By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com
PGA Championship week is upon us and it's taking place at a very special and historic venue -- Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.
Opened in 1901, Oak Hill was designed by legendary architect Donald Ross. Upon the completion of the 2008 Senior PGA Championship, Oak Hill became the only club in the United States to have hosted all six of the men's major championships that move around the country. It also hosted the 1995 Ryder Cup.
Craig Harmon -- brother to Butch, son to Claude (the 1948 Masters champion) -- has been the PGA Head Professional at Oak Hill for 41 years and counting. Craig Harmon, the 2005 PGA Professional of the Year -- the highest honor bestowed by The PGA of America on a PGA Professional -- knows Oak Hill like the back of his hand.
Recently we had a chance to chat with Harmon about Oak Hill and his legendary golf family, which also includes renowned instructors/brothers Billy and Dick (who passed away in 2006).
Craig Harmon has been around the game his entire life and had some amazing stories to tell.
PGA.com: There's no doubt that the game has meant a lot to the Harmon family. So many great moments in the game's history seem to have a tie to the Harmon family, be it your father's Masters win in 1948, Butch's success as a top instructor, etc. Can you talk a little about the Harmon family's connection to golf?
Harmon: Well, you know, back in the day, my dad was the big guy. He was the Masters Champion and to me the greatest club professional of all time and to be growing up around him and to be at Winged Foot and sit at the big table with Tommy Armour and Jackie Burke, Dave Marr ... to say we got a head start on golf is a tremendous understatement. We got just a tremendous heritage from our dad.
Now, of course, my brother Butch is the No. 1 guy in the world, and he's getting tired of being introduced as Claude Harmon's son, but I think we are getting more tired of being introduced as Butch Harmon's brother!
Now as a family, when we do get together we marvel at what we have accomplished in a nice way. We don't get together that often. When my brother (Dick) was alive, he was an outstanding PGA professional and we kind of look back on our origins; Dick and I were the same; Billy and Butch were the same. Billy and Butch were the two rebels of the family. Dick and I were more the stalwarts and straight-arrow guys.
PGA.com: So Butch was a rebel? How so?
Harmon: There are so many great stories about Butch. He went to the University of Houston on a four-year golf scholarship, playing his qualifying round in 100-degree weather, and Butch had the worst temper of all time.
It was not possible for anybody to have a worse temper than Butch. And basically, he got fed up with golf after being there for a week. He broke all his clubs. My dad gave him the irons he got his third-place finish in the U.S. Open with in 1959. Butch threw them in a lake and joined the Army. He left, went to California and joined the army. So a couple weeks go by and my dad has not heard from Butch and he calls him and says, "Butch, what are you doing?" He says, "I quit University of Houston, couldn't take it any longer. Broke all the clubs and threw them in the lake and joined the Army."
True statement, you talk about our heritage, my dad said: "Well, the least you could have done was join the Navy and get my [expletive] clubs out of the lake!"
That's a true story, and Butch will tell you that, too. And he had tremendous humor. That's how he handled a problem in life, and that's how he handled stress in situations. That's how we all came together, and like I said, if we didn't have golf, we didn't know what we were going to do anyway. But we had a good head start, I guess, and then carried the ball from there.
PGA.com: What a great story. How about you? Is there a funny story about you and your dad?
Harmon: Well, when I got the job at Oak Hill, I remember my dad coming up and said I never would have gotten the job if my name was Craig Schultz, and he might be right there, but I kept it as Craig Harmon.
And then, I remember I was playing in the 1980 PGA Championship here at Oak Hill. I lagged my putt down on the last hole and to break 90. I shot 89 with a 10 footer. I said, "I'm not going to shoot 90."
And I had to go call my dad and tell him what I shot. He was living in Florida at the time. I call him and just did not want to make this call.
He goes, "What did you shoot?"
It wasn't, "how are you, Craig"; it was, "what did you shoot?"
I said, "I shot 89. Pretty ticked off." He goes, "Man, that's great."
I go, "What do you mean, that's great?"
"Everybody down here bet me you couldn't break 90."
PGA.com: Craig, this will be the 11th major championship held Oak Hill, the third PGA Championship. Jack Nicklaus won the PGA there in 1980 and Shaun Micheel won in 2003. It's one of the great tests in American golf. In your opinion, having been there such a long time, why has the golf course held up so well as technology has changed and players have gotten stronger, the golf course is still so good; why is that?
Harmon: Well, it's one of the all-time great driving courses, the fairways are anywhere from 16-24 yards wide. They don't narrow it down for a major championship. We play it that way all the time.
We don't play with the high rough that's going to be there. If you hit a drive off line or if you're in the rough, it's not like at Doral where there are no trees in your way. You have these huge trees in your way, so there's a huge difference between hitting a shot out of the rough with no trees than one with trees.
I'll give you an interesting stat because I don't know how the course has held up over the test of time, other than it's a phenomenal driving course. In 1968, I have the stats for driving distance. The average driving in the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill was 246 yards; Lee Trevino won the event at 244. Nicklaus was the longest hitter at 271 in the field. Now there will be nobody in the field who hits it 271.That would be too short and the course back then played about 6,900 yards long.
So the players today, they hit the same shots that Jack Nicklaus hit into the greens, as a comparison, the course will be about 8,300 yards long. Over that period of time, we have only had 10 people break par in all of the medal play championships at Oak Hill -- not 10 in one tournament, 10 total.
The course record is 6 under par, which is not a lot under par having all these great players. So you would have to say the course has stood the test of time, even though the length has changed. They have not been able to make the course that much longer, probably 20 yards longer now than in 1968.
But definitely the driving is quite unique. The greens are benign looking and just don't break like people think, so you have to have some subtleties on the greens and challenge them. So they are not overly undulating, but there is something about them where you think they are going to break and it just doesn't.
PGA.com: Last thing for you, Craig and it's about Butch and his star pupil, Phil Mickelson. Phil will enter the PGA as the latest major champion having just captured the Open at Muirfield. Phil has said in the past that he felt the Open Championship was the least likely of majors for him to win because of the style of golf the courses demand over there. Then, in a two-week stretch, he wins on two links courses -- the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and the Open at Muirfield. What suddenly changed?
Harmon: Well, first of all, you never count Phil out of anything. He is the most resilient golfer I've ever seen in my lifetime. It's not possible for someone who drives the ball like he does to have six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. You would never think that would be possible. He's not a fairway-hitting machine, and yet he has. Nobody has finished runner up in the U.S. Open more than that, and for him to come back from his U.S. Open, which was just devastating to him, Butch said he's never seen him that disconsolate in his life.
And to come back and win The Open, there must have been something just about playing golf a little bit differently that he embraced, playing it on the ground versus in the air. And I know Butch was encouraging his feel for things, his vision for things: Have fun with this course; you can do this type of stuff. Look at it differently; it's not just launch it in the air. It very much looked like Phil did that.
This was one of the coolest victories I've ever seen, really to have him come down the stretch and birdie four out of the last six in a major championship, where the course was so difficult. But I think he was encouraged. He's always creative. He said, let's go create on the ground, not in the sky. He's always been creative in the sky, and I think he embraced the ground all week. He had a great ball-striking week.
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