Q&A with Legendary Florida HS Golf Coach Toby Harbeck

From Gary Nicklaus to a future that potentially includes Charlie Woods, legendary Benjamin School golf coach Toby Harbeck has seen it all. 

The Benjamin School located in North Palm Beach, Florida is one of the elite high school golf programs in the state. 

Harbeck has been there for more 40 years, and counting, while also serving as the middle school Athletic Director. 

GolfNewsRI got the chance to chat with the legendary coach: 

GNRI: How did you get involved with the Benjamin golf team? 
TH: It’s a pretty, pretty funny story and I tell it all the time when people ask me. In 1983 when I came to the Benjamin School, I was the JV football coach and I coached Gary Nicklaus, Jack’s second youngest son, and at the end of the football season, he asked what else do you coach? And I said, well, I’ve coached a little bit of soccer and so he goes, you need to be the golf coach here and I said Gary, I don’t know that much about golf. I play a little bit but, you know, I, I’m not a golf coach. He goes, just be the coach and I’ll teach you everything you need to know. So that’s how it started. 

Gary Nicklaus

GNRI: You still have a relationship with Gary all these years later? 
TH:  Gary just got married last week and it’s hard to believe he’s 52 years old. He and I talk  all season long and, that’s a real relationship that really is close to me, very close to me. I gotta be probably the luckiest golf coach. I coached Jack’s kids, all their boys and I coached Greg Norman’s son and then I had Olin Brown’s son and if things work out, I don’t know if it’s gonna work out or not. We’ll see Tiger Woods’ son trying out this year. So that’s quite a stable.

GNRI: What is that like to coach the kids of these legends, do they come with a lot of pressure just because of who their dads are? 
TH: That is a really good question Joe. I don’t think they come with a lot of pressure. I always tell this story too. I used to use Jack as quite a weapon when I was playing other teams because when Gary was playing, and Jack was in town, he would always go with us and wherever Gary was Jack was there.  So whoever they were playing against nine times out of 10, they just fall apart because look who’s watching them and stuff like that. 

I had one team down in Fort Lauderdale. The coach used to call me the day before we used to play and ask me what number Gary was playing and I would tell him and he goes, ok because I don’t wanna put my kid with him because he just falls apart. 

They’ve all been (the kids), all of them have been so helpful and their dads when they come out to practice or, you know, they’re with the kids or something like that. They, they’ve always been so great. No more so than the Jack and Barbara Nicklaus. They have been so wonderful.

Barbara & Jack Nicklaus honored in 2021 PHOTO: The Benjamin School

This will be my 40th year coaching kids and I ask him every year for, for something, you know, whether it’s to play at their course or, you know, hats or shirts or whatever, and they have never told me. No, Never. That just goes and says a lot to me. Greg Norman too, Greg has been, I know he is in a pretty interesting spot right now. But, he’s never said no, never. So, I’m very, very lucky. I got to be the luckiest golf coach in the country.

When I coach those kids, you know I’ve always said there are two types of kids in high school. There’s some that they want you to talk to them and watch them all the time and there’s some that like to be left alone. If they wanna talk, I’ll talk. If they don’t wanna talk, I just leave them alone and let them do their thing. 

GNRI: You brought it up, and so I want to follow up on Charlie Woods getting a try out. We see him on TV, he’s already a bit of a celebrity. You have coached the kids of a lot of star players, it’s a different era now with social media etc.. 
TH: if you treat them just like everybody else, that’s kind of what they like. I will tell you a quick one and you know, if you wanna take this one or not, if you go back to 1986 Sports Illustrated, I believe it was April on the cover of Sports Illustrated was a picture of Gary Nicklaus when he was a sophomore. 

That really did not help him because as in his own words, he will tell you  I did not deserve that recognition. You know, Tiger Woods was coming up. I hadn’t won anything big and then they plaster him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and everybody knows who he is, but he’s like, I didn’t deserve that. 

The article in turn was supposed to be about the family, not about Gary, and all about Gary and it was, and it really made him a little gun shy So some of them deal with it differently as far as the, the media goes.

Charlie Woods & Joey Iaciofano

I don’t know Charlie well enough, but I know he’s a quiet kid. I’ve watched him play a little bit and I’ve never watched him play all 18 holes. I will tell you this, Tiger has been terrific as far as he gets it, he knows what it’s all about, he knows what Charlie has to do to make the team. He’s got to make it just like everybody else. Every kid that’s ever played for me has had to go through this four day qualifier. 

I think what you see on TV, with Tiger and when he and Tiger play, that may be a little bit amped up, you know, because I’ve watched him on the golf course by himself and he’s very quiet. He’s very much within his own thoughts, which is good. Like I said, high school kids is all about their minds. It’s not so much about their swings. You know, when they make mistakes. It’s not because they made a bad swing. It’s because they made a bad decision.

GNRI: RI’s Joey Iaciofano is also trying out for the team next month along with Charlie. 
TH: Joey, What little I’ve seen of Joey,  he’s one of those kids who you just kind of leave alone and let him go on his own. So that’s what I’m kind of expecting when I see him next month to qualify to make the team.

GNRI: Give people a sense of high school golf in Florida. In Rhode Island it is a very short season, a little more than a month long. What is high school golf in Florida? 
TH: Golf here used to be up until 1999, it was in the spring. It was February, March, April.  The problem with that was that’s peak season down here when everybody’s here. And there were a lot of schools that couldn’t get golf courses to play on during that time. So they moved the season to August, September, October State championship, first week of November. 

The nice thing is the kids are coming off of most of their summer tournaments, so they’re playing usually very well. Just to give you a sense though. My number one, this year will be a, a junior. He’s played for me, started now and played every match state championships since seventh grade. He played number five as at seventh grader at the state championship and he finished 17th as seventh grader. You know, they just get younger and better and better. Their instruction is good. Their equipment is great. I mean, they’ve got everything at, at hand. I tell a lot of people, you know, my label is coach, but I’m not really their coach as far as, you know, their swings go. They all have private coaches. Now if they ask me to watch something and see if something’s going on, I will do that, but I don’t try to change anything that their coaches are teaching them at that time. I’m more of a, I guess you wanna call it a psychiatrist. 

I work on their mental game. The biggest problem with high school golfers is that they mentally make silly mistakes. And the key thing I’ve always tried to teach my kids is, hey, we go to a very high end educational school. You kids are all here because you’re smart. So let’s use our brains a little bit and, you know, that’s how we win a lot of things is that we may not be the best, you know, talent wise, but mentally sometimes we get it done better than anyone else.

GNRI: I saw Tyler play earlier this summer in a Challenge Cup tournament here in Rhode Island. What kind of tournaments do you want to see your kids playing in over the summer. Do you advise them at all on what to play in? 
TH: The one I tell them they all need to shoot for is the one Tyler qualified for the U.S. Junior-Amateur. If you can get into the U.S. Junior, that puts a big star next to your name as far as what colleges are looking at.  I tell them this all the time because I’ve had a lot of kids, you know, play in the U.S. Junior if you can get to match play that like triples your attention as far as colleges looking at you. If you can get to that match play, it’s unbelievable. 

Tyler Bruneau PHOTO: Gregg Burke

U.S. Juniors, if you look at that list look how many of those kids are foreign. It’s unbelievable. I mean, from Korea and Japan, I mean, it’s unbelievable and, you know, golf around the world is, is, is so strong right now. 

GNRI: When you are talking with kids about going to college, playing college golf, how do those conversations go, what are things you are emphasizing or advising them on? 
TH: College is a business, Joe. It’s a business. They’re paying for you to go there and they own you and they tell you what to do. And that’s one of the things I tell my kids, especially the ones that they could go big time, you know, you’re gonna have a set schedule six days a week. If you don’t follow that schedule, they’re gonna say we’ll find somebody else to do it. My kids are real disciplined though. They’re very disciplined as far as academics go. That’s something I’m very proud of.

GNRI: You have had such a long and storied career, you have seen a lot. How have you seen the high school game change over the years, both locally and on a national level?

TH:Those early state championships, golf was really pretty simple. In Florida it’s become very complicated now in the fact that we have these schools that pop up that are like golf academies. There are about three or four of them in Orlando. 
GNRI: Like IMG Academy? 
TH: You got IMG, you got Circle Christian, you got Lake Mary Prep, you’ve got a school called FAU. And what happens is these kids go to these golf academies and they’re all home schooled. What will happen is one kid will go there and he’ll be out in the summer playing a bunch of tournaments and he’ll see another kid that he knows. And he says, hey, why don’t you come to my school? It’s home school. You don’t really have to go to school. Well, they just pop up and then a year later or two years later they’re gone.  That’s been the hardest thing to compete against.  This school down here is about 20 minutes south of Benjamin. They won the state championship last year and not one of the kids attends the school, they’re all home schooled, but three out of the five of them are really, really good, really good. 

I have spent hours and hours and hours in meetings and, and talking to people in the States and hey, you know, schools like this need a different category because this is not really a school, they don’t attend school together. All they do is show up for golf matches. So that’s kind of what I’m facing. That’s what it’s come to at this point.

GNRI: Thank you so much for your time, this has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.

TH: Any of the Rhode Island teams want a Florida team to come up and compete. I would be happy to put my team on a plane with me and we’ll come up.

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