The incredible story of how Bill Harmon’s road to recovery from alcoholism comes full circle at 2024 U.S. Senior Open

As soon as Bill Harmon arrived at Newport Country Club for the 44th U.S. Senior Open, he walked to green below the famed clubhouse, which overlooks Bailey’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, and looked up at the balcony and said to himself, “Wow, what a life. The same guy that showed up with $20 in Orlando, wanted to jump off this building in 1992 will end his caddie relationship right below this balcony 32 years later.”

All those years ago, Harmon, 76, was the head professional of the famed blue-blood club and lived above the 18th green with his wife and newborn son. Yet back then, life didn’t seem so grand to the functioning alcoholic.

“I went out on that balcony and I contemplated doing a swan dive,” Harmon said. “I didn’t have the guts to do it but I felt like I didn’t want to be around anymore.”

Harmon has been clean since not long after that fateful night thanks to three members of the club who staged an intervention, and he returns this week to the grounds that were so pivotal in changing his life to caddie one last time for Jay Haas, his best friend.

This is a story of friendship, recovery and life coming full circle.

Living up to the family name

Harmon is the son of Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion and one of the most distinguished club pros in the game. For 33 years, he taught at Winged Foot Golf Club outside of Manhattan and his coaching tree of pros who learned under his wing include the likes of major winners Jack Burke Jr. and Dave Marr. Billy is seven years younger than his brother, Butch, who went on to be arguably the most famous golf instructor in the game for teaching Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman. His other brothers, Dick, who is deceased, and Craig also were recognized as among the finest club pros in the game.

For many years, Bill felt like a failure who wasn’t living up to the Harmon family name in the golf world.

Newport Country Club’s clubhouse balcony overlooking the 18th green. (Photo courtesy Bill Harmon)

“He was an unbelievable junior who won about everything you could win,” Butch told Global Golf Post in 2019. “Then he went to San Jose State and lost it when he got wrapped up in alcohol and drugs.”

In 1978, Haas, 24, had just won the Andy Williams San Diego Open, his first of nine career PGA Tour titles, and was looking for a caddie. A mutual friend recommended Harmon. They met in Palm Springs, California, and Haas told him to meet him in Orlando in two weeks at Rio Pinar Country Club, the site of the Citrus Open. Harmon got off the plane with $40 to his name. Cab fare was $20. He got to the course on Monday and bumped into Terry Diehl, a pro he knew from Rochester, New York, who said, “What are you doing here, Billy?”

When Harmon told him he was caddying for Haas, Diehl shot back, “Not this week.”

It turned out Haas had forgotten to register for the tournament. Despite that inauspicious start and Haas’s recollection that he didn’t break par more than once in their first several tournaments together, a bond so strong they each named a son after the other began to form.

“He had a one-way ticket to my funny bone,” Haas said. “He was always patting me on the back and always knew the right thing to say.”

But Harmon also had a drinking and drug problem. It never interfered with his ability to do his job but Haas recalled a time in Ft. Worth, Texas, when he was paired with Lee Trevino, who took one sniff of Harmon’s breath and said, “I don’t know what you did last night, but I hope it was worth it.”

Trying to get sober

Harmon, who continues to teach at the Bill Harmon Performance Center at Toscana Golf Club in Indian Wells, California, recalls the first time he ever considered sobriety. He was, as he put it, “high as a kite” snorting cocaine in a hotel in Los Angeles and there was Eric Clapton on Larry King Live on CNN talking about getting clean.

“‘Wow, people are doing that,'” Harmon remembers thinking. “It planted a seed.”

He quit caddying in 1988 initially to help his brother Craig, the head professional at Oak Hill, and when he got married that same year it was time to settle down. When he was hired for the head professional job at Newport CC, he seemed destined to add to the Harmon legacy in the game. Not long after, his first son Zack was born and he was overwhelmed with parental pride.

“I remember looking in the backseat, and feeling such a different type of love. I couldn’t believe how strong it was. And I remember looking out the window and one second later feeling equally self-hatred and self-loathing that this kid’s dad was an alcoholic and drug addict. Those two emotions aren’t a good marriage. I’d love to say I quit that day but I didn’t. I do think that’s where my bottom started. I realized at that very moment I was never going to be able to stay on that emotional balance beam, but I didn’t know which way I was going to fall.”

His intervention would occur 10 weeks later. As the host of the 1995 U.S. Amateur, Harmon and several club officials took a scouting trip to Muirfield Village Golf Club in Ohio during the U.S. Amateur. During that trip, he offended a club official publicly. Harmon doesn’t divulge exactly what he said that day other than to make the point that it was a fireable offense.

“My dad always told me I had a 30 mile per hour brain and a 90 mile per hour mouth,” Harmon said. “I proved him right that time.”

Two of the club’s board members were recovering alcoholics and decided it was better to help Harmon than punish him. They confronted him on Aug. 26, 1992, in the living room of his apartment, which is now the club’s ladies locker room, and one of the members offered to take him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“My life’s greatest gift,” Harmon said of the intervention.

As part of the 12 steps in the program, Harmon wrote a letter to Haas making amends that Haas still has saved in his desk at home.

“A lot of times I’ll say, ‘Boy, Billy, if you met you, you’d kick your ass,’ ” Haas said of how Harmon has mellowed while living a sober life.

“I remember one time he told me, ‘In my life I’ve never seen anyone change as much as you.’ My inner reply to myself is, ‘Well, you’re the one who helped me do it.’ He’s one of the people who cared for me more than I cared for myself,” Harmon said.

Bill Harmon, caddie to Bill Haas, at the 2011 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in Australia. (Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

And so the best of friends are going for one more stroll down the fairways at the most fitting course of all. The U.S. Senior Open was scheduled for Newport Country Club in 2020 but was canceled due to COVID-19. Haas wasn’t sure he’d still be exempt in 2024 but he’s in the field and they’re going to end their player-caddie relationship right below that balcony this week in what could also be Haas’s swan song too.

“I may have already passed the finish line and I don’t know it,” he cracked.

Harmon, a cancer survivor who with his wife, Robin, started the Harmon Recovery Foundation that works with people fighting their own demons, has one final chapter in life’s journey he’d like to explore before he reaches his own finish line: giving back through a series of two-day clinics he’s been doing around the country. He calls the program “Footprints,” after the words of wisdom bestowed by Burke Jr. to his daughter.

“We only have two feet but it doesn’t mean you can’t leave more than two footprints.”

No matter how one adds it up, Harmon has made good use of his second chance at life and for that he’s grateful.

“I went many years where I didn’t add to the Harmon whatever it is, I subtracted,” he said. “It’s not for me to say that I added to it but I can honestly say I haven’t subtracted from it and that’s enough for me.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek