A breakthrough win for his pupil, Brooks Koepka, at the U.S. Open was also one for Claude Harmon III, a 48-year-old third-generation instructor
By Tim Rosaforte
Claude Harmon III was vacationing on the coast of Spain, before heading to Wimbledon with wife, Lisa, and ultimately the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, when we spoke this past week. This is how the coach of the U.S. Open champion travels when he’s not working a tour range in the shadow of his fabled father. “Please tell me you’re going to call this article, ‘Son of A Butch,’ says the son of Butch Harmon and the namesake grandson of the 1948 Masters champion, Claude Harmon Sr.
The reference to his lineage, first lightheartedly described by Darren Clarke’s former trainer John Newton, is understandable and intended to be good natured. Claude III knew what people were thinking in his early days coaching players on the European Tour. But it stung when Thomas Bjørn repeated what he’d been hearing by referring to him as “Fraud Harmon.”
At least that’s Claude’s rendition of it. Bjørn doesn’t remember inventing that nickname and says that “back in the day” it was something said “in jest,” a regurgitation of stuff that was just “lying around for quite a while” at a time when Claude was helping his dad overseas by overseeing the day-to-day work with Adam Scott. “We were just young and trying to get under each other’s skin,” Bjørn says.
That’s why the Brooks Koepka victory at Erin Hills was so liberating. “The Son of a Butch never bothered me,” Harmon admitted from Marbella. “I liked it.” But the “Fraud Harmon?” Claude III quietly made the vow to everyone calling him that name, “One day I’ll show you.”
That day came on June 18, 2017. “This one was all Claude. He deserves all the credit,” Butch proudly admitted from his home in Las Vegas last week. “And to do it on Father’s Day made it more special. I know my dad was up in heaven looking down on his son and grandson, who followed in the family footsteps. It’s been rewarding, to be honest, a nice, fitting thing.”
Rewarding in the sense of Claude III making a name for himself. Rewarding, too, in that Butch could relate. “I’ve lived under the shadow of my father just like my dad did,” Claude III told me. “To this day he’ll say he’s nowhere close to being the teacher my grandfather was.”
Butch, though, maxed out his fame based on the first eight major championships of Tiger Woods’ career, and as well as the majors won by Greg Norman, Stewart Cink, Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jimmy Walker. He gave lessons not only to major winners, but movie and rock stars, also along with icons in other sports, such as Derek Jeter, Chris Paul and Jimmy Connors. In fact, that’s how Claude went to his first Wimbledon, the tickets compliments of Connors.
Claude was also at Centre Court two years ago, when by chance he sat next to Christian Warner, the tactical head of Red Bull Formula One Racing. That turned into a discussion that Claude uses with Koepka. Between points, and over lunch, Claude picked Warner’s brain about how he mixed data and information to Formula One superstars like Sebastian Vettel. This is how the new-age Harmon coaches not just golfers, but “athletes.” And how he interacts and contributes in the teams of D.J. and Rickie Fowler along with Koepka.
“It was a big day for me to spend time with the guy that helped Sebastian Vettel win a bunch of world championships when he was at Red Bull,” Claude says. His takeaway was the vignette about the engineer getting on a radio late in a race, trying to give Vettel information about his car. Vettel told him, “Leave me alone. I’ve got to drive.”
What Claude also took from that conversation was reinforcement of his father’s teaching philosophy of “less is more,” whether it’s with tour players or the 12-handicappers who Claude Sr. taught at Winged Foot. “Sometimes you want to say something on the driving range,” Claude III says, “but you have to be careful of what you say.”
With Koepka, what Harmon replays in every session are the basics from their first lesson on March 28, 2013, the year Brooks broke through on the European Challenge Tour. It’s all about Koepka keeping the clubhead in front of him so he can release it and hit the power cut that tore up Erin Hills at an average of 322.1 yards in the U.S. Open.
All Butch added to the mix in Wisconsin was a reference in one of their practice rounds that it was the best he’d seen Koepka hit it. When Butch says it, it instills confidence. Claude knows that’s a motivational power that he may never possess.
And just as Claude Sr. was tough on Butch, so too is Butch tough on Claude III. The one moment he remembers was Butch ripping him after observing Claude give a lesson that took 40 minutes before he diagnosed the problem. Butch told Claude, “If you can’t diagnose things faster you’ll have to find a new job. You can’t let people suffer. You need to learn to see things faster.”
This was a page right from the Claude Harmon Sr. playbook, whose motto, “If I can’t fix ’em in 15 minutes, it’s not fixable,” became lore. Claude III’s memories of his grandfather go back to the lesson tee at Lochinvar as a child. Claude III had the shanks and Claude Sr., couldn’t fix them in the allotted time, so he got up out of his cart, told Claude III he had no talent, and that he was going to lunch. “He was just old school,” remembers Claude III. “You were going to get tough love. I got a lot of that from my dad. I’m 48, and my dad is still hard on me.”
It was in the Champions locker room at Augusta National in 1997, two years before his grandfather’s death, that seeing the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, gave Claude III the realization of what it meant to be part of the Harmon family tree. There was not just his father and grandfather. It was uncles Dick, Craig and Billy who added to the mystique, too.
Claude was too young to remember riding in the back of a station wagon during his father’s short-lived career on the PGA Tour in the early 1970s. With no playing background in junior golf or high school golf, Claude got his start in instruction by working a golf school given by his father and uncles at Fairlawn Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Claude’s jobs were setting up range stations and running video.
When Butch reinvented himself in the 1990s, Claude got his degree in political science at Stephen F. Austin University and was there to work the bag room at Lochinvar Golf Club in Houston and observe Butch’s lessons with the likes of Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Davis Love III and, in 1993, the 17-year-old transformational prodigy Tiger Woods. Claude was basically Tiger’s valet, taking him to fast-food restaurants and making sure he didn’t miss his early morning lessons.
“He’d fly in and I’d pick him up at the airport,” Claude remembers. “He wore Coke-bottle glasses back then, and my job was to wake him up early, knowing he’d fall back to sleep and I’d have to wake him up again.”
That led to a summer job in 1993 with Bruce Davidson at the Kings Links Driving Range in Aberdeen, and a position in cold-weather months at his father’s golf school in Las Vegas, where he observed Butch working with Scott and taught his first tour player in 2002, a 22-year-old Trevor Immelman.
From there, Claude branched out on his own, chasing an instruction career on the European Tour and eventually a base at the Butch Harmon School of Golf from 2008-’11 in Dubai. He has given lessons in 22 countries but never with the world watching as it does now with Koepka and D.J., hitting balls next to each other on major ranges, standing next to Butchie.
Butch likes to say that Claude is the techie, and he’s the old-school guy that believes “the ball tells everything.” Nowadays the TrackMan tells everything. When he visits The Floridian, Butch always sees the latest in technology that Claude has expensed. “I say, ‘Why the hell do we need that?” says Butch. “Which is exactly what my dad would say to me!”
Butch also says, the secret is not on the range. It’s how they react and function under pressure, how they’re all different and how you have to handle every one differently, how some need their butt kicked and some need some space. The tough old coach, who turns 74 in August, has a soft spot for Claude, who will arrive in Southport this weekend and await the U.S. Open champion’s arrival from the United States. Like his father, Claude has also parlayed his success with a television career. His side job at The Open will be as an analyst for Sky Sports. There will be players and other instructors he hasn’t seen since Erin Hills, including Bjørn, the Ryder Cup captain, who will be there with a smile and extended hand.
“It’s great to see him have that type of success,” Bjørn said when we spoke Thursday night. “He deserves it as well. He’s always been in he shadow of his dad, but he stayed with it, and has gotten the reward, finally.”
Finally is right. The son of Butch gets it, saying he’s lucky to have somebody who is a father and mentor, who also happens to be the best in the world at what he does. “I said this a long time ago, when I’m on tour as part of the Harmon team, wearing the Harmon jersey, being part of a dynasty’s history is an enormous responsibility,” says Claude before heading off to London and Birkdale. “I’m lucky be part of somehow writing my own chapter.”