By Sal Maiorana, Special to PGA.com
It was 31 years ago that a young man, who was then not even a member of The PGA of America, was hired to run the golf shop operation at one of America’s foremost institutions, Oak Hill Country Club.
When Bill Thaney Sr. –- who in that fortuitous winter/spring of 1972 chaired the search committee that ultimately selected Craig Harmon as the replacement for the departing Jack Lumpkin -– thinks back on that decision he does so with a smile and says with a wink, "I think we made the right choice."
An understatement? Oh, about on par with saying Arnold Palmer was pretty popular in his day.
During his three decades at Oak Hill, Harmon, the son of the legendary 1948 Masters Champion Claude Harmon, has become one of America's most respected head professionals. His brother Butch garners much more national and international attention as Tiger Woods’ swing instructor, but during the summer of 2002, Butch set the record straight.
When Oak Hill celebrated Craig’s 30th anniversary at the club with a full day of golf -– including a clinic conducted by the four Harmon brothers: Craig, Butch, Dick and Billy -– followed by a gala dinner, each of Craig’s brothers stood up and roasted and praised their sibling.
And it was Butch, with tears welling in his eyes, who told the gathering of Oak Hill members just how proud he was of Craig, and how lucky they were to have him.
Of course, Oak Hillers didn’t need to be reminded, and they proved it moments after the Harmon brothers concluded their speeches. Bill Reeves, an Oak Hill member for more than 50 years, announced that during the week of the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, the club would bestow on Craig its highest honor -– induction into the Hill of Fame.
"The honor is reserved for people in higher categories than I am," Harmon says with his trademark modesty. "But obviously I’m very honored, very shocked, to be inducted into the Hill of Fame."
The Hill of Fame is the natural amphitheater that surrounds the 13th green of the famed East Course where majestic oaks -– most planted in the 1920s and 1930s by Oak Hill’s most influential member, Dr. John R. Williams -– rise to the skies lending at once beauty and beast to the championship layout.
In 1956, Dr. Williams conceived the idea of the Hill of Fame, to memorialize the immortals of golf and the distinguished citizens who have enriched the American way of life.
The list of inductees ranges from Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan to the 1995 European Ryder Cup team; from architects Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones to past USGA Executive Director Joseph Dey; from former U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford to comedian Bob Hope.
And now it will include Harmon, just the 35th inductee and one of only three Hill of Famers connected directly to Oak Hill, joining former members Dr. Williams and Bill Chapin.
"Craig has done such a magnificent job for us here, it was really time that we gave him this recognition," says Reeves.
Harmon personifies all the attributes the Hill stands for because, he says, he was Claude Harmon’s son.
When Craig was a teenager, he and his brothers would go to Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where there was no better training ground for an aspiring club professional. Claude was one of the most respected men in the business and on any given day, any number of the game’s greatest players might stop by Winged Foot to visit.
"I would sit at lunch with my dad, Craig Wood (who Craig is named after), Ben Hogan, Sam Snead or Tommy Armour and they’re talking golf," Harmon recalls. "How many people have had a chance to do that type of stuff?"
Craig listened and learned. When it was time to go out on his own, he was ready.
"My dad instilled a lot of confidence in me," says Harmon. "I can remember him saying ‘Just be yourself, you’ve already lived it, you already have it inside you.’"
When Lumpkin abruptly resigned in the winter of 1972, Oak Hill was left in a lurch because the new golf season was rapidly approaching and it needed a head professional. Claude Harmon had recommended Lumpkin for the Oak Hill job back in 1963, and that had worked out splendidly, so Thaney called Claude once again. The name Claude provided was that of his second-oldest son who at the time was working as an assistant at Thunderbird in Palm Springs, Calif., and had never been a head professional.
Craig’s sparse resume was one of about 50 that Thaney and his committee reviewed, and Craig made the cut to the final six, and finally, to the final two.
"It was probably two degrees outside, snow everywhere, but I wasn’t intimidated at all," Harmon recalled of his initial visit to Oak Hill. "I couldn’t wait to see what they were going to ask me. I was excited about the process. I didn’t know if I was going to get the job or not. For some reason, I knew I’d knock their socks off."
He did, and Thaney can still recall the line Harmon delivered that sealed the deal.
"We asked him whether he would be inclined to go to Winged Foot to follow in his father’s footsteps if he had the opportunity, and he said to us ‘I will make Oak Hill my Winged Foot,’" Thaney remembers.
While serving Oak Hill with class and dignity, Harmon has also made his mark on the industry. Three times he has been selected as the Western New York PGA Section Teacher of the Year and once its Professional of the Year. In 2001, Golf Digest chose the top 50 teaching professionals in the United States and Craig was ranked 25th.
"I’m not an awards guy, so for me personally it’s not a validation of anything. What I kind of like about it is it reflects our family success," Harmon said. "I wish my mom and dad were alive to see this. As a family we’re proud of the family name and the success we’ve enjoyed."
And Oak Hill is proud of Craig.
"Thirty years at one club is very unique in this business, and I don’t think anyone could have foreseen going back to that cold wintry day back in 1972 all the great things that have taken place during Craig’s tenure here," says Reeves.
Sal Maiorana is the golf writer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.
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