.”

And there was no better pupil for Harmon’s clear and highly effective teaching than a similarly driven golf obsessive – Tiger Woods.

“I started with Tiger when he was still a teenager and an amateur,” he said. “The thing that impressed me the most about him was the amount of natural talent he had and his work ethic. He’s an incredibly hard worker and had a tremendous desire to learn and get better. He’s always felt he could get better than he is. He’s changed his swing numerous times because he feels like he can get better than what he is at that moment in time. I was always impressed with his natural ability, which is God given and you can’t teach that, But anything he wasn’t good at, he’d work his tail off until he became really good at it. When he first came to me, Tiger hit the ball a long way. But he didn’t really know where it was going because he was a youngster, but he had the ability to go find it and hit it again. He struggled with his wedge game because he didn’t spin the ball well around the greens, which was frustrating to him at a young age. What I encouraged him to do was, when he played with former champions at the Masters, was to ask them questions. So he pent a lot of time speaking to Jose-Maria Olazabal about wedge play. Greg Norman helped him a lot and I had great success with Greg before Tiger. He was never afraid to ask a great player: ‘Hey, how did you hit that shot?’. I really admired that in him.”

However, although rating Woods as the “greatest player I’ve ever seen”, Harmon shares widely held sceptical views that his former charge can win five more Majors to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. “I think it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “I would never say he can’t do anything because Tiger Woods is the kind of player as I think he’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen. But it’s been a long time since he won a major championship and we can see even a year like this year when he won five tournaments and is putting himself into a position to win majors I almost think he’s pushing too hard. He wants it too badly that he’s putting undue pressure on himself . Quite frankly, I look at Tiger with his age – he’s sneaking up on 40 years old – and he’s had four surgeries on the same knee. He’s also devastating off-the-course problems with his lifestyle I don’t think his nerves are quite as good as they used to be and I think these young kids have got better. Not too sure he can but I would never say he couldn’t because he’s Tiger Woods.”

Harmon is also driven by the desire to unearth the next Tiger Woods and, to this end, has four schools set up – two in the US, one in Macau and one in Dubai.

The Butch Harmon School of Golf, which opened at the Els Club in Dubai, is a facility he is hugely proud of.

“The chief instructor there, Justin Parsons, is doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “I’ve told the staff there numerous times that I want to try and produce great players out of the UAE. Last year we had five junior players who played in the World Junior Championships in San Diego and we’ve had a couple of guys who have gone off to the US on golf scholarships. To help the UAE have a culture of golf, you need to start with the juniors and cultivate talent.”