SAN FRANCISCO | It is perhaps the most democratic golf championship in the country. The roster of winners includes two major champions, a police officer, a national amateur champion, a firefighter, a baggage handler and a 14-year-old ninth-grader.
It is a tournament that insists that competitors play the ball as it lies at all times, no matter the weather – and it can be nothing short of really lousy. In fact, players will tell you that at times they have had to chip the ball on the greens because of the amount of standing water during a winter deluge. And they recount these episodes with more than a little pride.
Welcome to the San Francisco City Championship, where anyone, regardless of amateur pedigree or lack thereof, can enter and tee it up with members at the Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club and muni players from Lincoln Park and Harding Park – and everyone in between.
Started in 1917, it is the oldest continuously running city championship in the nation. The eclectic winners list notwithstanding, The City, as it’s called by the locals, has its own set of quirks that make it unique.
First, it is played in February when the weather is a crapshoot at best. Torrential rain and sub-50 temperatures are the rule rather than the exception. And you have to play the ball down, which means mud balls galore. The tournament is match play, which means that, including qualifying, the competition is played over four weekends, a huge time investment for the players.
To make matters worse, competitors are required by tournament host TPC Harding Park to pay regular greens fees for each round, including the qualifying rounds. Which means that outside the $160 entry fee, players can spend up to an additional $500 to compete in the championship.
And, yet, despite those seemingly large roadblocks, players from all over northern California line up to compete for one of the most prestigious titles in that part of the country.
Frank (Sandy) Tatum, a Palo Alto attorney who is a former president of the USGA, played in 40 City Championships and loved every one.
“I played with people from all walks of life,” said Tatum, 90. “Given the fact that golf allows you access to a personality that you could not otherwise account, particularly in a competitive situation, I found it totally fascinating.
“The best I could ever do was to get to the quarterfinals. But I was proud of that given the level of golf that was played was really outstanding. It has its own distinct set of characteristics that make it one of the best golf tournaments anywhere.”
In the 1950s, amateur golf’s heyday, The City was big news. The 1956 final between Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward was billed as the best tournament final in the event’s history. Ward was the defending champion and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. But Venturi took Ward down 5 and 4 in the scheduled 36-hole final and the match drew upwards of 10,000 spectators. The result was front-page news in San Francisco newspapers the following day.
“The history, growing up as a kid, as my love for golf grew, there was always front sports page coverage in the Chronicle of The City,” said Randy Haag, the 1999 champion, one of the country’s leading mid-ams and a two-time winner of the prestigious Crump Cup at Pine Valley GC.
“It’s always been viewed like a major. It’s the biggest of the non-Northern California Golf Association tournaments. But, the way I’ve always looked at it, if you want to consider yourself a great amateur golfer, you have to have won The City.”
The City is played at TPC Harding Park, which has its own rich history. A very public event at a city-owned course is certainly apropos for the tournament. However, Harding Park treats the contestants as daily-fee players for the event. The City has a 36-hole qualifier and five rounds of match play that organizers squeeze into four weekends in order to try to save money for the players. In fact, the tournament has reduced its match-play field from 64 to 32 and eliminated the 36-hole semifinals, making them 18 holes, which eliminated one weekend to make the tournament fit into four weekends.
“The city charges us tournament rates for each player,” said Mike Miller, tournament director. “For a tournament that runs this long – four weeks – we end up subsidizing part of the players’ greens fees. So we have to go out in the community and raise some money, and in this climate, that’s a difficult proposition. We run about a $25,000 deficit, which in this day and time is not a lot of money, but for a city tournament, it’s quite a sum. We’ve been fortunate that we get sponsors who give $1,000 or $2,000 and we manage to pull it off.”
Then, there is the time of year. Tradition dictates that The City be played in February but that’s when the risk of inclement weather is at its highest. The ball is always played down during the tournament – “We play golf,” Miller says. And there’s an extra-large sense of pride from many of the competitors that they play in any kind of weather.
“One time it was raining so hard and there was so much water, that my ball was floating above the hole on the water on one of the par-3s at Lincoln Park (during the qualifying),” Haag said. “We were trying to decide if it was in the hole and we decided it was but there was a current coming from underneath the hole. You have some unbelievable things that happen.”
Regardless of the amount of charm it has, if the risk of such bad weather would be reduced by moving The City to later in the year, then why not?
“The reality is that we probably could,” Miller said. “But there are more tournaments into the summer that would conflict with this one. This is unique in that it’s match play that runs over four weekends. That’s a big time commitment. If we moved it to later in the year, we might not get as good a field.
“I heard Sandy Tatum say on more than one occasion, ‘I often remind people that golf was not invented by Arnold Palmer in Palm Springs.’”
Harding Park, renovated in 2003, was not always in good condition for The City. In fact, in the years immediately preceding the renovation, it was, in Tatum’s eyes, “a weed patch.” Yet that didn’t prevent the Bay Area’s best players from entering. In fact, the caliber of players is just short of outstanding. Of the 240 entries for the The City in the Championship division, 150 of them reported handicap indexes of scratch or better.
And the winners come from everywhere. Venturi won three times before turning pro and winning the U.S. Open. George Archer, a Masters champion, was the 1963 winner of The City. San Francisco police officer Bill McCool won in 1958 and firefighter Mike Moriarty won in 1969.
Gary Vanier is the most prolific City champion, having won an astounding six times. But that is not the most impressive part of his feat. He won his first title in 1971 and his last in 1994.
And now the young players are finding their way to the City finals. Carlos Briones, a 14-year-old, was the 2009 winner. And George Gandranata, a former standout at the University of California, is the defending champion.
In 2000, Haag was exempt into match play as defending champion and was the No. 1 seed. “My first-round match, I was told, was against a 14-year-old who could hit it 300 yards,” Haag said. That teenager went on to dust the man who was old enough to be his father. The boy who ousted Haag … his name is Zack Miller, now a rookie on the PGA Tour.
“That’s what can happen out there,” Haag said.
And if anything can happen at The City, you can bet that it most certainly will.