OCALA, Fla. – Suzann Pettersen is officially under Butch Harmon’s wing.
When Pettersen left her long-time coach, David Leadbetter, late last year, she said she wasn’t sure what direction to go, but she knew she needed something Harmon could give her.
“I had some good years with David, but I felt like I needed a little kick in the butt and some fresh energy,” Pettersen said.
Pettersen tees it up Wednesday at the LPGA’s season-opening Coates Golf Championship looking to regain the form that moved her to the doorstep of the world No. 1 ranking early last year. She’s looking for some of Harmon’s magic to help fuel a return to leaderboards, trophy presentations and a berth in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next year.
The Olympics have been an important goal for Pettersen ever since golf won a return to the games. With Pettersen turning 34 this spring, the opportunities for Olympic gold will be limited in an event that is only staged every four years.
“I felt like if I was going to do something like this, it was now or never,” Pettersen said.
Harmon taking on Pettersen says a lot about his belief in the player’s ability. He keeps his stable of world-class players small, with Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Brandt Snedeker and Rickie Fowler the only PGA Tour pros he currently teaches. Natalie Gulbis is the only other woman among his clients.
“I think Suzann Pettersen should be the No. 1 player in the world,” Harmon told GolfChannel.com. “She has all the characteristics you need. She’s talented, she works hard, and she’s a fierce competitor.”
Pettersen has 20 professional victories around the world, 14 of them LPGA titles, two of them majors, but she has never held the No. 1 ranking. She has been so close, though. She has been No. 2 behind four different players. She has been in the rear-view mirrors of Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, Yani Tseng and Inbee Park.
With five victories worldwide in 2013, including a major, Pettersen moved within hundredths of a decimal point of overtaking Park late in the year with momentum rolling, but she hurt her back early in ’14. She withdrew from the Kraft Nabisco last spring with the injury and never got the momentum back.
“Last year was awful, getting as close as I was to nailing one of my biggest dreams,” Pettersen said. “Health issues got in my way, and I kind of played through it. It was frustrating, but I kept myself in the game.”
Pettersen was frustrated she couldn’t close a pair of chances in majors last year. She was in the final Sunday pairing chasing Park at the Ricoh Women’s British Open but watched Mo Martin win. She was in the final pairing just a shot behind Brittany Lincicome at the LPGA Championship a month later and struggled to a 76, with Park taking the title.
“She got a little bit lost last year, and she wasn’t as consistent as she needed to be,” Harmon said.
Pettersen said she huddled with Greg Norman and Darren Clarke at the World Celebrity Pro-Am in China in October of last year to get their take on Harmon.
“I’ve always been very curious about Butch,” Pettersen said.
A few weeks later, Pettersen was on her way to Las Vegas to work with Harmon. Pettersen said she immediately liked the way her game responded.
“Butch doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” Pettersen said.
They made a quick connection.
“I have a sailor’s mouth, and Butch has a sailor’s mouth, too,” Pettersen cracked.
In simplified terms, Pettersen said Harmon has been widening her swing while also making it more shallow. She also said he has helped her dial in her short irons and sharpen her short game.
“I felt very energized when I went to him the first time, and I picked up his changes very quickly,” Pettersen said. “Even from the first lesson, I was hitting it great.
“I’m very glad he wanted to take me on. He’s pretty tough who he takes on, and who he doesn’t. Obviously, he requires you to do quite a lot of work, but that’s never against my nature. It’s been a very good fit for me, and I’m very happy.”
While Harmon isn’t overhauling Pettersen’s swing, the changes aren’t inconsequential. There are new habits being formed.
“Old habits can creep in, but she’s incorporated the changes very well,” Harmon said. “The big thing will be having confidence in them under the heat of battle. You have to trust the work you’ve done.”
Harmon sparked quick improvements in Jimmy Walker’s game, when he took him on a couple years ago, and in Rickie Fowler’s last year. Pettersen is hoping for the same, though she says she has cautioned herself to be patient.
“Every now and again, the old habits are going to sneak in, but I know the corrections,” Pettersen said. “I know the way to get out of it. I wouldn’t expect this to be something where I have to wait until May before it kicks in and I start playing well. I’m very excited to get started. I feel like I’m prepared and ready to play.”