Cook channels TPC Harding Park spirit in fine first round

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As he played TPC Harding Park Thursday, leader John Cook remembered Ken Venturi's words from years ago.
November 04, 2010
Art Spander, Special to PGATOUR.COM

SAN FRANCISCO -- If there is a mystical quality to TPC Harding Park, that historic muni so much a part of San Francisco golfing history, John Cook understands. The man who mentored him in the game grew up playing here.


Cook is the first-round leader of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the end-of-the-season event for the Champions Tour. He won't have a chance for the $1 million annuity awarded the final leader of the year's points total -- that would be Bernhard Langer or Fred Couples. But Cook very well could take the $440,000 check for winning the tournament.

And it would be because of the advice he took over the years from Ken Venturi, who as fate and fable would have it, played Harding from the time he was in elementary school and whose father, Fred, became the pro at Harding.

Cook, the defending champion -- the last seven years the tournament was held in Sonoma, some 60 miles north in the wine country -- shot a 7-under par 64 on an afternoon when the sun was warm and the wind from the Pacific half a mile west was light.

A shot behind at 65 were Tom Pernice Jr., who continues to play both the Champions and PGA TOUR, and Fred Funk, his new right knee finally in tune with his body. At 66 was Tom Lehman.

Langer, who had a hole-in-one, a 5-iron on the 183-yard third hole, was among six players at 67. Couples, who would need to win and have Langer finish lower than a two-way tie for fourth to overtake him in the points race, shot 69.

Harding opened in 1925 but through the years fell victim to neglect. "You could lose your balls in the daisies on the fairways,'' said Michael Allen, who played it as a teenager -- he grew up in San Mateo a few miles south -- and shot 69 Thursday in the Charles Schwab Cup.

It underwent restoration in 2002, spurred by onetime USGA president Frank "Sandy'' Tatum with partial financing by the PGA TOUR, which agreed to hold five tournaments at Harding over a 15- year span, including the 2005 American Express and 2009 Presidents Cup

On Wednesday, with Cook and Tatum both taking part in the announcement, Harding joined TPC Network and thus now will be known as TPC Harding Park.

"It's just wonderful,'' Cook said about Harding, which until this week he had played only once, more than 30 years ago in its former state. "Old-time golf, which is great. Such a great variety of short and long holes . . . You have to shape the ball. That's actually what we play a lot on the Champions Tour, a course with character.''

Cook, 53, has showed a lot of character and a lot of excellent golf the past few months. Beginning with the Principal Charity Classic in June, he has nine top 10 finishes the last 14 tournaments he's entered. He was second in the AT&T Championship last weekend, tied for fifth in the Administaff Small Business Classic the weekend previously.

Cook discusses Venturi

At the 2010 Charles Schwab Cup Championship, Round 1 leader John Cook discusses his relationship with Ken Venturi.

When he was 14, Cook was introduced to Venturi, who besides winning a U.S. Open and in 1966 the Lucky International at Harding, was a big auto race ran and thus knew John Cook's dad, Jim, who was involved in racing.

The Cook family, based in Ohio, bought a home at Mission Hills in the California desert where Venturi had become director of golf, and Jim Cook wondered if he would take a look at John.

"We just hit it off,'' said John Cook. "He could see in me, I think, how hard I wanted to learn. He was Ken Venturi, an Open champion . . . We played a lot of golf together . . . I certainly owe him everything that I have in the game of golf. He taught me how to work, how to practice, how to play.''

Venturi told Cook to pay attention to the subtleties of a course, something which comes in effect at TPC Harding Park.

"He would go back to California Club (just south of Harding) and Harding Park and San Francisco Club and tell me what these designers were trying to do . . . When I played today, I kind of remembered way back from what Kenny said about a lot of greens raised just enough that you had to pay attention.

"I just loved to hear him talk. He could tell me the same story a hundred times. I loved being around him.''

Cook has moved to Florida. Venturi, 79, is back in the desert, but in a way his spirit still is at Harding, where, as the locals enjoy reminding, in the 1956 San Francisco Amateur final, before 10,000 fans, Ken defeated E. Harvie Ward.

It was Ken Venturi's Harding half a century ago. On Thursday, thanks to Venturi, it was John Cook's Harding.