SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – It’s about 70 miles as the thoroughbred races from Shinnecock Hills to Belmont Park, where Justify claimed the Triple Crown last weekend. Thirteen ponies have achieved that honor, which makes winning a Triple Crown a lot easier than repeating as champion at the U.S. Open. There have been just six in the previous 117 Opens, and none in almost 30 years. But this week at Shinnecock Hills, one of the most celebrated names in the game can claim his own Triple Crown of sorts.
Claude Harmon III, the scion of the famed teaching clan, has coached the last two winners at the national Open: Dustin Johnson at Oakmont and Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills. His stable of thoroughbreds competing this week could well deliver Harmon his three-peat.
“I’m 100 percent lucky to work with players who have the ability and potential to win major championships,” Harmon said Wednesday. “I’m in the right place at the right time. I’m lucky to be with the guys I’ve got, certainly with Brooks and DJ. Lucky to be with them at this point in their career because they’re some of the best players in the world.”
Johnson’s win at Oakmont two years ago wasn’t CH3’s first brush with major glory. He was working with Ernie Els when the South African won the British Open at Royal Lytham in 2012.
“With Ernie it was somewhat at the end of his career and it was unbelievably gratifying to see someone who never thought they’d get another chance win one,” Harmon said. “With DJ it was pretty special after what happened at Chambers Bay.”
His relationship with Johnson began in 2012, when the burden of expectation was already huge after a string of major disappointments. Harmon witnessed a few from close range too, including the infamous missed putt that would have forced a playoff in that 2015 Open at Chambers Bay.
“A lot of times with DJ before 2016 it was hard not to say, ‘What does he have to do to win one of these?’” Harmon said philosophically. “He’s had some bad things happen to him. He’s done some bad things to himself. He got in his own way at times.
“It was never a question of could he win one, it was a question of when he was going to win one. So in that respect it was fulfilling to see someone reach his potential. To keep coming back from that was fun to watch and to see him get to where his talent should have gotten him. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. You can be unbelievably talented and things don’t happen that are supposed to happen. It was very gratifying.”
The coach didn’t get to see Johnson’s win in person. He was watching the broadcast while taxiing on the runway, headed for his home in Jupiter, Fla.
“I caught a ride back with Brooks. I needed to get home,” he said. “I was crying. It was fun watching it.”
He didn’t have to wait long for the satisfaction of seeing it in person.
A year after he began working with Johnson, Harmon took on Koepka, who was then a raw 23-year-old Floridian playing on the European Challenge Tour. Four years later he was a major champion, too.
“Brooks is part of the new breed. He comes out with an athlete’s mentality and a lot of self-belief. He always felt like he could win one,” Harmon said. “To win a major before Rickie, before Justin Thomas, before Jon Rahm, before a lot of the young gun superstars. Brooks hasn’t had nearly the fanfare they’ve had. For him to get one after his closest friend out here, his workout partner, his practice round partner. It’s almost like they’re on the same team. It felt like that.”
So what kind of gift does the coach of a U.S. Open receive? “Nothing,” he said with a laugh. “Nothing.”
He finds satisfaction on a more meaningful way.
“The job we do is helping other people realize their goals and dreams. That’s what you do as a coach,” he said. “To me that’s the most satisfying. When you can do that and be part of their team at the pinnacle of our sport, to watch them win a major championship, that’s what careers are defined by.”
The 49-year-old relishes the highs because he knows such things can be fleeting in his business.
“I worked with Ernie when he won a major championship and then I didn’t work with him anymore,” he said. “That’s the nature of our job. My dad always says this, and I agree: golf coaches in the modern era get way too much credit when a player plays well and way too much blame when they play poorly.”
It’s not just Koepka and Johnson who might help Harmon to the Triple Crown at Shinnecock Hills. Recently Harmon has been working more with Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, both of whom have long had a relationship with Butch Harmon.
“I’m definitely taking those!” he said. “Hey, I’m happy to be on the team. At this stage of my dad’s career – he’s 75 in August – the role that I’m playing with Jimmy and Rickie is to help fill in the gap. With Rickie, my dad is the head coach. I’d put myself in the assistant coach category.”
Even as an assistant coach, he’s still doubling his shot at the three-peat, I suggest. “We still get rings!”
Harmon thinks any one of his charges could triumph this weekend.
“DJ obviously from the length standpoint and the form that he’s in. Jimmy’s on the way back from injuries but he knows how to win a major championship. Brooks, it definitely sets up good for him. And I think Rickie has the game, and sooner or later knocking on the door it will happen.”
And if Rickie wins, will he finally get a gift to accompany the Triple Crown.
“I think I’d get a bottle of wine,” he said confidently. “Which would be nice!”