SAN FRANCISCO | This is a love story. Golfers get course, golfers fall head over heels, golfers nearly lose course, golfers get course back, golfers smitten more than ever.
Thus spins the tale of Harding Park, a city-owned beauty in the heart of San Francisco that has been host to the USGA, the PGA Tour and, most importantly, to the locals, the San Francisco City Championship, one of the truly remarkable amateur events in the nation.
Harding Park in its beginnings played home to the game’s stars and in its renaissance has done the same. In between, through years of neglect from city officials who disdained golf and unmotivated union maintenance crews, the course was nearly lost, eaten alive by the dandelions, daisies, crabgrass and clover.
In fact, were it not for a $16 million renovation in 2003, no one outside the Bay Area would ever have heard of Harding Park. Since reopening, Harding Park has been the stage for the WGC- American Express Championship, the Charles Schwab Cup on the Champions Tour and, last year, hosted The Presidents Cup for the whole world to see.
It its current state, Harding Park harkens back to its early days as one of the finest layouts in a city of great golf venues. It doesn’t suffer nearly as much from government apathy and, in fact, is considered by many one of the city’s jewels.
“It brings along an emotional factor, at least it does for me, that separates truly remarkable golf experiences from ordinary ones,” said 90-year-old Frank (Sandy) Tatum, former USGA president and one of the saviors of Harding Park, who first played the course in the late 1930s as a student at nearby Stanford University.
Harding Park opened in 1925, designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, who had designed the Olympic Club, just a couple of miles down Skyline Boulevard, on the other side of Lake Merced. It was named after President Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer, who had died in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel.
It is in the routing of Harding Park that lies part of its charm. The front nine winds around the interior of the property and the back nine circles around the perimeter so that the last five holes are played along the shore of Lake Merced. That view, along with the giant cypress trees that stand sentinel in the framing of each hole gives Harding Park such a grand vista.
The San Francisco City Championship – “The City,” as its called by the locals – started in 1917 and moved to Harding Park shortly after it opened. It has staged the championship ever since. One of the best days of Harding’s life was the 1956 championship final between Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward that drew 10,000 fans. Venturi’s victory was front-page news in all the city’s newspapers the following day.
Harding Park was pristine in those days.
“It was as good as any country club around,” Venturi told Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “The golf course was immaculate. Everyone really took care of it; they fixed their ball marks and divots. And if someone did not, they were told about it and they did not make the mistake again.”
The USGA came to Harding Park in 1937 for the U.S. Amateur Public Links and returned in 1956 for the same event. The San Francisco Open was a PGA Tour event in the 1940s that Byron Nelson won twice. It became the Lucky International in the 1960s and Venturi was a winner.
But the Tour left San Francisco in 1969 because of substandard course conditions and limited facilities. From there, Harding Park went drastically downhill, yet The City played on. One year, there were 17 temporary greens for the championship after maintenance personnel failed to save the putting surfaces.
One of the basic problems was San Francisco city politics. Golf among the Board of Supervisors – the city’s council – and government officials was seen as elitist and therefore wasn’t supported. Some supervisors would rather have had Harding Park turned into soccer fields. They didn’t understand how valuable Harding Park was to the city. As a result, the course maintenance budgets were drastically underfunded. The little money that was allocated was often spent by a greenkeeping staff that was often less than vigilant.
The city even used Harding Park as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open that was held down the street at the Olympic Club.
“It was really turning into a weed patch and was pretty far down that road,” said Tatum, who played in 40 City Championships. “I could see what was happening and I literally couldn’t bear it. I didn’t need any other projects, but I couldn’t sit by and let this happen if I could somehow find a way with dealing with it.”
Tatum, a San Francisco attorney, took the task in hand and spearheaded the effort to restore Harding Park to its former splendor. He knew it would take a great deal of money and the only way to convince the city to part with that much money was to convince the Board of Supervisors that the PGA Tour would come to San Francisco and bring along a financial boon to the city.
Tatum asked his good friend Charles Schwab – who knew PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem very well – to arrange a dinner meeting between the two. At the dinner, Tatum thought he would have to pitch Finchem harder than he did.
“Your timing could not have been better,” Finchem said.
The Tour was in the process of moving its season-ending Tour Championship around the country – one year in the East, one year in the Midwest and one in the West. Finchem sent a member of the Tour’s design staff, Chris Gray, to take a look at Harding Park to see if a renovation would get the Tour’s interest.
“He could see through the weeds and realize that something really special was here,” Tatum said.
The city did a cost analysis and determined it would take $16 million to completely renovate the course. Tatum had his doubts. But a young deputy city attorney, Michael Cohen, was assigned to the project, and along with the Parks and Recreation Department, found an Open Space Fund from which Harding Park would borrow the money.
That was the good news. The bad news was that while the course had been renovated, there was no money left for a new clubhouse or maintenance facility. Then-mayor Willie Brown went to Schwab and got a commitment of $2 million and from there raised the necessary money to complete the project.
However, Schwab had one requirement: that the clubhouse be named after Tatum. “I thought it should be called the Schwab Clubhouse,” Tatum said. “Then, I suggested that it be called the Schwab-Tatum Clubhouse. There was a long pause from Chuck and he said, ‘Sandy, do you want the money or not?’ ”
The PGA Tour signed a contract with Harding Park for the three Tour Championships over nine years, but a move by Finchem to place the tournament permanently at East Lake Golf Club scuttled that agreement.
“I wrote Finchem a letter and pointed out that while he had made that commitment, he couldn’t have done so without a plan to do something in San Francisco that would be at least as effective as the Tour Championship,” Tatum said.
As a result, Harding Park hosted the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, in which Tiger Woods beat John Daly in a playoff. Since then, the public course has been displayed to the world and renewed its affection from local players. The love affair between golf and Harding Park lives on.
After all, it’s always been said that enough love can conquer all.