Dustin Johnson chips on the 13th hole with his coach Claude Harmon III watching during practice for the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club on September 19, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By Matthew Rudy
Maintaining a PGA Tour entourage is a delicate thing—with its subject-matter experts, employees, spouses, friends and hangers-on all trying to help extract peak performance from the player week in and week out.
It doesn’t take much to throw relationships out of balance, as evidenced by Claude Harmon III’s split with Dustin Johnson over the weekend.
Johnson had worked with Harmon and his father, Butch, for the last five years while also maintaining a relationship with his college coach, Allen Terrell. Butch Harmon decided last season he was done travelling the tour, and passed most of his stable of players—Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker—over to Claude Harmon.
Johnson’s early 2019 returns under the new dynamic seemed to be promising. He won in Saudi Arabia and Mexico in February, and tied for second with Claude Harmon’s longtime student Brooks Koepka at the Masters. But at Bethpage for the PGA, Johnson used Terrell as his set of eyes on the way to a second-place finish—two shots behind Koepka.
The middle of major championship season isn’t a good time for mixed messages or misaligned expectations, so Harmon texted Johnson from Memorial—Johnson was in Florida working with Terrell—to say it was time to move on. Johnson said in a statement the split was mutual, and he’d continue with Terrell, who recruited him to Coastal Carolina in 2004, and also maintain his long-distance relationship with Butch Harmon. “DJ sends me swing videos every week, so it’s easy to keep in touch on how he’s doing,” said Butch Harmon. “Allen has been out there some, and it’s fine with me. He’s known D.J. since he was a junior golfer. The key is making sure everybody is on the same page. I never have a problem when a player wants another set of eyes. D.J. is the boss—however, he wants it to happen is the way it should happen.”
It’s not uncommon for players to have multiple coaches working as a team to collaborate on different parts of the game. Koepka has Harmon work on his full swing, while Pete Cowen handles his short game and Jeff Pierce helps him with his putting. But players using two different full swing coaches at the same time is relatively rare. Johnson started working with Butch Harmon when Terrell wanted to stop travelling the tour in 2010, and Claude Harmon was closely involved in helping Johnson week-to-week for the three seasons before this one. Throughout it all, Johnson still consulted with Terrell, especially when he was home in Jupiter on off weeks.
“I’ve never stopped working with DJ,” said Terrell, who has run Johnson’s branded golf academy in South Carolina since it opened in 2013, and regularly posts on Instagram about the work the two do together. “I felt better used by working with him in the four days leading up to events, so I would travel down to Jupiter for our training. Our schedules didn’t line up for prep for the PGA, so I accompanied him [to Bethpage]. Nothing much is changing now . . . I just might have to travel to a few more events.”
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Tour teaching relationships run their course all the time—for good reasons, bad reasons and no reason. It’s not hard to see why Johnson would feel comfortable getting full-time attention from his college coach and continue to text back and forth with the greatest instructor of all time. It’s also not hard to understand why it probably was never going to work out long term having two of the tour’s alpha competitors working under the same coach—no matter how friendly they are off the course.
Next week at Pebble Beach, the focus will be squarely on the golf—Koepka is the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, and Johnson is a two-time winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. They’re both among the top three or four favourites. “There’s nothing else to say about it,” Claude Harmon said. “I’m proud of the work we did, and I’ll let it speak for itself.”