“The five key lessons I learned from my day with the world’s best golf coach”

After spending a day with Butch Harmon, Iona Stephen shares the five lessons she learned from the greatest golf coach on the planet… and they’re not all about her swing.

Butch Harmon is a legend in the world of golf. The greatest coach in the history of the game and one of the sport’s most recognizable voices, a lesson with Butch is the stuff of golf bucket lists. The son of 1948 Masters Champion, Claude Harmon Sr., the now 80-year-old has been immersed in golf since childhood, learning from the likes of Ben Hogan. And now here I was, at Rio Secco Golf Club in Las Vegas, about to spend the day learning from him.

Vegas has long been Butch’s base, his studio’s walls covered in flags from the many tournaments and Majors he has helped his players win. Tiger Woods’ name dominates the decor just as he dominated the game during the 11-year spell the pair spent working together from 1993 to 2004. Under Butch’s tutelage, Woods won three US Amateur titles in a row and then eight Majors as a pro, including the Tiger slam in 2000 and 2001, where he owned all four Major trophies simultaneously. In total, he also won 34 PGA Tour titles under Harmon’s tutelage.

Iona Stephen and Butch Harmon cast an eye over the flags of all the victories he's coached players to.

But it’s not just Tiger who Butch has helped to success. Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, are just a few of the other names who have stepped foot into this studio and gone on to Major success. And after a day experiencing the great man’s methods and getting to know what makes him tick, it’s easy to see why.

These are the five biggest lessons I took away from my day with Butch Harmon.

Butch Harmon and Tiger Woods share a life. Their partnership proved exceptionally fruitful as Tiger dominated the game.

Life is better when you’re having fun

Without any doubt, this was the biggest lesson. There’s a way Butch goes about his business that attracts people to be in his company. You want to spend time with Butch. You hope he asks you to join him for lunch, or a golf lesson or a walk. Any time with Butch feels like time well spent. Why? Because he is having fun. He makes you smile and when you’re smiling, life feels good. But there is a sincerity in the way he gets you laughing. He’s having fun with you, but you know when all jokes are aside, he cares deeply.

You learn better when you’re having fun, and no matter what it is or how quickly you have to do it, it will likely fall into place more effectively with a smile on your face. “It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people and it will pay you dividends your whole life,” Butch told me.

Over the years he’s taken criticism about his coaching from people who have observed him telling jokes and laughing on the driving range, but Butch has a simple answer. “I’m getting my players relaxed.” And athletes can excel when they are relaxed.

Butch Harmon casts his eye over Iona Stephen's swing.

Complete your turn in your backswing

Golf tips aren’t hard to find these days. Take to the modern coaching world of YouTube or go the traditional route with a local PGA pro and you’ll find no shortage of things to work on.

I have been lucky enough to spend time with some of the best coaches in the world ­– and now the very best – and in that time I have had some rich success with some and far less with others. What I observe in the very best coaches, Butch no exception, is that they don’t coach a method or try to apply one swing to all, they coach YOU. This is what sets the great coaches apart. They are prepared to take the time to get to know you, why you swing the way you do and how they might be able to best help.

However, there are a series of what I have always called ‘the non-negotiables’. These are the things you have no excuse not to get right. They include ball position, alignment, posture, and grip. Having spent time with Butch I am now adding completing the turn to that list. It has a positive impact on everything that happens next, from the timing of the transition, to the power through impact and weight transition into the finish. This was one of the two key technical points I took from Butch and I think it is fundamental in striving for success in the swing. Watch my video with the main man to see it in action and try it next time you’re at the range.

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Iona Stephen interviews Butch Harmon in his Las Vegas studio.

Life is a game of repetition

Much like golf, Butch believes life is about positive repetition. If you can repeat your golf swing, you can play the game of golf. If you can repeat the good things you do in life, then you’re going be a good person and have a good life.

It hasn’t all been a straight line for Butch. He admitted hitting rock bottom in the early 80s (“broke, alone, unemployed, homeless and in debt,” he recalls in his memoir, The Pro), but he found his passion and his niche. He has a special way with people, an eye for the swing (two blue launch monitors as he puts it) and a sense of humor that can break the tension in the most intense of environments.

It is so obvious that Butch was made to coach, but it wasn’t always so obvious for him or those around him. Enjoying what you do is so important and every time I have had the pleasure of bumping into Butch at a golf tournament, he always has a smile on his face and a pep in his step. But to apply yourself, commit to constantly improving, and become the best you can be, all while remaining humble as your star begins to rise, that is the trick.

We know time spent practicing your golf, is often rewarded with better shots, lower scores, and more success. For Butch, the same rules apply to life.

Butch Harmon casts his eye over Iona Stephen's swing.

If something goes wrong in life, it’s usually our fault

The golf and life similarities don’t end with repetition. Golf is full of adversity, highs, and lows, and you are out there on your own most of the time. It is how you handle yourself and how you handle the situation that determines your path. Taking responsibility can be the most challenging step but life is what you make of it. We can all feel sorry for ourselves but ultimately nobody is going to flip the script for us. Butch spoke of the lowest time in his life and his instinct was to blame others, or simply say ‘I am getting a raw deal out here’. What he has learned now, is you often get what you deserve, and it is only when you hit reach the lowest low that you take responsibility and can work your way back up again. I’m so glad that is what Butch did and that golf proved his savior, as it does for so many.

Want more swing speed? Widen your stance and be deliberate

Within 30 minutes of looking at my swing, Butch had increased my driver carry by 20 yards further with a significant increase in ball speed. Some of this was because he put a different driver in my hand (less loft and a shorter shaft), but most of it was because he had me ‘set up’ for a longer, more powerful drive.

Butch follows a theory given to him by Jack Nicklaus, that the secret to more distance off the tee is a wider stance, which drops the spine and head behind the ball, a deliberate wind up…and then unleash! The turn and completing the backswing are key, but when you get there, be ready to unleash on the ball. By using these two tips I found a whole new level of power that I didn’t know I had in me.

But as I left my day with Butch, it wasn’t the technical help that left the biggest impression on me. It was his company. Kindness doesn’t cost anything, and it feels like a more important quality than ever. The overriding message from the great man was to work hard and be kind on your way. That sounds like a pretty good blueprint to me.

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About the author

Iona Stephen is a golf broadcaster and writes for Today's Golfer.

Iona Stephen – Broadcaster and Today’s Golfer contributor

A former professional golfer, who has played on the Ladies European Tour, Iona is a highly respected golf broadcaster.

She joined Today’s Golfer as a regular contributor in 2023 and offers insight into the professional game from her life working on the world’s biggest tours.

The Scotswoman is as comfortable covering the game from the commentary booth as she is broadcasting in front of the camera and from the course, where she is regularly seen interviewing the world’s best players during their rounds.

Alongside her television work, Stephen also has her own YouTube channel – On The Road With Iona.

Follow Iona on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and TikTok, and find out more at ionastephen.com

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