Nine things to know about Harding Park
August 02, 2020
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- TPC Harding Park hosts the PGA Championship for the first time. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines have proven that municipal course can host memorable majors. This week, TPC Harding Park will try to continue the trend.
San Francisco’s public gem – which has already hosted two World Golf Championships and Presidents Cup – is hosting one of golf’s Grand Slam events for the first time. The 2020 PGA Championship also will be the first major in more than a year.
Harding Park, which was built nearly a century ago, has a colorful history that is representative of the city it calls home. Like Bethpage Black, it also emerged from a period of neglect to reach greater heights. Its comeback culminates this week.
1. HARDING’S SAVIOR
A certain Stanford alum will garner plenty of attention this week. Tiger Woods is seeking his record-setting 83rd PGA TOUR victory and 16th major championship.
There’s a strong chance you’ll hear the name of another former Cardinal who won an NCAA individual golf title, as well. That’s Sandy Tatum, the man who was the driving force behind Harding Park’s rejuvenation.
Tatum, who passed away in 2017, was a Rhodes Scholar and president of the United States Golf Association. He played in his first San Francisco City Championship (more on that unique event later) in 1939 while a student at Stanford.
Harding Park fell on tough times in the latter half of the 20th century. An inadequate irrigation system led to large fissures in the fairways, which were also dotted with daisies. Bunker walls collapsed and the putting greens were dotted with bare spots. The clubhouse was falling into disrepair.
“It was a public disgrace,” said San Francisco golf historian Bo Links.
In 1998, the historic course was used as a parking lot for the U.S. Open at the neighboring Olympic Club. Links called it “the ultimate indignity.”
Tatum was known for his diplomacy and for staying calm when faced with criticism. He was the man who famously answered pros’ complaints about the course setup for the 1974 U.S. Open, the infamous “Massacre at Winged Foot,” by saying, “We’re not trying to embarrass the game’s great players. We’re trying to identify them.”
Tom Watson, a fellow Stanford alum and longtime friend, described Tatum as a “straight shooter.”
“Sandy had an absolute passion for golf. He was a man of integrity, respect and humor,” Watson said.
Those traits served him well while trying to navigate the bureaucracy of local government. He faced many hurdles, but he was able to galvanize the golf community behind his vision. By 2001, he formed an alliance with the PGA TOUR that helped return Harding Park to its former glory. The course was renovated and the San Francisco chapter of the First Tee was started at Harding Park.
Links describes Tatum as “the most complete human being I’ve ever met.”
“He could have gone down and played Cypress Point every day of his life, but he played Harding Park. He’d be out at Harding Park in the rain and the mud, playing in the City Championship and wondering why everyone was complaining about the rain and the mud,” Links said. “He was the purest golfer you’d ever meet. He was in love with the game. He knew its value.”
2. AHEAD OF ITS TIME
Harding Park was one of the country’s first great municipal courses, predating places like Bethpage Black, Torrey Pines and Los Angeles’ Rancho Park. Harding Park, which opened in 1925, was designed by the same two men who created Olympic Club’s two courses: Willie Watson and Sam Whiting.
San Francisco caught the golf bug in the early 20th century, and Harding Park was built after the city’s first public course, Lincoln Park, was overrun with golfers. Lincoln Park is now a short par-68 but it is famous for its scenic vistas overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Harding Park was built on a desirable piece of property, as well. The land, which was owned by the Spring Valley Water Company, was located next to Lake Merced. The fertile, loamy soil and rolling terrain made it prime golfing ground. The site also is just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The ocean isn’t visible from the course, but its effect is felt by the strong winds and dense fog.
The land surrounding Lake Merced is densely populated by great golf courses. Harding Park, Olympic Club and the A.W. Tillinghast-designed San Francisco Golf Club surround the lake, while the Lake Merced Golf Club, which was re-designed by Alister Mackenzie, is nearby.
3. THE CITY
Locals will say this isn’t the first major championship hosted by Harding Park. In fact, they’ll contend that it conducts one annually. That’s because the San Francisco City Championship is held high regard among San Francisco’s passionate golf community. The City, as it’s affectionately known, is a match-play event held over a series of winter weekends. The tournament, which has a variety of flights for players of every age, gender and ability, draws a diverse field of competitors that is true to San Francisco’s ethos.
The tournament started in 1916 at Lincoln Park before shifting to Harding Park. Now, both courses host the stroke-play portion and, as a testament to Lincoln Park’s tricky layout, it isn’t uncommon to see players shoot higher scores on the shorter course.
Because it was not halted for the world wars, the tournament boasts of being the oldest uninterrupted championship in the world.
Past champions of The City include World Golf Hall of Fame members Ken Venturi and Juli Inkster, Masters champion George Archer and PGA TOUR players Martin Trainer and Brandon Hagy. Major winners Johnny Miller and Bob Rosburg are past participants in The City, as well.
Among The City’s lesser-known legends was Frank Mazion, a Black baggage handler at San Francisco airport, who would compete after working the graveyard shift. A long hitter with a deft touch, he won The City in 1979 and 1983.
The tournament is known for its harsh conditions, made even more trying during the course’s lean years, and cast of characters. After the third round of the 2002 Open Championship – when Woods’ Grand Slam bid ended with an 81 shot in the midst of a severe storm -- Scott McCarron surprised writers when he compared the conditions to what he’d faced in the San Francisco City Championship.
The most famous moment in The City’s history was the 1956 final between Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. The match was front-page news in a day when San Francisco didn’t have an MLB or NBA team. It was an age when amateur golf was held in high esteem, as well.
In 1955, Ward won the U.S. Amateur claimed the City Championship while Venturi was stationed in Austria with the Army. “I’ve come to get my title back,” Venturi, who won the City in 1950 and 1953, reportedly said on the first tee of the 1956 Final. An estimated 10,000 fans attended the match, which Venturi won, 5 and 4. Venturi would go on to finish second in the Masters a month later, while Ward would successfully defend his U.S. Amateur title.
The showdown also came two months after the famed Cypress Point match where Venturi and Ward took on Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. Hogan and Nelson won, 1 up, but history seems to have forgotten that the amateurs won a rematch just a few days later at Harding Park (more on that below).
Venturi’s 1956 triumph was his third and final win in The City. He also won the last of his 14 PGA TOUR titles at Harding Park, claiming the 1966 Lucky International Open. It was a fitting conclusion to his career, as his father, Fred, ran Harding Park’s pro shop for many years. Ken Venturi holds the course record (59) and is said to have eagled 17 of the course’s 18 holes.
4. WHERE THE PROS PLAY
Professional golf arrived at Harding Park in 1944 for the Victory Open. It was a wartime moniker for the San Francisco Open, which rotated between the city’s courses. Byron Nelson won, then claimed the same event at Harding Park in December, giving him two wins in the same event at the same venue in the same year.
The San Francisco Open died a quiet death after that. It was played in 1946 at the Olympic Club, followed by an eight-year hiatus. A final competition was held at Lake Merced Golf Club in 1954.
The pros returned to Harding in 1959, when Mason Rudolph won the Golden Gate Open. That event was played just one time.
Two years later, the Lucky International Open, which was sponsored by a local brewery, began a seven-year run at Harding Park. It was played all but one year between 1961 and 1969.
Six of the Lucky’s seven winners were also major champions: Gary Player, Gene Littler, Jack Burke, Jr., Billy Casper, Archer and Venturi. The lone exception was Chi Chi Rodriguez, who is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The PGA TOUR returned for World Golf Championships in 2005 and 2015, as well as the 2009 Presidents Cup (more on that later).
PGA TOUR Champions played Harding Park in 1981 (Don January won) before returning to host its season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship in 2010, 2011 and 2013. John Cook, Jay Don Blake and Fred Couples won those events.
5. TIGER TRACKING
Woods will arrive at the PGA Championship after a middling performance at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide and amidst questions about his health, but he can lean on a strong history at Harding Park.
Woods, who played Harding Park when he was a boy, was blown away by its transformation when he returned for the 2005 World Golf Championships-American Express Championship.
He predicted a low winning score, but his 10-under 270 was good enough to get into a playoff with John Daly. Woods won after Daly missed a short par putt in sudden-death.
“The pins were set up tough. The greens were fast and firm for the most part,” Woods said. “Any time you get fairways that are running, the scores are generally not going to be all that low, and a lot of good shots were running through fairways.”
Woods was impressive at Harding Park again four years later, going 5-0-0 in the Presidents Cup. He and Steve Stricker dominated their four team matches, winning 6 and 4, 5 and 3, 4 and 2 and 1 up. In singles, Woods beat Y.E. Yang, 6 and 5, to exact revenge for Yang’s upset at the PGA Championship two months earlier.
The TOUR returned to Harding Park for the 2015 World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Rory McIlroy beat Gary Woodland, 4 and 2, in the final.
LEGO Tiger Woods' approach and club twirl at 2009 Presidents Cup
6. LONG AND SHORT OF IT
Harding Park was a 6,505-yard, par-73 when it opened. Par was dropped to 72 when the 11th hole was turned into a par-3 by the mid-1940s. The layout remained relatively unchanged until Jack Fleming, who was Alister Mackenzie’s construction supervisor at Cypress Point, upgraded the course in 1960s.
When Harding Park first opened, there were several practice fairways where players could shag their own practice balls. Venturi was among the players who honed their game on those fairways.
With Harding Park receiving more play, those fairways were converted into a nine-hole course now known as the Fleming Nine. The big course was expanded to 6,722 yards, as well.
Harding Park was lengthened 450 yards when it was renovated after the turn of the century. It will play 7,234 yards this week, relatively short by major championship standards, but the course features seven par-4s that are at least 460 yards long. There are also two par-4s that are potentially drivable, the seventh and 16th holes. The longest par-3, the eighth hole, is 251 yards, and the two par-5s both measure over 560 yards.
Harding Park’s curving fairways require players to choose how aggressive they want to be and to shape their tee shots. Players have to be careful to avoid the cypress trees, which are known to swallow golf balls, though.
“I've seen enough (balls) get stuck to where I'm going to try my hardest to avoid cutting off doglegs too much,” Jordan Spieth said before the 2015 Match Play.
The course can also play long in the thick San Francisco air, especially when the fog rolls in.
7. LAKE VIEW
It isn’t until late in the round that players truly get a glimpse of Lake Merced. Harding Park is laid out in two loops, with the back nine wrapping around the front nine’s inner loop.
“The course begins at the 14th hole,” Links said, “because that’s when you get to the lake.”
The stretch of holes along Lake Merced don’t just provide scenic vistas. It also offer a myriad of challenges and allows for scoring swings. Being by the water also exposes those holes to more wind.
The course actually starts its move toward the water with the 13th hole, a 472-yard, dogleg right. The Olympic Club is visible in the distance behind the green. Those final six holes feature three par-4s of 460-plus yards, two short par-4s and a short, but tricky, par-3.
After a player departs the 13th green, he’ll have Lake Merced on his left for the final five holes.
Fourteen is another long par-4, playing 470 yards with a fairway that slopes right-to-left.
The next two holes are short par-4s. Fifteen is just 401 yards long, but it is downhill and doglegs severely to the left. The 16th hole is a drivable par-4 of 336 yards. Bunkers protect the left side of the green, while overhanging cypress trees guard the right. The green is among the most undulating on the course.
Seventeen is a short par-3 of 171 yards but Links said the trees make it difficult to judge the fickle wind. And the 463-yard finishing hole curves left around the lake, requiring players to decide how much to cut off on the dogleg left while avoiding the deep bunkers on the right.
8. PRESIDENTIAL CONNECTION
The course is named after Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States. Harding was from Ohio, but in August 1923, he died of a heart attack in San Francisco while returning from a trip to Alaska.
Harding was an avid golfer and was the first sitting President to award the U.S. Open trophy to the winner. He gave it to Jim Barnes after Barnes’ victory in 1921 at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Soon after Harding’s death, calls came forth to name San Francisco’s new course after the President.
The four-ball match at Cypress Point between Hogan, Nelson, Ward and Venturi has become the stuff of legend. The sequel at Harding Park has been forgotten over the years, though.
The second match took place 10 days later. Hogan was replaced by Jack Fleck, the man who six months earlier had upset Hogan in the U.S. Open across the lake at Olympic Club. Fleck partnered with Nelson to take on the two amateur heavyweights. The match benefited local flood relief.
The match was highly publicized. There were several practice rounds, a hole-in-one contest and exhibition atmosphere all week.
With more than 7,000 fans watching, Venturi and Ward were 3 up after 12 holes and defeated the pros, 2 and 1. Venturi shot 68, while Fleck shot 73, Ward shot 74 and Nelson struggled to a 78 (although it was match play, the players agreed to hole everything out for the spectators). Fans lined every fairway and green. Nelson called it the best-behaved gallery he had ever seen.
Unfortunately, there will be no fans at Harding Park this week. The course will still get its turn in the spotlight, though.