Harding Park completes rebound by joining TPC network

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Tim Clark tees off on the first hole during the 2009 Presidents Cup at Harding Park.
November 03, 2010
Cindy Elliott, Special to PGATOUR.COM

Everybody loves an underdog; especially when, against all odds, fortunes are reversed and the underdog makes a miraculous comeback. Such is the case with San Francisco's historic Harding Park, whose remarkable rebound culminated this week with the course being added to the PGA TOUR's prestigious TPC Network of clubs.

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The story of Harding Park begins in the mid-1920s, when San Francisco leaders developed a plan to build a championship golf course on the shores of Lake Merced. Sam Whiting and Willie Watson, designers of the private Olympic Club across the lake, were brought on board to design and supervise the construction of the course for a fee of just three hundred dollars. The course was to be named Lake Merced Municipal Links. However, in 1923, President Warren G. Harding died while visiting San Francisco. Although his administration had been marred by scandal, President Harding was an avid golfer; and the course was ultimately named in his honor.

Harding Park opened in 1925, and began hosting major amateur tournaments soon after -- most prominently the United States Golf Association's National Public Links Championships in 1937 and 1956, and the San Francisco City Championship, the oldest consecutively played competition in the world. Past champions of "The City" include San Francisco local and 1964 U.S. Open Champion Ken Venturi; 1999 U.S. Women's Open Champion Julie Inkster; and 1969 Masters Champion George Archer.

Among the most memorable matches ever played at Harding Park came during the 1956 City Championship, when Venturi defeated 1955 and 1956 U.S. Amateur Champion E. Harvie Ward before 12,000 fans for his third and final championship. The match-up between the two best amateur golfers in the world, at a time when there was no professional sports franchise in San Francisco, made the front page of every newspaper in the Bay Area.

PGA TOUR honors Sandy Tatum

At the 2010 Charles Schwab Cup Championship Sandy Tatum is honored for his contributions to the game of golf.

Harding Park's tradition for hosting PGA TOUR tournaments began with the Victory Open, which was won in January 1944 by Byron Nelson. Nelson returned to Harding Park in December the same year to win the tournament (renamed the San Francisco Open), in what may be the only time in PGA TOUR history when a player has twice won the same tournament on the same course in the same year. The win was a catalyst for a record-setting run for Nelson in which he won 18 of 35 PGA TOUR tournaments, including 11 in a row.

Professional golf continued with the Lucky International Open in the 1960s, where champions included Venturi and World Golf Hall of Famers Gary Player, Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Jackie Burke, Jr., and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Venturi, whose father, Fred, was the head golf pro at Harding Park for many years, won his 14th and last PGA TOUR championship by capturing the 1966 Lucky International, and still holds the course record of 59.

The PGA TOUR played at Harding Park until the end of the decade, when budgetary cuts caused the course to fall into disrepair. The course continued to deteriorate, reaching its lowest point in 1998, when it was used as a parking lot during the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

Enter San Francisco native Frank "Sandy" Tatum, a respected lawyer, accomplished golfer (having won the 1942 NCAA Championship while at Stanford) and former United States Golf Association president. Rallying together local business and political leaders, the PGA TOUR, USGA, local golfers and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Tatum spearheaded a campaign to restore Harding Park to its former glory -- an effort that resulted in a $16 million restoration in 2002-2003 featuring a complete re-design by former PGA TOUR architect Chris Gray, with consultation from Venturi. The result is a highly acclaimed championship course that maintains the character and integrity of the original layout, but incorporates design elements and infrastructure to accommodate today's players.

"Harding Park is such a treasured landmark with some very special qualities embellished by a rich history," says Tatum. "When I observed it turning into a weed patch, my reaction was that it had to be saved; and that the only possibility of doing so was to involve the PGA TOUR. The TOUR's efforts to restore the course and ensure affordable public access to high-quality golf were extraordinarily effective. I have every confidence the TOUR will continue to develop and perpetuate the values of this priceless asset through their management of the facility."

Professional golf returned to Harding Park for the first time in 36 years with the 2005 World Golf Championships-American Express Championship, the first World Golf Championship to be held at a municipal golf facility. The event boasted 47 of the world's top 50 players, including Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. In the captivating final round, Woods defeated John Daly on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff to win his sixth TOUR victory of the year.

In 2009, the PGA TOUR reaffirmed Harding Park's formidability as a world-class tournament venue by staging the prestigious Presidents Cup on its links. During four days of competition, a team from the U.S. and an international team -- led by captains Fred Couples and Greg Norman, respectively -- competed in the spirit of friendship and sportsmanship. Among the competitors were Woods, Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Steve Stricker, Singh, Ernie Els, Camilo Villegas and Angel Cabrera, and other golf greats.

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Serving as lead analyst for NBC's coverage of The Presidents Cup was someone who knows a thing or two about Harding Park, World Golf Hall of Famer Johnny Miller, who spent the better part of his childhood at the course.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Miller began hitting golf balls in the basement of his home at the age of five, and at age eight was introduced to Harding Park's nine-hole Fleming Course by his father, Larry, an avid golfer. By the time he was 12, Miller would stay at the course from sun-up 'til sundown, putting for nickels on the practice green and playing the big course whenever he and his friends could scrape together the green fees. When they couldn't, the starter would often let them sneak onto the back nine. It's there that Miller developed the precision, finesse and perseverance that would make him one of the best iron players in golf's history.

Mentored by his dad, who took the night shift at work so he could devote afternoons and evenings to helping his son hone his skills, Miller played at Harding Park until the age of 14, when he became the first junior "merit member" at the Olympic Club. He went on to win the 1963 San Francisco City Junior title at age 16 as well as the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur, before beginning his celebrated career on the PGA TOUR -- where he amassed 25 championships, including two majors: The 1973 U.S. Open and the 1976 British Open. He was elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998.

Miller credits his father for dedicating for his life to making him a champion. The same spirit of mentorship continues today at Harding Park, which serves as home to The First Tee of San Francisco -- a chapter of The First Tee (www.thefirsttee.org), a non-profit initiative of the World Golf Foundation dedicated to impacting the lives of young people by providing learning facilities and educational programs that promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf.

So does the PGA TOUR's legacy for giving back to San Francisco Bay Area charities. Under the terms of the new management agreement between the PGA TOUR and the City of San Francisco, PGA TOUR Golf Course Properties will manage Harding Park for no management fee. The TOUR has also pledged to donate any incentive bonuses received for successfully operating the course to The First Tee of San Francisco and other local charities.

The First Tee will also benefit from the proceeds of this week's Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Harding Park -- the Champions Tour's season-ending tournament. Since its arrival in Northern California in 2003, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship has contributed more than $2.4 million to local charities. Other PGA TOUR tournaments in the Bay Area that support local non-profit organizations include the Nationwide Tour's Fresh Express Classic, held April 15-18 at the TOUR's TPC Stonebrae; and the Frys.com Open, held Oct. 14-17 at Corde Valle Golf Club in San Martin.

For more information on the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, please visit www.pgatour.com.