Unraveling the mystery of Claude Harmon
April 02, 2018
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- Claude Harmon is best known for winning the 1948 Masters Tournament, but that doesn't scratch the surface of his story. (Courtesy of PGA of America)
Presidents had requested time with Claude Harmon. Kennedy, Nixon, Ford. Different sides of the aisle, but, hey, weak fades and chili-dips know no political affiliation. And the most eclectic Moroccan partnership since Rick Blaine and Captain Renault? That would have been Claude and his royal student, King Hassan II.
So, we’re talking substance with Claude Harmon.
Yet, on this night in the early 1970s, the young man with long hair and a beard sauntering into the Harmon home in Mamaroneck, New York, was more esteemed than a president or king.
“Billy,” said Claude to the youngest of his four sons, “where are you going?”
“To my room,” said Billy Harmon, who looked as if he had just come from Woodstock, but in truth was prepared for a week as Jay Haas’ caddie in the Westchester Classic.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
The onetime junior-golf-standout-turned-hellion remembered the protocol, so he made his way over to his father and gave him a kiss.
The recall is offered by Craig, No. 2 in the procession of four Harmon boys. “I love that story.”
Not because Billy, like the oldest brother, Butch, was always testing Claude’s patience, but because it gets to the heart of maybe the most significant man in the history of golf about whom so little is known. Ask his sons about the man who influenced a long line of head professionals and could flat-out play, and their reflections start not with his win at the 1948 Masters, but life inside the home he had with Alice and their four sons (Dick, the third-oldest son, died in 2006) and two daughters, Claudia and Allyson.
“When we came home, we gave him hugs and kisses,” Craig said. “We just did.”
“He and my mother poured a good foundation,” Billy added. “He was a task master, but a very loving father.”
“He was a tough dad, but a great dad,” Butch noted. “He could be rough on us, but deep down, he knew it would make us work harder.”
When Claude Harmon in July of 1989 was in a Houston hospital recovering from heart surgery, “we were coming in shifts, so many people visiting,” said Craig. “His mind was sharp, but his body was failing, so the stories went on and we were all laughing so hard. A nurse told him, ‘Mr. Harmon, they all have to leave,’ and he said, ‘Young lady, you are the only leaving. Everyone else is staying.’ ”
Sadly, it was Claude who left. His charmed and fulfilling life came to an end at 73. For headlines to the story, sports editors offered something akin to “Claude Harmon dies, club pro who won 1948 Masters.”
True, of course.
It just didn’t scratch the surface to this man’s compelling life.
There was the usual lead-up to the 1948 Masters, meaning the best of the best gathered at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida, for what was then called the Latham R. Reid Memorial Amateur-Pro tournament. Sam Snead and George T. McCarthy won the team title, Henry Ransom (71-67) low pro honors.
But to the 2,500 fans who paid $2.50 for a ticket, applause was afforded the head pro at Seminole, Claude Harmon, who missed a 10-footer at the 36th hole that would have tied Ransom. He settled for second (67-72) and third in the team competition with Washington, D.C. tax lobbyist Ellsworth Alvord. His net for the two days was $1,650.
That sum is noted to help understand the era. Consider, for instance, that when he went to Augusta, Georgia, a few weeks later and won what was the 12th playing of the Masters, Harmon earned $2,500.
The paltry difference in prize money between a “pro-am” and a “major championship” reveals a layer of why there is such a lack of respect to Harmon’s legacy. A club pro won the Masters? It’s written as if Harmon was folding shirts one day and haphazardly beating the best players in the world the next.
“No question, he could have played the TOUR,” Craig said. “But he loved being a club pro.” And not just any club pro. “He had the best two jobs in the country – Winged Foot in the summer, Seminole in the winter,” Butch said. “There was more money in being a club pro; it’s not like he couldn’t play.”
In 1948, Harmon tied what were then Masters records for lowest score, 279, and biggest margin of victory, five strokes, and good gracious, he won at Augusta before his idol, Ben Hogan. What’s more, there were a string of good performances in the other majors.
The 1945 PGA Championship, for instance. Then 39, Harmon drew a semifinal challenge against Byron Nelson, who had then won eight consecutive tournaments. “He always told us that that match might have helped him more than any other,” said Billy. “He knew Nelson was better. But he hung tough and it convinced him he was a good player. Everyone thought he’d lose, 10 and 8.”
In the 36-hole match, Harmon lost, 5 and 4, to Nelson, who went on to win for a ninth straight time (his epic streak went 11 deep).
Months after winning the Masters, Harmon again made it to the semifinals of the PGA Championship, one of seven top-10s in that major. He also finished top-10 twice in the U.S. Open, including 1959 when he was the host pro at Winged Foot. In his only Open Championship, 1948 at Muirfield, Harmon got through a 36-hole qualifier and eventually finished 27th.
Jack Burke Jr., who along with Dave Marr, Mike Souchak and Shelley Mayfield was on a heady list of assistants who were made better by working under Claude Harmon, is one of the last who understands the expertise that the man provided. “Claude was a club-maker, a teacher, he was running two great clubs,” said Burke. “But he was a good player, and a very good man.”
“A forgotten giant in the industry,” suggested Billy.Byron Nelson (left) with Claude Harmon (right) faced off in the semifinals of the 1945 PGA Championship. (Courtesy of PGA of America)
If you don’t know much about a man born 102 years ago, it might be because there was much overlooked about him while he lived. Like how his brother, Charles, was named head pro at Augusta Country Club, in the shadows of Augusta National, just months after his brother won the Masters. Or how Harmon was one of six golfers disqualified at the 1940 U.S. Open (Porky Oliver the most notable, since it cost him a playoff spot) for starting his fourth round 30 minutes earlier, to beat an impending storm. (“He had a little rebel in him, like me and Billy,” said Butch.)
Most typical was in 1973 when Claude Harmon heard people talk about Tommy Aaron as the first “native Georgian” to win the Masters. Even the esteemed Herbert Warren Wind wrote it, which Claude found curious.
After all, he had done it 25 years earlier.
Born in Savannah on July 14, 1916 to Eugene and Wilhelmina, Harmon was named after his father. But he never went by Eugene; it was always Claude, the older brother to Charles and Kenny.
He wasn’t just any native Georgian, either. No, sir. Claude Harmon had met the man himself, Bobby Jones, long before there was an Augusta National or Masters. This excerpt from Charles Bartlett’s account of the 1948 Masters: “Today, Bobby Jones, host of the Masters, was the first to shake the hand of the little kid (Claude Harmon) who shook his hand in 1925.”
Eugene and Wilhelmina in the early 1920s had relocated the family to an Atlanta neighborhood near where Jones lived, but in 1926 came a move to Orlando where the family prospered. Eugene made a fortune in real estate, Wilhelmina – a graduate of the Kate Baldwin School in Savannah and daughter of a wealthy railroad executive – opened a kindergarten. But the most crucial component, so far as Claude’s life was concerned, was a sprawling family home in Edgewater Heights, less than 2 miles from Dubsdread Golf Course.
Claude Harmon virtually lived at Dubsdread. By his teenage years, he was often chronicled in the Orlando Evening Star, including news of him qualifying for the 1931 U.S. Amateur and this headline in 1933: “Harmon Birdies Win For Hagen.” The 16-year-old had played beautifully to help he and Walter Hagen win an exhibition four-ball match at Orlando Country Club.
Schoolboy and state-wide amateur wins piled up and so did chance meetings with touring professionals who made Orlando their winter home.
Ky Laffoon, who was at Dubsdread in the winter, took a liking to “the swarthy youngster,” as the paper described Harmon on May 5, 1937. It was a story that announced how the 20-year-old was embracing his dream. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional golfer, so I’m taking this chance.”
He left that day on a 2:30 p.m. northbound train for Chicago to be Laffoon’s assistant at Northmoor Country Club and his life would never be the same. Yes, there would be the usual assortment of life’s heartache – his father, who lost his fortune during the Great Depression, died in January of 1938; brother Kenny died young, in 1952; his mother passed in 1956 – but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more intriguing half-century than what Claude Harmon authored once he got off the train in Chicago.
The stock market crash had torn families apart and so the ‘30s required a sense of adventure to survive. That played into one of Harmon’s strengths. But a greater asset was his warm personality and ability to entertain. Claude Harmon for a short time traveled with bandleader Bob Crosby, Bing’s younger brother.
“He loved to sing,” said Craig. “Years later, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic he’d get up there with Les Brown and the Band of Renown. Me and Dick would be on the ground laughing.”
Claude Harmon was empowered with an uncanny ability to seize upon every opening. Laffoon left Northmoor, but in came the legendary Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper and Harmon soaked up even more knowledge from a Hall of Famer. When he was paired with Craig Wood one day, Harmon faced a shot that wasn’t part of his repertoire – a cut 5-iron to a front-right hole.
“Dad played a hard draw,” Butch said. “So, he hit this big, sky-high hooking 4-iron up over trees and got it to land 30 feet from the hole. Wood told him, ‘Young man, that was the worst shot I’ve ever seen, but if you have that sort of imagination, I’m going to hire you.’ ”
Harmon became an assistant at Winged Foot to Wood, who won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1941 and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Wood showed Harmon how to hit it left-to-right, how to make clubs, advise, and befriend members. Wood’s friends became Claude Harmon’s friends and so enamored with Wood was he that No. 2 son was given the birth name Craig Wood Harmon.
The natural successor to Wood when he retired at Winged Foot was Harmon and what a world was opened for his golf-happy sons.
“We’d come home and there’d be golfers over, the grill would be on, steaks would be cooking,” Butch said. “I remember being 16 swinging a club in front of Mr. Hogan. Jack Burke used to babysit us at Winged Foot by giving us lessons. That’s the environment we grew up in (at Winged Foot and Seminole). It didn’t sink in for years what an experience it was.”
With the 1948 Masters not starting until April 8, it wasn’t until April 1 that the newspapers got around to announcing the final invites -- to Sam Byrd, Ed Furgol, Joe Kirkwood, Harry Todd, and Harmon. Each of them had finished top 25 in the previous year’s U.S. Open.
It was Claude Harmon’s third straight Masters appearance and when he opened with 70, he trailed Lloyd Mangrum by one. Another 70 put him at 140, one behind Todd. A third-round 69 put Harmon in front by two over Chick Harbert and when he closed with a 70 that included a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch at Nos. 6-7-8, he was well clear of the runner-up, Cary Middlecoff.
In Masters folklore, it is noted that the Green Jacket was first presented in 1949 to Sam Snead, but Billy Harmon calls timeout on that. “It’s my most prized possession, a picture of my dad in the Green Jacket. I look at it every day at work.”
A dig through the archives sure enough shows photos of Claude Harmon in a Green Jacket, so it’s likely that it was done unofficially and paved the way for the “official” ritual a year later.
Forever connected to the Masters and Augusta National, Claude played annually through 1966 when he was 49, then for one round in 1969 before becoming a non-competing invitee who did have a ticket to the toughest dinner reservation in golf.
Sadly, never were all four boys and Claude gathered together at the same Masters. That seemed like an oversight to a pair of dutiful Augusta National members, so after Claude had passed, Butch, Craig, Dick and Billy were all invited for a few days of golf, accompanied by the two members, plus Jay Haas and Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters champ.
Amid the thousand laughs were heartfelt recollections of their individual trips to the Masters with their dad.
“I was there in ’48, or so I’ve been told,” said Butch, who would have been 4. “I can’t remember it. But on the first trip I do remember, dad took me into the clubhouse and told me sit and wait for him. He told Bowman (Milligan, the legendary Augusta National clubhouse waiter) to keep an eye on me and Bowman told him, “Don’t worry, Mr. Harmon, I’ll watch him with a thousand eyes.’ ”
One year, Craig was asked to deliver a package to his father at the clubhouse during Champions Dinner night “and I’m just staring at legends like Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen.”
Talk about crossing paths with an icon, in 1967 Billy Harmon’s first visit to the Masters was Ben Hogan’s final appearance, unforgettable for a third-round 66 that was a ball-striking clinic. If you search “Ben Hogan in the office 1967 Masters range,” what pops up is a 2-minute YouTube clip of Hogan, 55, hitting balls before one of his rounds, and standing right there is a young man in white dress shirt. It’s Billy Harmon.
“Such a great memory. My first visit, standing 10 feet from Mr. Hogan. My dad (who was also standing there and watching) revered Mr. Hogan, so it had such meaning.”
Yes, the goosebumps are still real.
“He was special, so far ahead of his time,” Butch said. “He just loved golf.”
“He was a man’s man, a people’s man,” Craig said. “Even today, when I see the winner come up 18, I think, ‘That was my dad’ and I get emotional.’ ”
Billy, who concedes he always struggled to live up to “whatever the Harmon thing” is, knows his father never, ever regretted his decision to not be a touring professional.
“It was an era of characters with character, but he always said his first prize was his family and coming home to his wife and kids,” Billy said. “That captures the essence of the man.”