Bill Harmon: Crazy stories and realizations from a lifetime in golf

Bill Harmon has had the great fortune to watch the game’s greats firsthand.  We’re talking about Crenshaw, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, and Trevino to name a few. And he’s passing on those lessons and stories in this podcast.

Bill Harmon is an old school guy.  He’s had the great fortune to watch the game’s greats firsthand.  We’re talking about Crenshaw, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, and Trevino to name a few.  It’s those experiences that have largely shaped his teachings.  Yes, he acknowledges the relevance of measurements and what he calls the “Symmetry Police” that many modern instructors have become. 

However, he maintains the philosophy that great players don’t get bogged down with numbers and mechanics.  Rather, they repeat their swings time and again and, have the inner fortitude to handle fear.

In the outset of our conversation, Bill says “95% of the stuff you work on, on the range ain’t going to happen on the course.”  He’s quick to point out a telling from line from highly respected teacher Jerry Mowlds, that “Sarazen, Jones, Crenshaw, etc. whipped the club inside… that was fine until the symmetry police showed up.” 

His point is that the players of old “learned to play their way.”  Not that long ago, you didn’t read about players making massive swing changes.”  They simply owned their swings and worked on making them as efficient and effective as possible, so they could stand up to the pressure of being in contention on the back nine on Sunday.

Bill references Lee Trevino (who he considers one of the best ball strikers or all time) as an example.  “No one ever told Trevino that he couldn’t aim 50 yards left, and take it outside and drop it under with a four-knuckle grip… If you would have told him that when he was 12 years old, we would have never heard of Lee Trevino.”

Citing Arnold Palmer as another example, Billy reiterates the point that “swings don’t win tournaments, players do.”

When we asked Bill about all the metrics used to measure the golf swing today, and whether they are helpful for the teacher, student, or both, he had an interesting response.

”I think it depends… Justin Rose loves all that stuff… Dustin Johnson only wants to know how far the ball goes… “

“I was at the Southern Open at Green Valley in Columbus, Georgia… They had a very small driving range and by the end of the week it was just dirt… One afternoon… Jerry Pate was hitting one-irons off the dirt… Beautiful high draws… A guy in the gallery said, ‘Jerry, you’re hitting all those shots about 10 yards left of where you’re aiming’… Jerry said, ‘I don’t care where I’m aiming, they’re going where I’m looking.’”

From an instructional standpoint, Bill’s wisdom is timeless in it’s simplicity.  He’s spent a lifetime watching and teaching the game’s greatest players.  He’s adamant that “really good players aren’t over-instructed… I think they last longer.”

The conversation then turns to teaching juniors and the tendency for both players and instructors to perfect the golf swing.  The assumption goes that the better a junior’s swing looks, the better player he or she will be. 

Bill and Tony both have refreshing takes when it comes to junior instruction.  Tony says, “I’m trying to get young players to learn how to play better… I want them to learn how to score and win more than I am filming stuff.” 

Bill has a similar outlook.  “I think young players should play more, gamble a little bit for a dollar or a Coke or something… I think practice too much in this pursuit of perfection… Ultimately, you’re not going to be judged on how good your swing looks.  It’s what you shoot.”

That same thought process is reflected in Bill’s pupils too.  Longtime student Jay Hass says, “I knew I had to shoot a lot of 33’s, 34’s and 35’s… If shot a lot of 36’s and 37’s I wouldn’t have a job.”

At the end of the day, Bill emphasizes that ”the best players know how to deal with fear… Everyone has doubt on every shot… The inner arrogance it takes to be great is something that can be learned.”

Developing that sense of self-confidence and identifying your weakness, “where you’re throwing away shots,” is the key for any player to get better.

In a time when instruction techniques are advancing more rapidly than they ever have, it seems all too easy to get lost in metrics and theories.  While there’s no question that the abundance of information can be a tremendous benefit to any teacher and student, there’s no substitute for getting the ball in the hole quickest and simplest way possible.  It’s for that reason that Bill Harmon remains a timeless teacher to this day.   

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