When you think of Butch Harmon it is hard not to think Tiger Woods. When Tiger was at his best Butch Harmon was his swing coach. Even though Mr. Harmon teaches some of the best in the game from past and current (Phil Mickelson, Ricky Fowler, Darren Clarke, Dustin Johnson, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Adam Scott, Natalie Gulbis, Charlie Hoffman, Nick Watney, the list goes on and on…), he is still recognized as the one who took Tiger to a level of golf that has never and may never be reached again. So when I was told that I was going to be lucky enough to participate in a two day school on June 26th and 27th of 2015 at the Butch Harmon School of Golf at Rio Secco I was elated to say the least. I made sure that I had been playing a lot of golf and hitting a lot of balls beforehand to ensure my game was at its best that it could be with work and a family. I wanted to make sure anything that I was going to get fixed was something I have always done incorrectly and not something that I just picked up from taking an absence from the game due to life.
From the drive up to the departure it is nothing but first class. Upon arrival someone comes out of the front door to meet you and grab your bag; like you are playing a high-end country club. You begin to feel the five star treatment of the school in the parking lot. If you have this booked through the Butch Harmon School direct or through a concierge, they generally include a limo as part of their package which would have picked you up at one of their hotel properties (Caesar’s/Harrah’s Entertainment) and dropped you off at the front door of the facility. What a nice touch to add to the overall experience.
They have their private range set up for you with your name on a box with tees for your personal hitting stall; they want you to feel like you are on tour. They get your bag setup and ready for you to begin your warm up. It was about 108 degrees during my school so they had coolers stocked with waters to make sure we stayed hydrated and a tent with chairs for you to get out of the heat it you feel like you needed a break (I didn’t take one break either day as I felt really energized and wanted to get the most out of my school). When you walk in the front door you are taken through the lobby where you get to see a ton of memorabilia.
There are signed pictures everywhere from PGA Professionals who have won on tour and are thanking Butch for getting them there. You can spend 10-15 minutes in the lobby just reading the inscriptions and looking at every picture in detail. Once you have absorbed as much golf history as you can, you go through a door to their three hitting bays. You just do not know what wall to start on….there
is more memorabilia everywhere from signed Masters flags, to signed jerseys and footballs, to full action swings step by step from his father and Ben Hogan. I would bet to say there is a signed flag in the hitting bays from almost every tournament or event Butch has ever been a part of or his students. It is very impressive and a little bit overwhelming, because you want to see it all in one experience. You could probably go back for a week and continue to find something new that you missed last time. For instance one of the guys was cleaning out a storage room for Butch and came across a letter from Earl Woods to Butch Harmon from 1994. In this letter Earl Woods was talking about a swing tip that Butch gave Tiger and he proceeded to win his tournament that day with a 66. It is a small piece of history that was lost in a storage room; so you can only imagine the amount of history Butch Harmon has been a part of.
During the introduction to the school they give
you a Butch Harmon School of Golf duffel bag with some goodies: a dozen Titleist Velocity golf balls with the school’s logo, a really nice metal personalized bag tag, and also a custom putter cover with the Butch Harmon Golf School name on it. It was a nice touch making you feel like this is really something special and that again this will be nothing less than the VIP treatment.
After a warm up when you feel like you are ready to go and the instructor has been watching your swing, your are taken into the main hitting bay where a lot of work with major golf professionals has taken place (Phil, Dustin, Ernie, Ricky, and so on). As I mentioned there are three hitting bays; two of the bays are used for normal lessons and the other bay (the one in which we were in) is where the professional golfers work on their swings behind closed doors.
I was very lucky to work with Don Callahan and Nick Helwig who are Butch Harmon’s two main instructors. I also worked with Paxton O’Connor who is a bit younger, but he knows the game quite well and is also a Titleist club fitter; so he is a major asset to the school as well. During the warm up Paxton also makes sure your clubs are fit correctly to you by hitting off of a lie board and checking your strike marks. They also have a Titleist fitting cart on hand so if your current clubs are not built correctly for you, they can put an iron in your hand that more matches up to your swing type which in turn will help you hit it straighter. Personally I got one of my best swing tips of the two days from Paxton (I will tell you that further down the article). Don Callahan has been with Butch Harmon’s Father, Brother, and now Butch Harmon for over 40 years. He has been to many major championships and has endless stories and experiences with professional golfers. It would be nice to sit with
Mr. Callahan for hours one day and just listen to everything he has to say…the knowledge between his ears is absolutely priceless! Nick Helwig who has been with Butch now for over 15 years, is also very knowledgeable when it comes to the swing. Age in this case has nothing to do with it. Even though he is much younger than Don, being trained by Butch and his brother and listening/learning and working with the best players in the game, Nick’s knowledge far surpasses many local golf professionals in the country.
There are cameras in the hitting bay that take slow motion video of your swing where they can analyze your good and bad points with their swing analysis software.
From there they make corrections and take you step by step from what you are doing to what they would prefer to see you do. The software has the option also to put your swing side by side with a PGA professional that closely matches your swing type so you can see where he/she is at a certain point in the swing compared to what you are doing. One of the things they kept saying that Butch Harmon is a major advocate for, is that they do not like to fully change your swing. If you are a decent golfer and do not need a complete overhaul, they would prefer to work with what you have and just try to work on getting you to a perfect spot at impact versus a complete overhaul. For many players that is a better way to go.
Many teachers these days want you to swing like Rory for instance, but if you are not built like him there is no reason you should try to emulate his swing; you have to play with what the man upstairs gave you. I think it is a great ideology. From there I was actually fitted with an arm brace to ensure I didn’t take the club too far back and also it helped me keep a wide arc at the top. I have a tendency to drop my hands at the top of the swing which actually takes away a little bit of club head speed. Keeping my hands/arc wide enables me to stay on a
wider plane and it will also help the club not get behind me. Another good thing about the school is that they stock all of these swing aids; and on top of that they offer them for sale. That is huge that you can actually leave with a swing trainer that helped you during your lesson get to a position that you may not have been able to get to before. From there you go back to the grass and hit more balls trying to duplicate the new move they are instructing you with and the next person then takes his/her turn in the bay. It may take some time, but if you are a quick learner you will see instant feedback from their instruction. No matter how quickly you learn or how long you have been playing golf, I can assure you that if you do what they ask of you, your swing will improve instantly.
From there we did a short game lesson. There were pyramids setup at multiple sections of their private chipping green from all different yardages.
The focus for us that day was to never chunk or hit fat a chip or pitch. Some things I learned with an 8 iron will stay with me forever and I have put into play on the course. Not to give away any of their tricks, but using bounce on a 8 iron was something I had never heard of….bounce on a 8 iron…really?? Yes it is true. If you take your 8 iron and open it up a tad you are now sitting on the trailing edge, which is the bounce on the back of the iron. We were taught to aim a tad left (now pointing the club at the target – when you open the face it will point right), do a smooth swing with very little wrist action and let the bounce of the 8 iron literally bounce off of the ground. When you forward press a normal bump and run you have a good chance of sticking that leading edge into the ground and stubbing it or hitting it fat….not when bounce comes into play.
The bounce does just that and helps the club never get stuck in the ground leaving you feeling embarrassed and also disgusted that you just did that in play and wasted a stroke. Like I said it is a shot now that I will continue to use for ever. The way it was explained to us is that if you open an 8 iron it becomes a wedge; if you open a wedge it becomes a lob, if you open a 60 degree lob, it becomes a 90 degree lob….they want us to all get away from using the more lofted clubs and use the clubs we have to get the job done with more accuracy and reliability. Don Callahan told us that the famous Seve Ballesteros would not train you if you had a sand or lob wedge in your bag…he wanted those clubs tossed out….and now I can see why. Instead of using your clubs for what they are we all go out and buy a new wedge to hit it higher and land softer. If you use the clubs like they are made you can do just about anything with an 8 iron, 9 iron, or pitching wedge…..a priceless lesson for my game. I definitely did not toss out my two comfort wedges, but I now use my sand and lob a lot less. There are so many other things we learned that day on how to hit it high, low, put some spin on it, let it roll out and so on that this article could go on and on. Sign up for the school to get all of their knowledge :).
Continuing on with the short game, we had our putting lesson. Their large putting green was littered with every putter training aid on the market; well probably only the best ones.
There was everything from a laser pointer that attached magnetically to your putter head to ensure you are aiming correctly to all different putting plane aids, to tracking aides making sure you stay on line in the back and forward strokes, and so on. The laser one I did surprisingly good at. They had a board in front of the putter about 6ft away with a + on it. You had to aim directly at the plus sign as if you were going to putt at it. Once you thought you were aiming right in the middle they took the ball away and affixed the laser. The laser pointer then shows where you are aiming. For me I was just off center where the other guys in the school were all outside of the plus sign. Also they had us play some fun putting games against each other on lagging or trying to make putts for points using the techniques they had given us. My favorite game was the lag game where they put two tees in front of a hole about 30 feet away. The tees are about 3 feet apart but only about a foot in front of the hole. Even though they always want us to get the ball to the hole so you can make it with lags (leaving a put short you can never make it), they actually didn’t mind if you left it short, but how short was the key. In this putting game you only got a point if your ball came to rest in between the tees and the hole…if it was short of the tees or went past the hole you didn’t get a point…a true lagers game and it will help you get those longs ones close. You can learn quite a lot during their putting lesson if your stroke is off and if you need to work on lag putts. Being that they are also sponsored by Titleist they had a ton of different putters to look at just in case you were looking for a new one or if your current putter didn’t match your stroke type. They went over a straight-back-straight-through stroke compared to an arching stroke and what putter you have compared to your stroke. If you are playing for instance a mallet putter which is face balanced, but you have an arched stroke, you are actually playing the wrong kind of putter for your stroke; that stroke should play with a toe-down putter. A straight-back-straight-through stroke should use a face balanced putter or mallet style putter. If you have no idea what you are using compared to your stroke, get tested at your local golf shop as it could be an easy change for a couple needed strokes.
From there…we broke for a much needed lunch. I neglected to mention in the beginning of this article that during your warm up they do a “pre-order” on lunch for everyone. The instructors go around with a list of lunch options where you can pick and choose what you would like to eat. We all then hoped in carts and drove down to the Rio Secco Restaurant where lunch was ready for us….I am telling you we all felt like VIPs. Not to add to how amazing the experience was, but the food was unbelievable as well. We all sat around the table and talked about past experiences, what we do for a living, and got to hear some pretty cool stories from Nick and Don.
After lunch and some full bellies we went back to the school and worked on greenside and fairway bunker training.
What was so cool for me was that after I got home I opened up a Golf Digest and was just thumbing through the pages. There was an article in the current Golf Digest from Rickie Fowler on how Butch Harmon taught him a new way to hit greenside bunker shots. It was so crazy, because I had just learned that exact technique that day. I immediately showed my wife and son…I thought it was really cool. Long and short of it, I would say try to find the article, but instead of opening up the face and taking an out to in swing (like we have all been taught), you still open the face, but stand square to the target. Then take a slightly weaker grip but your normal swing…no more out to in. With a normal swing hitting a couple inches behind the ball you simply try to throw the sand out of the bunker. What is completely different too is that you take the same length swing backwards for all length bunker shots, but then you hit it softer or harder on the way down depending on how far you need the ball to travel. It is totally different than how we all think of bunker shots, but it works…and actually makes bunkers a lot easier than the old way. Give it a try and you will see how easily bunkers are now to at least get it out of, but more importantly get it close.
During the same lesson we learned how to hit plugged lies and fairway bunkers as well. Don Callahan challenged me to a plugged lie contest. He said you think you can get it close? I said I know I can get it out, but it may have a lot of top spin. I proceeded to hit the plugged lie out and just like I said, it had a ton of top spin and rolled over the green….but I got it out :). He then asked me if I thought he could get it closer and actually have the ball stop short of the pin. I said I know you probably can, but I don’t see how; the pin is only about 10 ft from the bunker’s edge. He dropped a ball and stepped on it making it more than half way buried…one of the worst plugged lies I had ever seen. He hit it and of course it trickled up just short of the hole…he actually almost holed it. Instead of hooding the head and hitting down on it with a forward press like I was taught, keep the face open and throw the hosel at it hitting behind again 2-3 inches. The sand actually pushes the ball out with very little top spin and lands much softer that the old way….another great tip to put into play.
Well that is the end of Day 1 and what a day it was. My eyes were opened up to so many new things that I just didn’t want to leave. Even though it was over 105 degrees I wanted to stay and beat balls; which they were ok with. At this point if you had booked this through the hotel or school and are a non-local they would have a limo waiting to bring you back to one of the Caesar’s/Harrah’s Entertainment properties; I myself am a local so I drove home for some needed dinner and a battery recharging so I could get ready for Day 2. I couldn’t wait for more!
Day 2 the setup and greeting was no different. You can actually store your bag there overnight so when you arrive in the morning it is already placed on your personalized stall again with a full pyramid of balls waiting for your arrival. What a nice touch that is, especially if you do not want to lug them back to the hotel after a long day! This day consisted of again more full swing training so they can see if you are doing what you had learned the day before and also make corrections and allow you to hit as many balls as you want to continue grooving in their new technique. Everyone has different swing flaws so out of the four of us they actually didn’t tell anyone the same swing tips. I didn’t really want to get into too much detail of what they told me to fix my swing, but I did want to give you the one tip that I received from Paxton O’Connor that I mentioned above. Don and Nick wanted me to take a shorter back swing. It wasn’t that I went past parallel, but I tend to drop my hands at the top of my backswing just before the down swing. What that does is that it shortens my arc actually hurting me a tad on distance and also it can get me in one of the worst positions and that is “getting stuck”. All good players know what I am talking about; your arms get stuck on the inside just before impact and it is almost impossible to get the club back to square. The arm brace they put me in that I mentioned before kept me wide at the top essentially widening my arc even more giving me more club head speed and better accuracy through impact. Also the brace gave me a much shorter back swing, but still a full shoulder turn. When the brace was taken off it was hard to continuously duplicate. What Paxton said to me was to push my left thumb as far away from your right ear as you can on the back swing (for lefties it would be the right thumb and left ear). For some reason that tip really clicked with me and I have been thinking about it ever since. It keeps your left arm nice and straight and the angle of your hands consistent at the top of the swing. Also something I was told is to keep my arms straight for as long as I can on the back swing, letting my right arm eventually bend, and then getting my arms back to straight as quick as I can at impact and continue with straight arms through impact. I really liked that tip as well for accuracy, but again I am hesitant to divulge too much information as I have not seen you swing and we all do something different.
I do want to help you with the dreaded “stuck” position.
I have struggled with that for a while now. The main thing that I can say other getting your hands wider away from your body as I explained above, but clearing the hips is probably even more important. If you take a look at most professional golfers their left leg (for righties) will straighten out at impact allowing them to clear their hips. Try this: Bend both knees slightly like you are in an athletic position. Now try to turn your hips and rotate through a golf shot. If you are doing that correctly your turn will be limited. Now straighten the left leg and turn again. You will see that now you have fully turned through the swing. What I was doing was keeping my left knee bent at and after impact which never really allowed me to get through the shot. Now I try to think about straighten my left leg at impact allowing me to clear my hips and get through the shot…priceless!
From the range we went back to short game, but now the balls were setup in much harder spots. We worked again on using the bounce and hitting higher shots from tight lies and then from deep rough, but this time using our sand and lob wedges. These shots require a lot of practice so I am not giving you any free pointers here, but we did learn a shot Tiger uses called the “Ginsu”. When he is in thick rough and has no green to work with Tiger chops down at it like a Ginsu knife then pulls back after impact and does not follow through.
I know it sounds weird, but what it does is it actually puts a decent amount of back spin on the ball even in thick rough with the pull back motion after impact so you can stop it a little quicker. Trust me…it is something that you must practice before putting into play.
After that we again broke for lunch. I had such a great meal on Day 1, I preordered the same meal for Day 2. I had a salad with vinaigrette and a turkey/roast beef/cheddar sandwich on wheat that was to die for….I didn’t leave anything on my plate. You are probably thinking that my lunch was nothing different than the norm, but the bread, slices of meat and cheese were not ordinary, you could tell that it came from a high end supplier and not the normal grocery store food. The food both days was absolutely outstanding and everyone loved what they ordered!
So to finish off the two day clinic with a bang (how can it get any better you ask) we then went to a nine hole playing lesson. In our group there were four of us, but Don and Nick also came along. They did not play, but we there to reinforce everything we had learned over the last day and a half making sure we could put it into play on the course. It was great! If you hit a bad shot you could hit a 2nd shot to work on your swing. When you were in a bunker or had a certain pitch or chip, they worked with you on the visual and technique to hit that specific shot. We had an absolute blast.
If you have made it this far in this article you are interested and to you my friend I say…just do it.
Give us a call and we can set you up with a phone number or you can call the Butch Harmon School of Golf directly and let them know you heard about it from Justin at VIP Golf Services and my experience/article. The two day schools
range from $1500-$1800 for locals depending on the season (and for non-locals if you do not need the hotel/limo package) up to as much as you want to spend if you are a non-local and need the hotel and limo services as well. I would anticipate around $3000-$4000 per person for a two day school, but again that can go much higher if you wanted a certain high roller suite and so on. You do get to leave with the goodie bag I mentioned above that has some cool stuff in there for your memories and also your very important notes. The binder they include with your notes is priceless as they have screen shots with you and a PGA pro they compared you to with notes galore so you can recall years from now the lessons you had learned. Being that barely any of us have photo-graphic memories, the notebook is the most important tool you leave with. You can always look back on it for a quick refresher for what to work on during your next range session. What an experience…A++! Thank you again to the staff at Rio Secco for the opportunity and to the Butch Harmon School staff, it was absolutely awesome!
Hit it pure!