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Harding Park Golf Course

Historical Essay

by Ron Kroichik, Oct. 2, 2005

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle logo.gif.

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Tournament shot from 1949.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Harding Park Golf Course long ago cast its spell on Bo Links, a San Francisco lawyer and unofficial golf historian. Links grew up in the Richmond District and played the game at various uninspiring venues, but he quickly discovered the wonders of a picturesque patch of real estate alongside Lake Merced, shoved into the southwest corner of the city.

Links would take the bus across town, arrive at Harding early in the morning and toss his clubs on a pull cart. He began playing the course in the early 1960s, at age 13 or 14, and he marveled at the landscape -- a vast, open expanse of glorious grass lined with majestic cypress trees.

"I remember my first time playing there, thinking, 'Wow, this is what a real golf course is like,' " Links said. "You knew you were in the major leagues when you went to Harding."

The course's big-time cachet, polished by Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in those distant days, then disappeared for nearly four decades. But it returns this week, when Harding Park hosts a PGA Tour event, the American Express Championship, for the first time since 1969.

The images soon to unfold -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and many of the world's best golfers strolling the same fairways once traversed by Nelson, Nicklaus and Palmer -- are only the latest in the long, winding evolution of Harding Park. It's a saga rich with history and rife with political wrangling, spanning more than 80 years and involving everyone from President Warren Harding to former Mayor Willie Brown to ordinary San Francisco citizens.

Harding's history, at its core, can be told through the condition of its land. That glorious grass withered away in the 1980s and '90s, a victim of enduring neglect. Weeds, clusters of daisies and splotches of dirt came to characterize this once-pristine layout.

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Aerial photo of Harding Park Golf Course, 1955.

Harding Park opened on July 18, 1925, not quite two years after President Harding, a widely scorned leader and avid golfer, died at the Palace Hotel while visiting San Francisco. It was a golden era for golf-course construction around the country, and Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, who had collaborated on the nearby Olympic Club, agreed to design the city's new municipal layout for $300. Construction costs were about $295,000.

Before long, the course gained national acclaim. The prestigious U.S. Public Links Championship was held at Harding in 1937 and again in '56. Nelson won two events there in 1944, a springboard to his legendary streak the next year, when he won 11 consecutive PGA tournaments.

Then, in the '60s, the Lucky International became a regular stop on the tour and produced a string of big-name champions, from Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez to native son Ken Venturi and Billy Casper.

As Harding bathed in renown throughout the middle of the 20th century, its anchor was an amateur event, the San Francisco City Championship. The most memorable chapter in that tournament's storied history occurred in 1956, when Venturi grappled with Harvie Ward, the reigning U.S. amateur champion. Venturi grew up in San Francisco, won the U.S. Open in '64 and later become a CBS golf analyst.

The Venturi/Ward match drew 10,000 fans (remember, this was before the Giants, A's, Raiders and Warriors came to the Bay Area). Venturi's victory merited front-page, main-news coverage in the next day's newspapers.

Venturi grew up in the Ingleside District, not far from the 12th hole at Harding. He played his first round there, with a set of hickory-shaft clubs he bought across the street. When he was a student at Lincoln High in the late 1940s, Venturi's father, Fred, who later ran Harding's pro shop for many years, bought his son a Model-A Ford with instructions to drive only from home to school to the course.

Venturi did not dare disobey, because Harding was a shrine in his eyes.

"In those days, it was as good as any country club around," said Venturi, now 74. "The golf course was immaculate. Everyone really took care of it, they fixed their ball marks and divots. And if someone did not [fix the course], they were told about it and they did not make the mistake again."

The course also made a lasting impression on a young college student named Frank "Sandy" Tatum. He first played in the City Championship during his stay at Stanford (1938-42), and he became so enamored of the course and the "egalitarian flavor" of the tournament, he entered about 40 more times.

Tatum admired Harding's distinctive layout, with the first nine holes tucked inside and the back nine winding around the perimeter, eventually adjoining Lake Merced. He loved the way the course grew more dramatic with each hole, turning into "one of the most exhilarating experiences" a golfer can enjoy.

That exhilaration became exasperation as the 1970s blended into the '80s and '90s. The PGA Tour departed Harding after the San Francisco Open in 1969, partly because of the course's deteriorating condition and partly because of its cramped, antiquated facilities.

The problems only worsened over the next 30 years. City budgets did not allow for proper upkeep and maintenance workers at the course were not always vigilant. Golfers became resigned to Harding's sad, steady decline.

PGA Tour veteran Scott McCarron, who grew up in Sacramento and played in the City Championship many times, recalled one tournament in which 17 temporary greens were used because the regular greens were in such terrible shape. The temporary greens were simply circles of white paint in the fairway, with a pin plopped in the middle.

Another longtime pro, San Mateo-raised Michael Allen, described the signature Harding scene as a player hitting his drive right down the middle of the fairway -- never to see the ball again, lost amid all the daisies. "It was like watching a grand old Victorian deteriorate right before our eyes," said Brad Andersen, president of the Harding Park men's club.

The low point probably came in June 1998, during the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Harding served as a parking lot -- yes, cars rolling along its haggard fairways -- for fans attending the Open.

As the onetime jewel faded, it fell to Tatum, then in his late 70s, to take action. He had become a powerful influence in golf and local circles, as the onetime president of the United States Golf Association (USGA) and a longtime San Francisco lawyer. He played a round at Harding and saw nothing resembling the graceful layout he had once found so inspiring.

"I was horrified," Tatum said.

Thus was born the wild ride known as the renovation of Harding Park.

Tatum traveled a familiar path first, figuring he should gain a few allies before tiptoeing into San Francisco politics. He knew one way to turn Harding into an economic asset was to convince PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem to hold a tournament there, because that would pump serious cash into the local economy.

Tatum leaned on good friend Charles Schwab and former Bank of America executive Gene Lockhart, who knew Finchem well. They convened at Aqua for dinner with Finchem, who had traveled from Florida to hear Tatum's pitch.

He envisioned a completely remodeled Harding, bustling with a First Tee facility -- the tour's program to bring golf to inner-city kids -- while regularly hosting a PGA event and remaining affordable for San Francisco residents.

Finchem came to the dinner knowing little about Harding, other than it was once a tour stop and that Venturi essentially grew up there. The more Tatum talked, the closer Finchem listened.

"I have a lot of respect for Sandy and his understanding of the game," Finchem said. "Our design people went out there and kind of got their arms around the scope of the project. That led us to think if it was rebuilt, it could be pretty special."

Other motivations spun in the background. Finchem liked the idea of re-establishing a presence in the Bay Area market, and Tatum knew Finchem relished the possibility of playing a high-profile tournament at a true public course.

Golf doesn't exactly have a blue-collar, for-the-people reputation, after all. Municipalities once developed courses with the idea of attracting people of ordinary means -- witness a poster from Harding's debut in 1925, trumpeting the course as "Open To Every Golfer" -- but that eventually changed.

Tatum described it as the game's "serious wrong turn" in the post-World War II era. Golf course construction was plentiful, but most projects were designed with upscale customers in mind.

"The game took an elitist turn," Tatum said. "Somehow, if golf is going to have its ultimate utility, you've got to turn that around."

That's a sizable chore when marquee events are held at country clubs with no African American members, such as the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham in 1990. Or when one of the country's most famous courses -- Augusta National, site of the Masters -- becomes embroiled in controversy over its all-male membership, as it did in recent years.

This helps explain why the USGA took the U.S. Open to New York's Bethpage Black, a municipal track, in 2002, will go to San Diego's Torrey Pines in 2008 and will return to Bethpage in '09. The history also helps explain Finchem's desire to bring his tour to a course such as Harding.

"It's very healthy for the [pro] game to play the same courses as the rank-and-file players," Finchem said. "I think it's a good message, and it helps in terms of the positioning of the professional side of the game."

There was still the none-too-trivial matter of all those weed patches. On a typically misty and foggy San Francisco day in the winter of 1998, Tatum bundled up and headed to Harding to meet Chris Gray, then in charge of design and construction for the tour. Gray drove past a temporary green on No. 17, noticed the weeds and bare spots of dirt and wondered if the place was worth saving.

"It was barely a golf course," he said.

But as he walked all 18 holes with Tatum, learning about the history and seeing the trees and the lake and the fertile soil, Gray came to think it was possible. He unleashed two "Wows!" per hole, by Tatum's recollection, and went back to Finchem offering his endorsement.

Gray warned it would not be easy to turn Harding into a course worthy of Tiger and all the top players. But it would also be supremely cool, he knew, to return the ragged track to its former glory.

"You could just see Harding was a good piece of ground, and with the framing of the trees you could generate a classic golf course," Gray said. "And the fact you could rehabilitate such a tragedy was appealing."

Finchem told Tatum the tour was interested. If Tatum could pull off the remodel -- a Herculean chore, to be sure -- the tour would come to Harding once every three years for a World Golf Championships event.

Tatum then stepped into hazardous political terrain. He took his basic outline to then-Mayor Brown, who encouraged Tatum to move forward. But word soon began to filter out and public opposition formed -- lots of longtime golfers liked their cheap greens fees, weeds and all.

Tatum ultimately convinced Brown to publicly commit to the renovation. The city soon awarded a bid to Arnold Palmer Golf Management, a Florida company that would operate the course, and planned to raise more than $11 million to fund the project. The wheels were in motion.

But the road was rocky, as Tatum learned at a Board of Supervisors subcommittee meeting in the spring of 2001. Then-supervisor Leland Yee interrupted Tatum two minutes into his brief presentation and curtly ordered him to "sum up." Nearly every public speaker passionately voiced his or her opposition.

Tony Hall, who had been elected to represent District 7 (which includes Harding Park) only months earlier, shared this widespread fear that Palmer Management represented a privatization of a municipal course. At that meeting, Hall said he didn't see why San Francisco needed a first-class course or why it wanted to get tied up with the PGA Tour.

As opposition grew more fierce -- led by a quartet of men dubbed "The Four Horsemen" -- Palmer Management backed out because of financial problems. More than three years into his crusade, Tatum was starting to have doubts.

"At that point, I thought it was dead," he said.

Elsbernd, then on Hall's staff and now his successor, helped revive the project. He and Tatum convinced Hall of the recreational and financial benefits of renovating Harding. Hall, an economics major who does not play golf, eventually came to believe the deal could churn out revenue for years, if the PGA Tour brought its big-money events to town.

"I believe San Francisco can be a golf mecca, a golf destination," Hall says now.

The key moment occurred when Recreation and Parks budget manager Mary King-Gorwky spotted available state grant money from Proposition 12, a measure passed in 2000 to fund parks across California. She and deputy city attorney Michael Cohen proposed borrowing $16 million, then using revenues from Harding -- enhanced by the exposure of a PGA Tour event -- to pay back the city's Open Space fund.

"That completely took away the bogeyman of privatization," Cohen said.

But it didn't remove the vigor of Harding Park opponents. Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a respected advocacy group, strongly objected to the creation of the "Golf Fund." That was how the city proposed repaying the $16 million -- by funneling Harding revenues into a self-sustaining Golf Fund rather than the city's General Fund, as had long been the case.

Golf revenues from Harding are first used to cover operating expenses there and at other city courses; then to make payments to the Open Space fund; and then any leftover funds become available for other San Francisco parks.

Wade persistently pointed to surveys showing golf was a low priority for most City residents. She did not see the wisdom in devoting so much money to Harding while the city was closing recreation centers one day a week and cutting back other programs.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately pictured Harding, through its link with the PGA and resulting television exposure, creating a tidy revenue stream. The resolution to use Prop. 12 money passed unanimously.

Even so, as the course prepares for its grand show this week -- ESPN and ABC will televise the American Express Championship to more than 140 countries around the world -- Wade remains aggravated.

"The issue is how Harding got funded at the expense of other neighborhood projects," she said. "We hear there are going to be all these wonderful benefits, but it doesn't pay for recreation programs and it doesn't pay for gardeners in neighborhood parks.

"We feel like we were robbed. We don't know that any of this money paid (back) to the Open Space Fund will end up in anybody's neighborhood."

Wade is not alone in her frustration. Andersen, president of the 78-year-old Harding Park men's club, is still trying to secure regular tournament times for his organization (which now plays once per month on Sundays). The men's and women's clubs are accustomed to landing prime tee times at low rates, but that's not happening at the new Harding.

The women's club, also a longtime tradition, has not convened at the course since it reopened in August 2003. Judy Spain, who represents the club in its dealings with the city, "cannot understand why Rec & Park does not see the value of a municipal course having home clubs. I don't think they want us out there."

Jaci Fong, director of property management for Rec & Park, declined to comment on the men's and women's clubs. Elsbernd, the city supervisor, said, "We're trying to work with them. You don't want to completely disregard their support of the project and the course. They're sort of the protectors of the course."

The city obviously needs to maximize revenue. That's why most Bay Area residents pay $81 for a weekday round (San Francisco residents pay $34) and $94 on weekends (city residents pay $46). That's why a special "tourist" rate went into effect Sept. 1, charging players from outside the nine-county Bay Area $125 during the week and $138 on weekends.

Fong said the course met revenue projections for the 2004-05 fiscal year, even though the 71,200 rounds played fell short of the city's goal of 75,000. Rec & Park is clearly counting on the exposure of this week's tournament -- and future PGA Tour events -- to lure more high-paying, out-of-town golfers.

"There's so much riding on the AMEX," Elsbernd said. "We have to show the PGA Tour we can put on a tournament."

Along those lines, the city scrambled to resolve serious drainage issues near the end of the 15-month renovation, then spent this year feverishly trying to keep the course in PGA-quality shape. The shiny new clubhouse, funded with $8 million in private donations, opened in July. The course spent the summer morphing into a layout fit for the finest golfers on earth: narrow and rolling fairways, abundant and difficult bunkers, faster and more sloped greens.

And those majestic cypress trees stand in rows, hole after hole, ready to usher Harding Park back into the major leagues.