Butch Harmon with Phil Mickelson at Muirfield
Next week, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and any other player who is coached by Butch Harmon or Billy Harmon will have a slight edge over the field. It's insider information. And it's 100 percent legal.
The secret weapon is Butch and Billy's brother, Craig Harmon, who has been the PGA head professional at Oak Hill Golf Club for 41 years. There's hardly a blade of grass that he doesn't know by name and shape. Not a green whose slopes and breaks he has not memorized. Now, Mickelson, Johnson and a handful of others will benefit, if they can capitalize on the Harmon Factor.
Craig, Butch, Billy and the late Dick Harmon are sons of the legendary Claude Harmon, formerly a pro at Winged Foot, Seminole and Thunderbird and winner of the 1948 Masters. They are living historians of the post-war days of the professional tour. They don't have to look it up. They lived it.
"Dick and I wanted to be club pros, and Billy and Butch wanted to play," Craig Harmon explained. "They worked their hearts out trying to play, and when that didn't work out, they gravitated to being teachers." (Dick was a longtime PGA professional at River Oaks in Houston. He often worked with Craig Stadler and Lanny Wadkins.)
While the family may collectively possess a Google-search worth of golf know-how, they are not stingy with their information.
"When I played with Rory McIlroy on media day, he liked greens that had a huge slant to them," Craig Harmon said. "There are so many greens at Oak Hill when you're putting side‑to‑side or back‑to‑front where you cannot quite tell what it's going to do. It looks like it's going to break and it doesn't break." So Rory got information straight from the expert.
Harmon described some of the difficulty pros will find as Rory McIlroy did during that round.
"He hit a drive and a 4‑iron to the 17th hole," Harmon recalled. It was playing at 515 yards.
Harmon is not opposed to sharing information on Oak Hill, but family does come first.
"My brothers, they would have players come in, and I'd have something written up on how to play Oak Hill," Harmon explained. "As an example, 13, the great par five, almost 600 yards long, and the left side of the rough is like concrete and the right side of the rough is like mush."
The reason has to do with the cart traffic.
"Even though you have four-and-a-half-inch rough, that's like concrete over there (left), and once you hit that ball, it will bounce 30 yards, so the players wouldn't know that."
He added he realized he had just given away the secret on that hole, which is one of his favorites on the course.
Harmon also outlines the putts for his brothers' stable of golfers because he thinks conquering the greens is the key to winning the PGA Championship.
"In general, if someone asked me, I would tell them the same thing," he insisted about the tips he passes on to his brothers. "I could walk the course with some of them. I've done stuff like that in the past, just showed them. Like with Rory, I put him behind the second green and the seventh green and hit putts down there. He now knows, from the nuances of the putts, where he just can't read them."
Phil Mickelson took a test drive around Oak Hill earlier this week.
"I don't remember too much from '03 PGA, but I do remember quite a bit from the '95 Ryder Cup, which was the first time I played Oak Hill," Mickelson said.
Mickelson was high-point man for the U.S. in that Ryder Cup, which the U.S. lost after Philip Walton made a putt at the 18th to defeat Jay Haas. (Haas got his revenge at the Senior PGA, which he won at Oak Hill in 2008. And guess who his and Bill Haas's coach is? Billy Harmon.)
Secrets or not, the course is in challenging shape, according to those who have previewed it.
"It's really pristine. It's difficult, as you can imagine, like any major championship. It's as thick a rough as I've seen in a long time, long, dense, thick, heavy rough." Mickelson noted about Oak Hill. "And it will have a premium—it's very much like a U.S. Open—it will have a premium on getting the ball in play off the tee and so forth."
Craig Harmon made a few predictions on how the course would play.
"I would say most of the players won't use a driver more than half the time. I would be shocked if someone hit seven drivers at Oak Hill," he added.
He noted that the older players come in and study the course, implying that the younger ones don't.
Mickelson said when he went, it wasn't to work on his game, but to develop a strategy for playing the historic Donald Ross course.
"They all have their charts and think they can learn these things in a few days really," Harmon said. "I think the nuances of the greens would require a lot more attention to detail. So if they are not going to do it—they just won't be here to putt on them enough to know the nuances. I think that's part of the defense of the course."
The rough. Strategic design of the holes. Tricky greens. It all adds up to a mountain of a challenge for the world's best golfers.
How hard will it be? Harmon has charted scoring in all the majors that have been played at Oak Hill, and to date, the lowest score is minus-6 for 72 holes by Jack Nicklaus in 1980. Only 10 players, in all the majors that have been played there, were under par for 72 holes. Not 10 in one event—10 total.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.