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A Hall of Famer takes it all in

Most mornings, Craig Harmon is like most commuters on their way to work. The venerable Oak Hill Country Club teaching pro is preoccupied with thoughts of impending tasks, from fixing the hitch in a golfer’s swing to ordering 50 new windbreakers to replenish the ones that have flown off the shelves of the pro shop.
But every so often, during his daily drive down picturesque Chapin Way, Harmon puts aside his mental "to-do" list. He pauses to live in the moment; to admire the majesty of Oak Hill’s East Course; to stop and smell the roses and the cut grass on one of golf’s most hallowed grounds. And each time he does, he can’t help but feel as invigorated as he did when he traveled this road the first time 41 years ago.
"It reminds me of what a cool job I have," Harmon says. "I never forget how fortunate I am. A lot of people would kill to be able to go to a workplace this gorgeous every day."
You might think Harmon reached the Everest of his profession nine years ago when he was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame. But you’d be wrong if you assumed that, because Harmon reached the summit toward the beginning rather than the end of his climb. Nothing tops that moment back in March 1972 when he received the call offering him the Oak Hill job.
"That," says Harmon, from his cluttered office, "was the best honor I ever received."
There was concern at the time that the young whippersnapper might just be using Oak Hill as a stepping stone and eventually move on to Winged Foot Golf Club on Long Island where his legendary golfing dad, Claude Harmon, was the longtime pro. But the younger Harmon assured his new bosses he had no intention of making this a short stay. He vowed to make Oak Hill his Winged Foot, and he has been true to his word. Harmon’s growth as one of golf’s most admired teaching pros has mirrored Oak Hill’s growth as one of golf’s most revered venues.
This year’s PGA Championship will be Harmon’s eighth major with the club, and perhaps his last. He went through hell the past three years as he watched cancer claim his wife. And, although he has begun to move forward from that devastation, the 67-year-old says his Oak Hill days are winding down.
"I don’t have a definitive retirement date, but I’ve thought about it," he says. "I’m definitely playing out the last few holes of my career."
At previous major tournaments at Oak Hill, Harmon often has been too busy in the massive merchandising tent to catch much of the action. But with a lighter schedule this time, he’ll be able to watch a lot more golf, and he’s thrilled about that.
Although deemed short in this era of long-hitting golfers and explosive equipment, Oak Hill has stood the test of time, thanks in large part to its skinny, tree-lined fairways and gnarly rough. Harmon believes the course will fare well again.
"It has stood up well to par in the past, and I think par should be the standard of excellence," he says. "Jack Nicklaus shot a 6-under (at the 1980 PGA), and that’s the best by far that anyone’s done at one of our majors. In most of the big tournaments we’ve had, the winner has been near par."
Oak Hill has tamed some of the world’s finest golfers. Tiger Woods shot 12-over par at the 2003 PGA here, and although he was upset with his performance, he paid the East Course its due, calling it the "toughest, fairest course I’ve ever played. I fought hard just to shoot bad."
What Harmon loves most about the course is it hasn’t been tricked up to make it more difficult.
"This is natural; there is nothing contrived," he says. "Oak Hill has angles, it has mature trees, it has rough. The difference with Oak Hill and some other prominent courses is that when you are in the rough here, there’s usually a tree in the way. Everybody thinks it is going to play easy until they get out there and start missing the fairways. They don’t realize the fairways are only 18 to 20 yards wide. Some holes may look wider, but they are not."
That is why when asked to handicap this year’s PGA Championship, Harmon advises a perusal of the driving accuracy charts.
"If you keep winding up in the rough, you are going to pay," he says. "Unless you can putt super-humanly well for four rounds the way Nicklaus did here in 1980, when his drives were all over the place, you’d better keep it on the fairway."
Tiger’s erratic tee shots killed any chance for contention at Oak Hill 10 years ago. But Harmon believes Woods will play much better this time.
"Tiger was in the midst of a slump back then; I think his game is much more stable now," he says. "I definitely would like to see him in contention this time around. We’ve had legends like Jack and Lee Trevino and Ben Hogan win here, and we’ve had great golfers, such as Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer, come close. That all adds to our legacy."
Whether it’s Tiger or last year’s PGA champ Rory McElroy or hard-luck fan favorite Phil Mickelson or an unknown champion emerging like Shaun Micheel did in 2003, Oak Hill’s sterling reputation is sure to be further burnished. And no one will be happier about that than Craig Harmon, who is making sure to take time to enjoy every remaining stroke of this splendid ride. 
Nationally honored sports columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has covered five of the major tournaments hosted by Oak Hill Country Club.

8/2/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].


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