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"If It Were Easy, Everybody Would Do It"
"Golf is hard!"
Dad used to lurch forward with his arms out as he made this proclamation. While a little less than six feet tall, Dad was always big, a thick man with broad shoulders and a wide neck. When he lunged to make a point, he looked like a blitzing linebacker. His hands would go wide as if he were about to make a tackle. Then he would say,
"Golf's hard. Good golf is damn hard, and championship golf is so hard only a select few ever comprehend it. It's a cruel game. Think about it. A hundred and forty-four people play in the tournament, and a hundred and forty-three of them are going to lose. That's tough. The game chews you up, spits you out, and steps on you. It's those who get up and dust themselves off that make it. But that's how it should be. If it were easy, everybody would do it."
Dad pounded this point home to me and my brothers on more occasions than any of us can remember. He didn't always use the same words. One of his favorite expressions, for example, was, "Show me somebody who is practicing for today, and I'll show you somebody who has no chance of getting better tomorrow." This was another way of saying the same thing. Golf is hard. It takes a lot of work. If you want to play good golf, you had better be willing to put in long, hard hours, for an extended period of time. And in many cases, you have to get worse before you can get better.
My brothers and I knew he was right. To say "golf is hard" is like saying "the sky is blue" or "the world is round." It's axiomatic, which made Dad's passion for repeating it seem odd at times. I wanted to say things like, "Yeah, sure, Dad, okay, it's hard, so what does my spine angle look like at impact?" But he would never let us forget the point. Dad made sure we understood that golf was not a game you ever perfected. The moment you thought you had golf whipped, the game slapped you down and embarrassed you. Conversely, whenever you were ready to quit forever, a good thought and a good round came along and sparked the smoldering ember of hope.
He also drummed the message that golf was not a game of steady progressions. You don't get 10 percent better in the first six months and 10 percent better every month after that. Nor was it a game where results tied directly to one component, like talent or repetitions. One golfer might hit five hundred balls a day for a decade and never break par, while another might put his clubs away for months and shoot in the sixties in his first outing. Champion golfers were those who had talent on top of spending endless hours on the practice tees.
I knew all of thisall the Harmon boys didbut knowing that the game is unyielding, unfair, unpredictable, unsympathetic, and unaware of who you are and what you shot yesterday, and accepting such truths are two different things. Plenty of times, I wanted the quick fix, the magic potion that would make my game better by noon. My father had little patience for those, like me, who looked for easy answers. "The tip-of-the-day pro is the one I want to be playing against," he would say.
He also had little use for anyone who thought the golf swing had to feel "good" or "natural." My youngest brother Billy, who as a teenager was one of the best junior players in the country, used to argue with Dad about how a change "felt." When Dad tried to change Billy's grip to keep him from hitting an occasional hook, Billy said, "Dad, it doesn't feel right."
My father snatched up the ball and club and held both within inches of Billy's face. "You see that ball?" he barked.
"Yes, sir," Billy said.
"And you see that club?"
"Well, that ball and that club are inanimate objects. In-an-i-mate! The ball is only going to do what the club makes it do, and the club is only going to go where you swing it. Neither of them gives a damn how you feel."
I never heard him use that kind of language with any students whose last names weren't Harmon, but he was always most direct when appraising our games. If we opted for the easy road instead of making the fundamental changes necessary to get better, he would let us know about it in his own special way. Once he was watching Billy on a day when our youngest brother thought his swing couldn't get much better. Each shot was solid, and the balls were flying long and straight on a perfect trajectory. He waited for Dad to say something like, "Wow, you're really hitting it great," or "That swing looks perfect." When no praise came, Billy finally asked, "What are you thinking about, Dad?"
Dad said, "I'm thinking about P. T. Barnum, and the Ringling brothers."
This put Billy in a bind. He wanted to know what Dad thought, but he knew the Ringling and Barnum reference was a precursor to a dig. So, my brother took a deep breath and said, "Okay, Dad, what about them?"
"Well, you know, Barnum and those guys travel over to Africa to get these elephants for their shows. They get them young, spend time with them, and train them."
"Yeah?" Billy said.
"Well, those they can't train, they ship back to Africa."
Still waiting for a point, Billy said, "So?"
Dad shook his head and said, "I've got no place to send you."
This didn't sit well with my brother, who felt like he was hitting the ball as well as he had all season. "Why can't you say something positive?" he asked.
"I can when you do something positive. As long as you jerk the club to the inside on your takeaway [a swing flaw Billy fought throughout his playing days], it doesn't matter how good you hit it today, you're never going to be a golfer."
Billy wasn't thrilled, but Dad couldn't have cared less. The swing wouldn't last, so as far as Dad was concerned, it didn't matter how well Billy hit it. If he was unwilling to sacrifice the good feeling of a solid shot today for the hard work and bad shots that were bound to accompany a much-needed swing change, then he was like an uncoachable elephant. The fact that the swing worked once in a while was of no consequence. If you couldn't repeat it under pressure, as Dad assured Billy he could not, then it didn't matter.
When my brother Craig was getting ready to qualify for the U.S. Open, Dad took him out to the West Course at Winged Foot to see his game. Craig felt pretty good about himself. He'd been practicing all summer, and he had talked about how this was his year. He even felt confident enough to challenge our father to a little game. Craig played as good as he could and shot a seventy-one. Dad, well into his fifties at that point and suffering from the early stages of arthritis, shot a seven-birdie round of sixty-five.
Craig couldn't believe it. "Dad, I just played as good as I can play and shot seventy-one," he said. "I didn't think there was a sixty-five out there. How'd you do that?"
Dad put his arm around Craig and said, "It's really simple, son. Some people have it, and some people don't. I have it. You don't."
Dad had it because he worked at it his entire life. He also knew better than most how hard and cruel the game could be.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1916, a place and a time when strict social structures shaped the young and old alike, Dad was raised a courtly southern gentleman. Savannah had rebounded after the Civil War quicker than other southern cities because of the port access it provided much of the eastern United States. It also maintained many of the rigid mores of the Old South. John Calvin had preached at the town's first Methodist church at the center of one of the city's antebellum squares, and his puritan code continued to dictate behavior at every level. In the nineteen-twenties, Savannah men still stopped walking and tipped their hats to passing ladies who, themselves, never ventured outdoors without headwear and dresses; young girls were thrown balls when they made their social debuts; and young boys like my father studied piano and sang in glee clubs. Elite women drank tea on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every house of means had a drawing room with brandy, Cognac, and fine cigars.
My father was born privileged. His father, Eugene Harmon, had gobbled up farmland in Georgia and Florida for tract housing. When the American troops, the "Doughboys" came home after World War I, my grandfather offered them affordable housing and a fresh start on life. He and my grandmother, Willa, became affluent socialites in Savannah, and they joined the Savannah Golf Club, the second-oldest golf course in America. It was founded in 1794. I don't know if they joined because of my dad or simply because belonging to a golf club was what well-heeled Savannah residents did in those days, but neither of my grandparents played golf. In fact, the only member of their immediate family who took an interest in the game was my father.
Young Claude not only showed an interest, he displayed an amazing aptitude at an early age. Stories still circulate about my father's playing prowess as a boystories that have certainly been embellished, as I haven't found a living soul who saw him play in Georgia. Still, he must have shown some skill. When my grandparents moved to Orlando in the twenties, where Eugene owned most of the land surrounding what is now Dr. Philips Drive, The Bay Hill Club, Sand Lake, and Universal Studios, they joined two golf clubs so my father could continue to play. With cuffed sleeves, cotton knickers, and a dandy tie and touring cap, Dad walked the central Florida fairways swinging a hickory-shafted mashie from the A.J. Spalding & Brothers company and dreaming of playing the game like Francis Ouimet, Ted Ray, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, or that other young golfer from Georgia who was just coming into his own, Bobby Jones. At thirteen years of age in 1929, he had wowed the central Florida golf faithful by shooting an improbable round of sixty-three in an exhibition with Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. He also won the Florida high school championship and the national championship of club champions as a teenager. I can only imagine how his skills and dreams might have played out if the Depression hadn't hit.
No one in my family knows for sure how my grandfather lost it all in the crash of 1929. It's likely that he, like most real estate speculators, woke up one morning to find his stocks worthless and the banks that held his cash and mortgages padlocked shut. Tenants couldn't pay rent, so many simply loaded their belongings and slipped away. Tax liens came due, banks foreclosed, and by the time Bobby Jones, my father's boyhood idol, captured the final leg of his famous Grand Slam, my grandfather was broke. My father found himself at the doors of the Dubsdread Golf Club, hat in hand, applying for a job as a caddy.
"The game doesn't know who you are," Dad said for years, never once referencing his upbringing. "That ball and club don't know your name, and there's no room for a resume on the scoreboard. There's space for a name, and there are boxes just big enough for numbers. If the numbers aren't low enough, nobody's going to ask how you did it, and nobody's going to care who you are. You don't get extra credit because your name is Harmon or Hogan or anything else. The game doesn't care."
When it came to golf, Dad treated everyone the same because he knew the game would do the same. It was the great equalizer. In one of the first lessons I ever saw him give to the King of Morocco, he offered a variation of the same speech he'd given Billy on the range the day my brother didn't like the "feel" of his new grip. His Majesty took a few tenuous practice swings with a crowd of security guards, diplomats, ambassadors, and aides nearby. Everybody was nervous. Dad finally said, "Now, Your Majesty, before we get started I want you to know one thing: that ball and that club don't know that you're the King of Morocco. All these people know, but that ball and club don't know and don't care. The only way that ball is going to go anywhere is for that club to move it. The only way for the club to hit it is for you to swing it properly, no matter who you are." The King appreciated Dad's candor, and they became lifelong friends.
Whether you had everything or nothing, whether you had come from privilege and fallen into poverty or come from nothing and risen to greatness, the game treated you the same, and so did my father. When Dave Marr was a skinny nineteen-year-old kid from the oilfield plains of Texas, Dad hired him as a $250-a-month assistant pro who lived in an apartment over the locker room. That didn't stop Dad from inviting Dave down to Seminole, the famous Palm Beach golf club built by E. F. Hutton and designed by Donald Ross where Dad spent his winters. Dave stayed with our family just as any friend of Dad's would, regardless of his name or station in life. Many years later, Dave told the story of going to lunch at the Seminole clubhouse with Dad one afternoon. "It was a table of twelve, and Claude was the center of attention," Dave said. "He told one golf story after another and had everybody spellbound. After lunch, I said, 'Claude, who was that eating with us?' He said, 'That fellow on your left was Henry Ford. The guy next to him was the Duke of Windsor, and the fellow on my right was Marshall Field.'" They were all the same in Dad's eyes. Good, bad, serious, or novice, they were all golfers.
Dad must have done an adequate job caddying as a kid. One summer he saved $86, a mighty sum for a Depression-era boy, and he couldn't wait to get home and present the cash to his father. My grandfather smiled, patted Dad on the head, and said, "I appreciate the sentiment, son, but you keep that money. We need a heck of a lot more than eighty-six dollars."