A caddie legend whose player once nearly got into an on-course fistfight on his behalf
During 20 years as a PGA Tour caddie, Mike “Stump” Harmon lived for the leaderboard. He thrived under pressure on a Sunday afternoon, stayed cool in the back-nine heat and pulled the right clubs to steer pros to 10 Tour victories.
“I was out there to be in the game with a player that trusts you and trying to beat everyone out there and to win a golf tournament,” said Harmon. “That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just make checks or make cuts. I wanted to be in the action with that player because I felt like I was a better caddie under pressure than I was walking off the tee on Thursday or Friday. He asked a question, I gave him an answer.”
Harmon won tournaments with Davis Love III, Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins. He was the unofficial mayor of Hartford, claiming the PGA Tour’s annual stop there with three different pros from 1992 to 1998. Whether molding young talents or shepherding crusty veterans, Harmon’s background as a college baseball player provided a competitive foundation which propelled him to the apex of his profession.
The journey began, somewhat, in 1983 when Harmon, a North Augusta, S.C. native, answered a phone call from Tour caddie Michael Carrick. Augusta National Golf Club was allowing Tour players to bring their own caddies to the Masters for the first time and Carrick, working for the pro Victor Regalado before a long, successful career alongside Tom Kite, needed a place to stay during the tournament.
Harmon — nicknamed “Stump” because of his stature, the fact that he’s strong and built like a big-league catcher — helped Carrick find accommodations. The next week he headed to Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, S.C. to take a closer look at Tour caddie life. He met Mike “Fluff” Cowan, Joe “Gypsy” Grillo and a host of others, attracted right away to their sense of humor, storytelling and lifestyle. A year or so later, Harmon left his job with the Small Business Administration and headed to Memphis to start following the Tour.
“I met the guys in the local watering hole and we piled five or six guys in a room,” he said.
Carrick had arranged for Harmon to caddie for Strange, but before the tournament Strange withdrew. Harmon went to the parking lot, scrambling for a bag. He landed a rookie named Mike Putnam — lying and telling him he’d been caddying on Tour for two years — and quickly learned how to decipher a yardage book. Putnam paid Harmon $225 for the week and five percent of earnings. Harmon slept on the floor in a room at the Red Roof Inn, paying $5 per night for the space.
The 1985 Kemper Open was Harmon’s first tournament working for Bill Glasson, who had a piercing stare and forearms like Rambo. During a practice round, Jim Dent was playing in the group behind Glasson and hit his second shot into a par-5 green. The ball struck Harmon in his back and he fell to his knees. Dent had not yelled, “Fore!” Harmon recalled.
The exchange that followed almost produced an epic confrontation between two of the biggest, baddest dudes on Tour.
“The next hole was a par 3,” Harmon recalled. “Glasson hit his tee shot and just stood there. I was wondering what was going on and he said ‘I’m going to talk to this guy about not hollering Fore!’ So Dent walks off the green and comes over and (Glasson) says: ‘You know you hit my caddie in the back with your tee shot? He said, ‘I did not,’ and Bill said ‘yes you did, ask him.’”
Dent asked Harmon, who confirmed he’d been struck.
“You didn’t holler ‘Fore!’ or nothing,” Glasson said to Dent.
“I don’t know what to say,” Dent replied.
“Bill said, ‘I know what to say, you better apologize to him or I’m going to whip your ass, right here,’” Harmon said. “I said, oh gosh, I’m not going to get in the middle of this. He apologized to me.”
A few days later, Glasson rolled in a 50-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win the Kemper Open and earn $90,000. He paid Harmon $7,500 and gave him a two-year-old Mazda 626 car — which he drove around the Tour for years.
“Before I won that car, I was driving through the night, riding in someone else’s car,” Harmon said. “There would be three or four of us riding together, sleeping on floors and all that stuff.”
Harmon was with Strange in 1988 when he beat Greg Norman in a three-hole, sudden-death playoff. After passing a job interview conducted by Davis Love Jr., Harmon won three tournaments working for the powerful DL III. He lost the job when Love’s brother, Mark, came out to form a team that won 10 titles, including the 1997 PGA Championship.
“That would’ve been my annuity right there,” Harmon said.
The remarkable run in Hartford began in 1992 when Wadkins surged from five shots back.
“Lanny was a hard person to work for. Lanny could hit all the shots but he gave you no credit,” Harmon said. “I won with him in Hartford when he’d never seen the golf course. He was just tough. He thought a lot of himself.”
Their partnership was fruitful, but brief.
“A friend who worked for Lanny before me said, ‘by the time it’s all over you’re going to be wishing he shot 80, because he is not a pleasant guy.’ He was right. It didn’t last long,” Harmon said.
Subsequent victories with D.A. Weibring (1996) and Olin Browne (1998) prompted caddies and pros to start calling the tournament the Greater Harmon Open. The two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen once asked Harmon if he needed a bag for the tournament, wanting to tap into the lucky charm of Cromwell, Conn.
A decade of success working for high-profile players created unique opportunities for Harmon and in 2002, he accepted an offer from noted instructor David Leadbetter and IMG to caddie for Ty Tryon, who as a 16-year-old made the cut in the 2001 Honda Classic and later in the year shot 66 in the final round of Q-School to earn a card.
Leadbetter had described his star pupil as the “next Tiger Woods” and Harmon attempted to mentor the fledgling pro, accompanying him to tournaments on the PGA Tour in 2002 and across the globe for another year or two. Shortly thereafter, Tryon disappeared from the golf radar, other than the odd appearance in a U.S. Open or on a mini-tour leaderboard.
In hindsight it was a bad decision, Harmon said. Tryon wasn’t ready for the big stage at such a young age. Between the agents and Tryon’s father, there was constant discord in the camp. And, while Harmon was trotting the globe with Tryon, he fell out of touch on the PGA Tour.
“It was kind of like out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
By 2005, Harmon had also fallen in love, with the lady he’s married to today, Clair. She was home trying to run the household. He was in his mid-50s with 20 years on the road, unable to secure the same quality bag he’d enjoyed throughout his career. Walking the courses each week, waking up on Monday morning and being unsure what town he was in — the wear-and-tear and weekly grind had taken its toll. It was time to retire.
Of course, he has memorabilia and many, many great memories from two decades traveling the world, watching from the front row as the best golfers plied their trade. He scouted courses with Steve Williams and marveled at shots Tiger Woods could hit. While working for Glasson at the 1986 Masters, his mother told him on the second tee she was born somewhere in that area when the land was Fruitland Nursery.
“That was kind of a thrill,” he said. “I could tell you a couple of pages of changing clubs in guys hands and it coming out good, and I also laid Payne Stewart up in the water at Augusta one time by giving him a bad yardage. I just thrived on being in the spotlight and when you’re up there with a person like Davis Love and you lose a job like that it’s hard to get back up there. It seems like you’re climbing that mountain forever. Some caddies never make it that far.”
Great caddies focus on the present, looking back only to recover a nugget of information that might help their pro shoot a lower score. Harmon always pushed forward, chasing the flags caddies collect for each victory, staying on the road until it was time to come home.
“I did take a chance but I also said if it doesn’t work out I can always go back home and find a job doing something,” he said. “I think my competitive nature and being out there inside-the-ropes and taking it all in, I would never have traveled, met so many great people and done so many great things that the Tour provided for me.”