Fame follows Butch Harmon most places these days. Sometimes even he's surprised how far. Recently, Harmon, the golf swing guru who tutored Tiger Woods, was in the lingerie aisle at the Nordstrom's (JWN) near his Las Vegas home when two female fans came by to pay homage. "I had to explain I was waiting for my wife," he says.
David Leadbetter, Harmon's main rival in the golf instruction wars, gets similar star treatment when he shows up at tourneys. "He'll get asked to sign autographs just as much as the players," notes Charles Howell III, a PGA Tour star and longtime pupil of Leadbetter.
Golf coaches as sports icons? Would you believe even sought-after pitchmen? That would have been a hoot a generation ago, when Deke Palmer was tutoring his son Arnold, and the pro at the country club where Jack Nicklaus learned to play was his teacher. Now an elite group of golf-swing gurus have spun fame into budding brands and seven-figure incomes. Some of the other top gurus include Hank Haney, Jim McLean, and Rick Smith, but Harmon and Leadbetter stand out for their endorsement deals beyond traditional golf companies.
A visit to Mr. Harmon's neighborhood doesn't come cheap. The coach, who floundered as a PGA Tour player from 1969-71, worked at a series of clubs, and came to prominence after coaching Greg Norman in the early '90s, has given lessons to Bruce Willis and Roger Clemens, and helped Morocco's late King Hassan II knock his handicap down to a six. Alas, he isn't taking new students right now. If price isn't an object, though, you might book him for an outing. Harmon, 60, does four to five full-day teaching, playing, and speaking engagements a year. The price: from $40,000 to $60,000.
That's not too high for acolytes wowed by Harmon's credentials. These days the blunt, opinionated swing coach gives tips to world-class players Darren Clarke, Adam Scott, Fred Couples, and Mark Calcavecchia. Until their acrimonious split in 2002, Harmon and Woods were a devastating team, at one point racking up wins in four consecutive major championships. The partnership fizzled amid whispers that Woods's handlers regarded Harmon as a publicity seeker. "In Tiger's camp, they don't like you talking to anybody. That's not the way I am," says the coach.
Since the divorce, Woods has slowed down, but Harmon, the son of Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion, hasn't. Butch has a Web site (butchharmon.com) and a golf school in Nevada where he teaches 36 two- and three-day sessions a year. His instructional book, DVDs, and teaching aids round out the product line.
But these golf gurus aren't selling just swing secrets. Harmon has endorsement deals with companies including Winn Inc., a manufacturer of grips for golf clubs; Flemings, for which he promotes a line of alligator belts that start at $665; even Balance Bracelet, a metal cuff that supposedly comforts arthritis sufferers like Harmon.
Even so, the clubhouse leader among brand-building coaches is Leadbetter, a lean, 6-foot-4-inch Englishman whose family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when he was 7. Leadbetter tried but failed to measure up as a player on the European and South African Tours. In 1979 he moved to the U.S. and soon was giving golf lessons at a resort course near Orlando.
The last thing Leadbetter was striving for at the time was a killer brand. "His life was devoted to teaching golf. He had no other interests," recalls Tom Stine, a longtime friend and board member of David Leadbetter Enterprises. But it wasn't long before Leadbetter began showing up on tour, videotaping players as they hit on the practice tee, and offering pointers. Soon international stars like Nick Faldo and Nick Price were soliciting advice. When, under Leadbetter's tutelage, Faldo won the British Open in 1987, his golf teacher stepped out of the shadows.
Now, Leadbetter's cadre of students reads like an intriguing leaderboard at the Aug. 12-15 PGA Championship: Aaron Baddeley, Ernie Els, Ian Poulter, and Justin Rose, in addition to Howell. Michelle Wie, the 14-year-old sensation, also is in the Leadbetter camp -- and wore a Leadbetter cap during the recent U.S. Women's Open.
SELLING A LIFESTYLE
Unlike Harmon, Leadbetter accepts new students. He charges $5,000 for a day that includes a four-hour session with him. "I don't want to be thought of as untouchable," he says. But lessons aren't the only clubs in Leadbetter's bag anymore. Sitting in a small corner office at the Orlando school, where the windows open onto an expanse of practice tees and fairways, he chirps about the new golf course he's designing in China. And he plugs the chain of 26 Leadbetter Academies, golf schools staffed by 57 "certified" Leadbetter instructors teaching golf his way. Many of the schools are in dreamy resort settings like Whistler in Western Canada, where Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. (FHR) opened a Leadbetter Academy, a lure for free-spending golf vacationers, in June, 2003.
As much as a smooth golf swing, Leadbetter's brand sells a lavish lifestyle. Among his corporate sponsors are Cadillac -- he drives a jet black Escalade -- and Rolex, which supplied an oversized timepiece that hangs above the Orlando academy's main entrance. Leadbetter also has appeared in Rolex advertising, as have golfing gods like Palmer and Nicklaus. "We look at David as a pioneer," says a Rolex spokesman.
Jos. A. Bank looked at Leadbetter as a fashion icon. In 1997 the Hampstead (Md.) clothier signed Leadbetter and came out with golfing fashions that now include shirts, trousers, even Leadbetter fleece pullovers. The deal got Bank into the golfwear business at a price well below the $20 million a year that Nike pays Woods.
While many Leadbetter items listed on Bank's Web store are marked down, most goods with his name attached seem to be flying off the shelves. "People say to me, 'Can I shake your hand so some of that [magic] rubs off?' I suppose they're buying hope," he says. And ideally, a watch, a belt, and a golf vacation as well.
By Mark Hyman in Orlando