Bill Harmon finds peace embracing famous last name

Part of the legendary teaching family, Harmon has paved his own path with an emphasis on improving the average amateur golfer.


There was a time when having one of golf's most recognizable last names was too much for Bill Harmon.

Harmon, the youngest of four sons of Claude Harmon, Sr., the only club pro to ever win The Masters, turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the burden.

"I didn’t like myself," recalls Harmon, 71, who has been the director of instruction the last 19 years at the 36-hole Toscana Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif. " I wasn’t living up to the Harmon name. It was self-loathing."

The reminders of his struggles surface every morning at 5 a.m. He still attends recovery meetings at this early hour, even though he hasn't had a drink in 29 years. He doesn't do it for himself. He goes to see the "miracles" in others.

"I go to these meetings because we get to change people’s lives," Harmon says. "Recovery is changing people’s lives. When I wake up every day, I want my day to be fueled by gratitude and humor.

"I get to see a father get a daughter back. I see families heal. I see things that are much more important than who won the club championship. I like dealing in the range of life."

There have been a lot of life's triple bogeys along his journey - addictions, the loss of a brother, throat cancer - but Harmon cherishes that last name now more than ever. He looks back fondly at experiences that would make every golfer envious. Hanging around Ben Hogan as a boy. Growing up playing Winged Foot, where his father was head professional. Caddying for Jay Haas for a decade on the PGA Tour. A career of giving lessons to celebrities and titans of industry like Phil Knight of Nike.

Harmon's new instructional series on GolfPass - Golf's Top Instructors: Bill Harmon - shares the lessons he learned from his father. He wants the Harmon name to live on for the next generation of players. The success of Claude and his sons - Butch, Craig, Dick and Bill - as teachers and ambassadors of the game assure it will. Bill Harmon is known throughout the industry as one of golf's good guys. He's quick with a joke and a smile.

"He'd do anything for you," says Ben Wilson, the director of golf at Irondequoit Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., who has taught with and been mentored by both Craig and Bill Harmon. "His legacy is his dedication to the game of golf, his family and his friends."

Growing up a Harmon

"For whatever we achieved, we did everything on our own. We never rode anyone's coat tails. We all did a path as our own journey with the foundation of what father taught us. We had a heck of a head start."

For as long as he can remember, Bill Harmon's life has revolved around the game. His father, Claude, won the Masters in 1948, a stirring victory among a number of high finishes in majors. Claude also advanced to the semifinals when the PGA Championship was a match play event in 1945, 1948 and 1953 and later surged to third at the 1959 U.S. Open at his home club, Winged Foot.

Bill's childhood was filled with competitions with his brothers and wisdom from dad. "We played golf constantly," he recalls. "We grew up in an environment where a lot was expected of you."

Bill Harmon, age 11, poses with his dad, Claude Harmon, who won the 1948 Masters as a club pro.

One summer, Dick beat older brother Craig in an important match in the Metropolitan section of the PGA. As the boys were driving home, a comment from Bill sparked Craig's wrath. "One second later, he had me pinned up against the back window, choking me to death saying 'I got to take it from dad, but I don't have to take it from you'," Bill says. "And he was right. So, that was kind of the energy that we had. We needled each other quite a bit."

Soon after, Bill exacted some revenge, beating Craig in the semifinals of the Winged Foot Club Championship. "That summer, he got beat by both of his younger brothers and in big tournaments," Bill says. "And it didn’t sit real well with him, but looking back I think that was part of the fun of how we grew up."

In 1959, the family moved to the West Coast for Claude's new role as the head professional at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. There, Claude would study film of the swings of Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson with the boys. Claude would mark up the walls in Craig's bedroom with pencil to teach the boys swing dynamics like lateral movement and weight shift.

"It drove my mother nuts because she'd have to come clean the wall every day after my dad would be showing us films."

The seeds had been planted. All four boys would grow up to be ranked by Golf Digest among the Top 50 teachers in America at one point in their careers. Craig was the head golf professional at Oak Hill Country Club in New York during seven majors, starting with the 1980 PGA Championship and ending with the 2013 PGA Championship, and one Ryder Cup. He also guided a young Jeff Sluman to a successful career as a PGA Tour pro. Dick was the head pro at a club in Houston, working with Fred Couples, Lanny Wadkins and others before his untimely passing from pneumonia in 2006. Claude Jr., a.k.a. "Butch," as everyone in golf knows, became the most recognized celebrity teacher of the modern era, working with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and countless others out of his home base in greater Las Vegas.

Although the four Harmons were celebrities whenever they showed up at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, they taught a clinic together only once, an outing organized by Bill at Toscana. Soon after, Dick passed away. Bill dedicates all of his traveling summer golf schools, called the "Harmon Experience" to Dick's memory.

"For whatever we achieved, we did everything on our own," Bill says of the Harmon brothers. "We never rode anyone's coat tails. We all had our own journey with the foundation of what father taught us. We had a heck of a head start."

With Craig retired and teaching in Florida, Butch at Rio Secco Golf Club in Henderson, Nevada, and Bill a self-described "homebody" in the Coachella Valley, it's hard for the siblings to reunite. They steer clear of swing thoughts when they do connect.

"We talk about how fun it was growing up. We very rarely talk about the golf swing," Bill says. "We talk about the art of teaching more than the mechanical aspects."

Commitment to the 'average' golfer

Harmon's Toscana teaching studio has all the modern gadgets you'd expect from a world-class instructor. Launch monitors, video equipment, training aids. His lessons can steer modern or stay old school.

"We grew up before the technology," said Harmon. "The ball in the air became our teacher."

One of his students there, Jack Clevenger, described the difference of going to a different teaching school of a nationally known instructor and receiving advice that felt more generic.

"He wanted us all to swing the same," said Clevenger. "[Bill] takes what you’ve got and builds on it. They (the Harmons) don’t have one method of teaching."

Harmon relies on the fundamentals of his father. Grip. Stance. Ball. He likes to tell his students that the ball doesn't care how rich or important you are. Whatever the path to get there, impact is all that matters.

His endless library of stories are just as powerful as his swing advice. He can draw from his father's lessons; his days caddying on Tour, seeing all sorts of talented swings and shots; and, of course, his brothers, and other instructors he's worked with over the years.

"Many of his students are drawn to his personality. He is extremely vibrant," Wilson says. "He is one step off of the norm, when you consider your normal golf instructor. He is a genuine, caring, thoughtful human. He wants you to be a better player, but he develops the person as much as the player."

Despite a cancer scare five years ago, Harmon has no plans of slowing down. He still gives up to eight lessons a day from November through April, speaks at charitable events and runs the Harmon Experience at illustrious clubs in the summer when the desert's swelter gets too extreme.

"I garner more satisfaction from taking an 18 handicap to a 14, taking a 36 to a 25," he says. "That’s where your real teachers are, grinding it out every day on the range at the club."

WATCH: Bill Harmon on the importance of Grip, Club Face & Ball Flight

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The Importance of Grip, Clubface & Ball Flight

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Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Bill Harmon finds peace embracing famous last name