Eliot VanOtteren/Sea Island
To paraphrase the famous saying somewhat: Behind every great golfer is a great coach. Just ask any of the pros who have sought the guidance of the likes of Hank Haney, Sean Foley, Peter Cowen or anyone with the last name Harmon.
These are the men who live away from the spotlight, working on the sidelines to ensure their pupils are ready and able to give their best when they step on to the fairways.
Now there is another name you can add to the list of coaching greats who helped make waves at the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool last month.
American pro Brian Harman left all trailing in his wake in Hoylake, storming to a six-stroke victory, showing nerves of steel in front of a hostile English crowd, and put on a putting masterclass in some seriously nasty British weather.
Cradling the claret jug on the Sunday, Harman, who has a Ryder Cup to look forward to next month, was the first to admit this was far from a one-man show, and thanked his family and team, including coach Justin Parsons.
The 36-year-old has been working with Parsons since 2019, taking over from the late Jack Lamkin, and years of hard work eventually bore fruit with Harman’s third pro win and their first together (he had previously won the John Deere Classic in 2014 and the 2017 staging of the Wells Fargo Championship).
Speaking in the 100th edition of Golf Digest Middle East back in 2017, Parsons said: “I would love to think in nine years’ time I have helped a player to achieve a major championship victory.”
He did it in six.
“No disrespect to the fact I get pleasure from helping you strike a seven iron better or whatever, but I think professionally what really thrills you the most is to see someone you have nurtured come up and perform higher than they have before. That’s what Butchy [Harmon] always says to us, your biggest job when you have got a good player is: ‘Don’t screw it up.’”
Back in the present, Parsons is now an Elite Golf Instructor at The Sea Island Golf Performance Center in Harman’s home of St Simons, Georgia. But it was quite a journey for the coach to reach the top, having begun in his home in Northern Ireland before cutting his teeth in the UAE.
The UAE was certainly instrumental in getting Parsons to see the wider world of golf after first picking up a club and playing around on his local course as a kid back home.
“My late uncle had given me an intro to golf when I was about 10 or 11, but it was basically just how to hold a club,” he told Golf Digest Middle East. “It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really got into golf, when a friend asked me to play with him. We ended up playing the entire day, and from that moment on I can remember being hooked on the game. That was in the summer, and by the following year I was a competitive amateur and I went on to play in boys’ team events all over Ireland.
“I took to it very quickly, and having gone through the amateur ranks, I was teaching in Bangor when a client took me to Dubai. We played golf every day. This was around 2004 and we were up at Jebel Ali and we played there, the Montgomerie and, I think, Dubai Creek. I was just blown away by the facilities, they were just incredible.
“Even back then, Dubai felt like such a buzzing place and felt to me like a really cool place for a young person to be.
“Having met some of the club teams — I met Wayne [Johnson] while at the Montgomerie — and I decided on a wing and a prayer to head over and it all worked out. I will always be grateful to Wayne for giving me that start in 2005 and joining the team at the Monty.
“I learnt so much about the operational side of an academy. It really was an invaluable lesson in how an upscale property is managed.”
It is no understatement to say Parsons was making an impression, but even he was taken aback as his career went in a new direction.
“I rose to the position of Director of Instruction in 2007 and then came my next opportunity,” he explained. “In 2008, I was watching the FA Cup final with a few of the golfing guys in Dubai and my phone rang. I saw it was an American number so I went outside to take the call. It was Claude Harmon III — we had met a couple of times before — and he asked if would like to help him open the Butch Harmon School at the Els. I thought it was just such a great offer from the ‘First ‘Family’ of golf instruction, and immediately I told him I was interested.
“Again I was so fortunate to be working with guys in Dubai who made it fairly streamlined for me to make the move from one position to another in the UAE, which was not as common as it is now.
“I started in the late summer of that year by procuring and creating programmes and looking at who we would have on the staff. We were fortunate to have Butch come over in early 2009 and it has been a good run since and the facility has been a great success.”
As his stature grew, Parsons found himself working with professionals in Europe and the States and, with a young family in the UAE, the travel began to keep him away from home more and more.
“While I was not actively throwing my CV around, there were some who knew I would consider an opportunity in the States,” he told us. “Todd Anderson, an excellent fellow coach for the likes of Billy Horschel, had left his position at Sea Island around 2016 and there was a growing feeling that they needed someone to occupy that role of teaching Tour players and they also had plans to open the Golf Performance Center, which has become an incredible facility on par with everything in the UAE.
“Through some of the contacts in America, we had some approaches made and what it would take to come over. In the summer of 2018, my wife and I came over to the US Open at Shinnecock Hills and we combined that with a trip to St Simons and we had a good look around. It felt like a great place, not only to continue my PGA Tour work but also to establish a home base for my wife and kids where Dad wasn’t going to be away as much. It is a beautiful island and a great place to raise the children.”
While he was thrust into the limelight somewhat thanks to Harman’s success at Royal Liverpool, Parsons had already been well-established in coaching circles for many years.
“The Brian Harman adventure has been one of many,” he said. “I have helped numerous notable players in Europe — Darren Clarke, Colin Montgomerie and I started out with David Howell and Michael Hoey back in the day — those were the guys I was regularly working on tour with. We had Will Smith and Hugh Grant out at the Els golf school, guys who are very connected to the UAE like Dwight Yorke and Brian Lara would come down too.
“It was very cool to be part of all that in Dubai, where you would see so many excellent players, stars and celebrities, and you would pick up an awful lot from them too.
“In my last couple of years in Dubai, I was helping Peter Uihlein and Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, and they were mainly playing in the PGA Tour, which is what took me across to the States so much. While I was there I was lucky enough to work with Michael Thompson, who had won a PGA tour event in our first year together. Then I also had Harris English, who went on a great run and won twice, which kinda led to be being on the coaching team for the United States Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits, which was a very proud moment, if slightly strange to be on the ‘other side’ from which I have always supported.
“I am also helping Davis Love III with his swing on the Senior Tour. Interspersed with that, I have helped Seamus Power, Patton Kizzire, Ben Coles, Will Gordon, Branden Grace, so there is quite a decent list there.”
Now the Parsons family is well settled in St Simons, Justin has had time to reflect on his past life in the UAE and how things have changed for him professionally and personally.
“We do miss a number of things about Dubai, and it will always be special to me as that’s really where it all began,” he said. “There is the vibrancy of the city and the multinational dynamic, the pace we enjoyed in our twenties. Now we are in our forties, the pace here is a little slower and it gives us a chance to reflect on things. My wife teaches yoga and, looking back, Dubai has a special place in our hearts personally and professionally and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
Back to that major moment and, while Harman had not won a title since 2017, Parsons knew it was just a matter of time before things clicked and there was no need to massively change anything. All the signs were there that something special could be about to happen at the Scottish Open the week before the showdown in Hoylake.
“We met up at the Renaissance on Tuesday, and he reacts and responds very well to links golf — the conditions are good for his iron play and I think it suits the way he putts the ball and the creativity he has as a player,” Parsons said. “As we went through the week at the Renaissance, I don’t think we changed anything. The putting system he runs remained the same, the full-swing stuff we have implemented over the past two or three years was pretty much the same. We were in a good position going into the weekend, and Rory [McIlroy] was hitting some brilliant shots in tough conditions while Brian settled for finishing eighth.
“On the Sunday before the Open, I was down at Royal Liverpool having a look at the course, looking at how it was going to play, and Brian got down after us. He took the Monday morning off and then we got down to it in the afternoon.
“It is clear that when these guys are playing well, as a coach, you need to just keep them in their process, give them assistance, answer any questions, but making sure you are not introducing anything that would lead them in the wrong direction, which can be easy to do.
“Brian, his caddie Scott, and I had some good preparation, playing nine holes in some really wet conditions. The golf course did play well for him. He is a very straight hitter, the driver can go further than others and he can challenge those bunkers and, of course his putting was excellent all week. He got a little template that I think got him rolling the ball really well on the greens. You will notice if you look back the putts were all going in at good speed and running right at the hole.
“He did make one little change by taking ice baths up at Renaissance and he continued that at Royal Liverpool. I think that had some mental and physical benefits. We saw some great mental control from being in that lead from Friday afternoon all the way to the last hole on Sunday. He was in the lead at the Open and he controlled his mind and his expectations and his process very, very well.
“By his own admission he will say he had to control his expectations at times, and that has been part of his training over the past three or four years. That has been something we have done collectively, not only with me but with his caddie and the other people that we talk to through the years — to control a fast-moving mind — it really has been a collaborative effort.
“To see him to be able to gather all that together and play the type of golf he is capable of in his mid-thirties is really special and he joins a special club as Open Champion and if he can continue to implement the processes that he has implemented and keep himself in good shape and control that busy mind and let the talent he clearly has as a player come out, it would be no surprise to see him have a very good next three to five years.”