The trip to the 18th fairway at the 1997 Masters Tournament remains one of Butch Harmon’s top golf memories.
The legendary instructor’s pupil, a 21-year-old golf wunderkind named Tiger Woods, was always asking his teacher about his father Claude Harmon Sr. and his victory at the 1948 Masters. Butch Harmon told Woods his father said walking up to the 18th hole with a five-stroke lead, knowing the green jacket was in hand, was the greatest feeling in the world. Harmon also told Woods he’d someday have that same feeling, though when it actually happened in 1997 the lead was 12 strokes.
“That was just a special time because we talked about it and I told him it was going to happen and it happened,” Harmon said.
In the 49 years between those two Masters, Harmon went from running around Augusta on a leash to getting a first-hand look at the greatest performance in tournament history. The Henderson resident’s long career in golf, one in which he has worked with and taught many famous pros like Woods, is why he is one of five sports icons who will be inducted Friday into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame at Orleans Arena.
“I haven’t had anybody come to me and get worse,” Harmon, 73, said. “I think that’s the thing that I’m most proud of. All the players who have ever come to me, when they leave, they’re all better than they were when they showed up.”
Harmon had a brief playing career, appearing on the PGA Tour from 1969-1971 with one victory, before managing golf courses and eventually teaching. Once his playing career was over he spent four years working full-time in Morocco as a teaching professional at the golf course Royal Dar Es Salam and as King Hassan II’s personal golf instructor.
His list of students closer to home is also full of names with lofty statuses, at least in the game of golf: Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Davis Love III, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Natalie Gulbis and Rickie Fowler, among many others. Working from his home base, the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Henderson (founded in 1997), he has been named the top U.S. golf instructor for 15 consecutive years in a poll of his peers conducted by Golf Digest.
“He understands the golf game well enough to know the best swing of each individual player,” Phil Mickelson said in an email statement to the Review-Journal. “That’s why he’s so good at bringing out the best in everybody that he works with. He doesn’t try to instill one system on everybody that works for some and not others.”
With Mickelson, his best included learning to play the ball on the ground better and winning The Open Championship in 2013 for his fifth major victory. Mickelson struggled at the event often in his career, but shot a final-round 66 at Muirfield in Scotland in 2013 for one of the biggest victories of his career.
“He never thought his game suited links golf,” Harmon said. “To this day he says it’s his greatest victory because he never expected to win that tournament.”
Harmon takes a different approach to all of his students, noting Woods and Norman were probably the hardest workers he’s ever been around while Mickelson and Fowler are two of the most fun. His pupils rub off on him too: after a recent teaching session with Fowler, Harmon caught himself saying “dude” on the golf course.
“It’s a bit like working with a legend,” PGA Tour pro Nick Watney said in an email statement to the Review-Journal. “His knowledge is second-to-none.”
Now his expertise and approach to players have landed Harmon in the Southern Nevada Hall of Fame this year, along with boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., Henderson race car driver and owner Sam Schmidt, former football player and high school coach Overton Curtis and the Las Vegas Bowl.
“You have to know when to give one of them a hug, when to kick one of them in the ass, when to back off, when to make them laugh,” Harmon said. “I’ve never taken any psychology courses but I’m as good of a sports psychologist as there is.”
Butch Harmon File
Born: August 28, 1943
Resides: Henderson (since 1997)
Professional wins: 1
Years in a row named Golf Digest’s top U.S. teacher: 15
Worked with: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Davis Love II, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Natalie Gulbis (among many others)