TPC Harding Park has deep roots with San Francisco City Championship
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
The locals may object to those who say TPC Harding Park is hosting its first major this week.
San Francisco’s municipal gem is home to an important championship on an annual basis, and while the San Francisco City Championship isn’t considered one of golf’s Grand Slam events, it is one of the game’s most unique.
The tournament affectionally referred to by locals as simply “The City” has been held every year since 1916. Its endurance through the World Wars allows it to claim the title of golf’s oldest consecutively-played championship. Its former competitors range from World Golf Hall of Famers to taxi drivers, NFL quarterbacks to airport baggage handlers. The doctors and lawyers who are members at the Bay Area’s prestigious clubs play alongside bartenders. It’s not unusual to see a player turn to alcohol to steady his nerves or to witness a former U.S. Golf Association president carry his own clubs through a downpour.
San Francisco is a city that prides itself on its diversity. Its amateur golf championship is no different.
The tournament, conducted on San Francisco’s public tracks in the wet and cold of Northern California’s winter, attracts only the most passionate participants.
“In a lot of ways, it’s golf in its purest form,” said Bo Links, a San Francisco golf historian. “(The City) determines who has heart and grit and determination.”
San Francisco’s golf heritage is underappreciated, often overshadowed by its neighbors to the south, who are the beneficiaries of interminable sunshine. But the City by the Bay can boast of major champions and world-famous courses, as well.
Harding Park, Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club are all within five miles of each other. Olympic has hosted five U.S. Opens. SFGC is an A.W. Tillinghast design that annually ranks among the world’s best courses. And Harding Park was one of the country’s first great municipal layouts.
Major champions Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, George Archer and Bob Rosburg got their start by the Bay.
The City has been dominated in recent years not by the working-class folk heroes of the past, but high school and college students. TPC Harding Park’s renovation in 2002 once again made it a TOUR-caliber course after years of neglect. Those two factors have reduced some of The City’s scruffy charm, but it still stays true to its colorful past.
The San Francisco City Championship’s greatest moment came in 1956, when the world’s top two amateurs met in the final. Harvie Ward was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. Less than a month later, Ken Venturi would finish runner-up at the Masters. A final-round 80 left him a shot behind Jack Burke Jr.
Newspaper articles estimated that more than 10,000 were in attendance to witness Venturi win, 5 and 4. Venturi’s victory was heralded in bold type atop the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page. Ward would go on to defend his title at that year’s U.S. Amateur, but he wasn’t the champion of San Francisco.
Archer, the 1969 Masters champion, also is a past City champion. Miller and Tom Watson, a Stanford alum, competed in the tournament, but never won it. Juli Inkster, a seven-time LPGA major champion, won the women’s division twice.
The City’s charm is not in the Hall of Famers who once competed, but the wide swath of the population who play alongside them.
Frank Mazion, a 6-foot-3 baggage handler at San Francisco International Airport embodied the blue-collar contingent that makes up a large part of The City. He won the City in 1979 and 1983. In addition to scratch flights for men, women and seniors, there are multiple net flights for higher-handicap players. Hundreds participate each year.
Mazion befriended John Brodie, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who later played PGA TOUR Champions, after beating him in The City in 1974.
“Mazion looks like he could have run interference for Brodie, or better yet, caught a lot of passes during a long National Football League career,” the Milwaukee Journal wrote in 1977, when Mazion was playing the U.S. Amateur Public Links there. “His golf clubs look like toys in his hands.”
The friendship between Mazion and Brodie, forged at The City, is testament to the tournament’s diversity. Riveters, roofers and cops are among the tournament’s past champions. Stephen Molinelli’s opponent in the 1993 semifinals was a man nicknamed “Scarecrow.”
“He played in overalls, a flannel long-sleeve shirt and a straw hat. And he beat me,” said Molinelli, a former Olympic Club champion. “That’s the greatness of The City Championship.”
Nick Ushijima, the 2000 champion, was driving to the tournament when he saw a man riding a Harley-Davidson, his golf clubs strapped to his back, headed in the same direction, presumably en route to the same destination. Ushijima also recalls seeing Sandy Tatum, the former USGA president who spearheaded Harding Park’s revitalization, carrying his bag through the rain. Jim Williams, a former member of the USGA Executive Committee, won the senior title in 2012 and 2014.
“Sandy Tatum is a member at Cypress Point, a Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer, a partner at one of the top firms in San Francisco. It’s raining cats and dogs and he’s qualifying for the championship flight. That’s how much the tournament means to people,” Links said.
Players used to sign up at the Roos Atkins on Market Street when the department store was the tournament’s sponsor. John Abendroth, who competed in a handful of PGA TOUR events in the 1970s, remembers sleeping overnight outside the store to ensure his spot in the field.
Two rounds of stroke play winnow the championship flight to 64 players who compete in match play. Play is only conducted on Saturday and Sunday, so the tournament takes place over four weekends. Players must keep their game in shape for a month, with a five-day hiatus between matches. The semifinals and finals, which are both played on the final weekend, used to be 36-holes apiece.
There isn’t time for weather delays because of the large field and firm schedule. Northern California’s storms rarely carry lightning, so players trek through even the heaviest rain to complete their rounds.
The pre-renovation Harding Park often couldn’t handle the precipitation so finding relief from casual water wasn’t always an option. Chipping over puddles on the putting surface wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“You’re not playing in (those conditions) in a PGA TOUR or USGA event,” said Randy Haag, the 1999 champion. “Forget about an umbrella. It’s not going to do any good.”
He remembers especially severe weather while competing in a playoff for medalist honors. Harding Park’s first hole is approximately 360 yards, but with a 30-mph wind blowing rain sideways into his face, he hit driver and 3-wood short of the green, then got up-and-down for par and the win.
Temporary greens were often used when greens were flooded. The temporary surfaces were simply holes cut into the fairway, though. There were no guarantees on those makeshift surfaces.
“Every putt was an adventure,” Links said. One past participant remembers eight temporary greens being used in one round.
Lincoln Park, the other course used for the tournament’s stroke-play portion, is a quirky layout that adds character to the tournament. It also offers one of the best panoramas in golf.
Whereas Harding Park is slated to host a major, Lincoln Park is a short layout known for its sharp doglegs and small greens. For all its modesty, it also has one of the best views in golf. The 17th tee overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. Lincoln Park is just 5,146 yards and plays to a par of 68, but it isn’t uncommon to see players shoot a higher score there than at Harding Park. The tight fairways, tough lies, long par-3s and the course’s condition all make it more difficult than the scorecard would imply.
“You have to waltz around Lincoln,” Haag said. “You can’t get too freaked out when you do bogey one of those easy holes, because it’s definitely going to happen.”
Players had to overcome similar conditions before the renovation that turned TPC Harding Park into a major championship venue. The course was used a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open.
Dandelions and weeds overran parts of the fairways. Ushijima once accidentally kicked his ball while searching for it in the fairway because his ball was camouflaged by the small, white flowers.
Overcoming these myriad challenges was a source of pride for The City’s players, though.
“If you won The City, you earned it,” said six-time champion Gary Vanier.
And added your to a winner’s list that included everyone from baggage handlers to major champions.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.