PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — So often criticized as a game that moves too slowly, golf moves in warp speed when a beloved member of its community is in need.
No slow-play warnings then. Fears, maybe. Tears, most definitely. But good gracious does support come rushing forth when life serves up hardship to a good friend.
Ask Billy Harmon, who for the past week or so has been reading text messages and emails and listening to voice mails, all of them from friends left stunned by crushing news.
Harmon, 65, was diagnosed with tongue cancer and already has begun chemotherapy.
The youngest of the four brothers who followed their father, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion and legendary instructor, into the golf-teaching business, Billy Harmon offered a statement Monday evening from Palm Springs, Calif., where he resides as the teaching professional at Toscana Country Club and recently opened the Bill Harmon Performance Center.
“Although I have a tough road ahead of me, I am ready and willing to do whatever it takes to get healthy. I am not a ‘Why me?’ guy or a ‘victim.’ I am just the opposite. I am a very ordinary man who has been blessed to live an extraordinary life because of a great family, many, many wonderful friends, and the game of golf.
“If this can be beaten, then I will beat it. I have been overwhelmed by the support of so many but most of all humbled by it. I can’t put into words what it has meant to me. When I get to the other side of this, I will be a better person.”
Butch Harmon, the oldest of the four brothers, is here at The Players Championship and said Tuesday night that the family kept the news quiet for several weeks “because Billy wanted it that way.” But word quietly has spread, and with the Harmons being so respected and beloved, it’s no surprise at the depths of emotions.
“It’s brutal. Just awful,” Butch Harmon said. “But I told him, you beat drugs and alcohol, you’re a tough son of a bitch, and you’re not doing this alone.”
Spot on with all points there, because to know Billy Harmon is to know the quintessential straight-shooter with an endless line of admirers. He always has been able to say that he was born on Aug. 28, 1950, but his life really began nearly 42 years later, on Aug. 27, 1992. That was the day when Bill Harmon embraced sobriety and for all the times he has fine-tuned a golf swing — be it Jay Haas’ or Bill Haas’ or John Merrick’s or Craig Stadler’s — most significant about the man are the times he has helped others battle the demons.
He has done so for the purest of reasons: because he wants to help and he has been there. Perhaps more telling to what sits in the man’s soul is this: In addition to the performance center that helps golfers in Palm Springs is the Harmon Recovery Foundation, which was founded by Billy Harmon and his wife, Robin.
“He’s been through a lot, learned a lot, made mistakes and bounced back from them,” said Charlie Epps, the swing coach and manager for Angel Cabrera and a longtime friend of Harmon’s. “He’s proud that he’s been sober for about 25 years. He has a great foundation.”
Few can speak to the quality of Billy Harmon’s character quite like Jay Haas. They are of the same era, from a time when the answer to everything that ailed your golf game was simple — play better — and they have always shared an aversion to excuses.
True enough, Billy Harmon spent years working as Haas’ caddie, but never did they treat the relationship as anything but a partnership. First and foremost, they always have been friends, and never did Harmon fail to lift Haas’ spirits, even on days when the golf wasn’t very good.
“He always had a one-way ticket to my funny bone. He always had positive thoughts, always looked at the bright side of my round,” said Haas, 62. “I never really saw him too down about anything.”
One exception would be that February day in 2006 when Dick Harmon died of a heart attack while visiting and working with Billy in Palm Springs. It was devastating to Butch, Craig and Billy, and now “Craig and I are devastated for Billy,” Butch Harmon said.
Billy Harmon has seen specialists in Los Angeles and at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
“It’s going to be rough (for a while),” Butch Harmon said. “But he’s tough, and he’s got a lot of prayers going for him.”