A New Englander's Take on Golf
June 19, 2024
When Billy Harmon (left) returns to Newport CC there will be great emotions and lots of memories. "But let's remember that my purpose for being there is to do a good job caddying for Jay Haas (right)."

It was a two-way street, but Billy Harmon appeared to be navigating it as a dead end.

“I was living my own literal torture. I was slowly dying inside,” he said. Crazy thing is, he didn’t seem to have the strength to care, either. No matter that he had a beautiful wife, Robin, a newborn son, and was successful in the family business (golf instruction) at a premier club (Newport CC).

“There was self-loathing, self-hatred and for those 10 weeks (after his son’s birth) I was never lower. As a husband, as a father, I was very, very disappointed in myself.”

Excruciating, how alcohol can deliver relentless pain and leave you spinning out of control. Brilliant, the human spirit that can show up when you least expect it.

“Do you want to go to an AA meeting and stop drinking?” the man and woman asked him.

Harmon stared at the two Newport CC board members, figuring they had come to dismiss him for what he conceded was a fireable offense. Instead, “they thought more about me than I thought of me.”

He would go to the meeting and promised not to drink again. Nearly 32 years later, Billy Harmon has kept that promise, his sobriety being the foundation to the beautiful life he has lived.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Harmon, who at 74 will return to Newport CC next week to caddie for his longtime friend Jay Haas in the U.S. Senior Open (June 27-30).

Loyal and conscientious, Harmon will be at Newport CC a few days ahead of Haas and first thing he’ll do is have dinner with that woman board member who in 1992 helped orchestrate the intervention.

“They saved my life,” Harmon said. “There’s no way I can ever repay them.”

^ ^ ^

The youngest of four boys born into Golf Royalty, Billy Harmon has always believed as his brothers – Butch, Craig, and Dick, who died at 58 in 2006 – believed, that they had an obligation to carry on what their father, Claude Harmon, started.

“He mentored so many (club pros). It was very real, this ‘Harmon Winged Foot way.’ My dad was a giver and we (the sons) grew up to be givers.”

Golf professionals, all of them, the sons became successful club pros and instructors, though Billy, likely because he had a little renegade in him, spent a lot of his younger years as a caddie. Having finally settled to enter the club pro world, Billy Harmon was hired at Newport CC in 1991. A year later, he figures he should have been dismissed, but for the grace and warm hearts of those board members.

Committed to sobriety, Harmon worked at Newport CC until 1996 (yes, he was there in ’95 when Tiger Woods won the second of his three straight U.S. Amateurs) and will choke back emotions when he returns to work for Haas.

“I owe everything to Newport,” he said.

There is a flip side to that, though, and it’s a beautiful reality that a lot of people owe thanks to Billy Harmon’s sense of gratitude. Forever thankful to the actions of those two board members who gave him a chance to turn his life around, Billy Harmon has dedicated much of the last 32 years to providing help to those who are in need.

Robin and Billy Harmon created the Harmon Recovery Foundation years ago and nearly $3m has been donated to help people with their alcohol and drug battles. Located in LaQuinta, Calif., not far from the Billy Harmon Performance Center at Toscano CC, “I think that the Foundation gave me great, great meaning to my life,” he said. “It’s a purpose I never had.”

Often, it would be said of Claude Harmon that he mentored and developed so many quality assistants and teaching professionals that it was a proverbial tree. “An unusually large tree,” said Billy Harmon, “and you could call it the tree of giving” because what made it grow was a sense of sharing.

“I’m just adding another branch to the tree,” said Billy Harmon. “Just trying to water the tree.”

Proud of what the Harmon Recovery Foundation has done, Billy Harmon is inspired to do more. He and Robin – the both of them are cancer survivors, by the way – are avid hikers and on a recent climb Billy heard a voice. “It was my brother Dick, asking me, ‘What are you waiting for, pal?’ ”

The idea came to him. He could do more by traveling the country to do a series of two-day clinics for juniors. There was a recent stop in San Antonio and another in Denver. Calgary, Alb.; Greenville, S.C.; Seattle; Twin Falls, Idaho, are some of the stops upcoming on Billy Harmon's schedule.

Billy Harmon and his wife Robin lived in Newport, R.I., for six years early in the 1990s and still have a lot of friends living there.

“I consider it my last chapter,” he said. “I’m living the rest of my life paying respects to the people who helped me. I’m in good health and I want to help make an impact on young people’s lives.”

“Footprints” is the name Billy Harmon has attached to his endeavor and there is a beautiful story behind that.

It was an evening to toast Jackie Burke Jr. on the occasion of his 90thbirthday and Harmon was seated next to Burke’s daughter. As they talked about their legendary fathers, the discussion rolled around to things people might not know about Jackie Burke Jr. and Claude Harmon.

The daughter revealed that her father, unbeknownst to her, attended church every day at 11:45. She told him there is no Mass at 11:45 and the old sage agreed, but said you don’t need a Mass to sit alone, to think, and talk to God.

In fact, Burke told his daughter that he had heard this at church that very day: “That we only have two feet but it doesn’t mean you can’t leave more than two footprints.”

Billy Harmon has never forgotten those words of wisdom and so he calls this tour of junior golf clinics the Harmon Recovery Footprint.

"People want to thank me for what I'm doing, but I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. Too many people in this world want a pat on the back for not robbing a bank,” said Harmon, conjuring up an iconic Bobby Jones quote.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of people my whole life that have done so much for me. That’s what this last chapter is about. It’s my way to thank them.”

Of course, nowhere does a sense of appreciation hit him quite like it will at Newport CC. “There will be a lot of emotions, a lot of sentiments,” said Harmon.

“You could say it’s the scene of the crime . . . and the scene of my new life.”

 

I have a passion for playing golf that is surpassed only by my passion for writing about people who have a passion for playing golf, for working in golf, for living their lives around golf. Chasing the best professional golfers around the world for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and the PGA Tour for more than 20 years was a blessing for which I’ll be eternally grateful. I’ve been left with precious memories of golf at its very best, but here is a takeaway that rates even more valuable – the game belongs to everyone who loves it. “Power Fades” is a weekly tribute with that in mind, a digital production to celebrate a game that many of us embrace. If you share a passion for golf, sign up down below for a free subscription and join the ride. Should you have suggestions, thoughts, critiques, or general comments, pass them along. And if you’d like to support “Power Fades” with contributing sponsorships or advertisements, you can contact me. Jim@powerfades.com

1 – Apparently hard-to-find gifts

What did I want for Father’s Day? “A wider shoulder turn,” I said. “And greater ball speed. Oh, and having a physio attend to my back issues after every six holes would be nice, too.” She told me she was told none of these items were on line.


2 – Relax, deep breaths, embrace perspective

It’s cool and reactionary to say what you just witnessed is the best. But, sorry, even with the dramatic ending to Sunday’s fourth round, the 2024 U.S. Open isn’t the best evah. Not even close. Just sticking to those played since 2000, there are four that were more thrilling. Drum roll, please . . .


3 – 2006, Winged Foot

The ultimate case study in could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Each day featured a different world-class leader – Colin Montgomerie, Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson (tied with Kenneth Ferrie, The Belt Man) – but at the end it was the polished Aussie, Geoff Ogilvy, who finished with four pars to win at 5-over. If people have to stop and think who won, it’s because those who lost left such memories: After a birdie at 17 to lead at 4-over, Montgomerie doubled the 18th; Jim Furyk bogeyed 15 and 18 to finish 6-over; Padraig Harrington bogeyed 16, 17, and 18 to land at 7-over; and in a collapse that is an indelible entry in the record books, Mickelson bogeyed 16, made par after hitting into a trash can at 17, then at 18 hit a corporate tent, then a tree, and made a double to sign for 6-over.


4 – 2015, Chambers Bay

Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Branden Grace . . . not a bad list of those who had a share the lead after rounds in this scintillating championship. That Spieth two-putted the par-5 18th for what proved to be the winning birdie is memorable. That Johnson moments later missed a 12-foot eagle putt and a 3-foot birdie putt to squander his chance is unforgettable.


5 – 2008, Torrey Pines

If you need a refresher on this one, you should be reprimanded. Some bread crumbs: Tigah, broken leg, birdie on 72nd hole, and not only an 18-hole playoff but a one-hole sudden death. Epic.


6 – 2000, Pebble Beach

How can a 15-stroke victory be a classic? When it’s arguably the closest we’ve ever gotten to a perfect 72-hole major championship performance. Tiger Woods went wire-to-wire in breathtaking fashion. He posted the low round on Thursday (65), shared low round on Friday (69), and had just one challenge on Sunday – to go bogey-free. He did, with the day’s low round (67). Finishing at 12-under (Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez were spotted off in the distance, tied for second at 3-over), Woods made just six bogeys and one memorable triple-bogey that probably to this day grates him. He was Michelangelo in a field of paint-by-number beginners.


7 – Cold sweat time

The slightly downhill 4-foot left-to-right slider. That’s what keeps me up at night.


8 – A three-year campaign wasted

Watching the final round of the U.S. Open, one thought popped into my mind: So much for anchoring being against the rules.


9 – Please, use caution

About Bryson being a man of the people . . . so was Phil for many years and look at how that turned out.


 

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