Cinderella of San Francisco
Only 22 years ago, TPC Harding Park was such a poor cousin to The Olympic Club that the Harding Park golf course was used as a parking lot when the nearby Olympic course hosted the U.S. Open. Now however, Harding Park is embarking on a majors heritage of a different kind.
Money talks and we all know it. That’s why the storied golf course at Harding Park became Hard Parking for a week during the 1998 U.S. Open across the water at The Olympic Club. TPC Harding Park—as it has been known since 2010—has been a muni since it opened in 1925, and when U.S. Open organizers the USGA offered the City of San Francisco $200,000 to use Harding Park and adjoining nine-hole Fleming Golf Course for parking for just one week, the cash was too much to refuse.
Some Harding Park golfers might remember that Lee Janzen won his second U.S. Open title that week, but none of them can forget the ignominy suffered by their beloved golf course. In the spring of 1998 the San Francisco Chronicle reported the “hostile” reception to the idea from Harding Park’s regulars, one describing it as “the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard”.
No matter, 7,000 cars a day parked on Harding Park and Fleming, and if it was a low point for the club, its veteran members will soon revel in the irony this week as TPC Harding Park hosts its own major championship for the first time, the 102nd PGA Championship (originally scheduled for May 14-17). It’s the Cinderella story of San Francisco.
It is 95 years since Harding Park Golf Club first welcomed golfers to its idyllic perch above Lake Merced, out in the south-western reaches of San Francisco. The golf course was designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, fresh off their celebrated design and construction of both the Ocean and Lake courses at The Olympic Club, across Lake Merced. The duo was reportedly paid $300 to design Harding Park (little more than $4,000 in today’s money), and it must have seemed a bargain to the city, which named its new course after President Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer who’d died from a heart attack, aged 57, in office while visiting San Francisco two years earlier.
Immediately popular, the course—still owned by the City of San Francisco—quickly became a favorite among locals and tournament organisers alike. Harding Park began staging the San Francisco City Championship—known as simply “The City”—in 1925, which is one of the longest-running municipal tournaments in the world, having started in 1916. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Ron Kroichick once wrote: “Not many sporting events feature a history of bartenders and police officers tangling with doctors and lawyers, but then the San Francisco City Championship is not entirely normal—and that’s a good thing.”
National attention arrived at Harding Park with the 1937 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and the San Francisco Open in the 1940s (which Byron Nelson handily won in 1944 and 1945). The ensuing decades saw the return of the Amateur Public Links (in ’56) while local kids Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller and Michael Allen honed their games there as juniors. It became a regular stop for the PGA Tour throughout the 1960s with the Lucky International, won by the likes of Gary Player (’61), Gene Littler (’62), Jack Burke, Jr. (’63) and Billy Casper (’68) as well as locals George Archer (’65) and Venturi (’66).
The PGA Tour left Harding Park after the 1969 San Francisco Open. There were stories of perfect drives lost in the middle of daisy-covered fairways and a clubhouse that was less than adequate. Owned and maintained by the City of San Francisco, Harding Park has always been subject to city budgets, and for a time it fell by the wayside in terms of priorities. If being 1998 U.S. Open parking lot was the club’s nadir, as with all good stories the hard times didn’t last and in fact, only made the course stronger, a point emphasized by current general manager Tom Smith, when he spoke to Kingdom.
“Without a doubt, ’98 was a low time for the property,” he says. “But it was an eye-opening chapter in the novel, if you will.
People realized we were losing a great historical golf course and we learned from it.”
By the turn of the Millennium, after 75 years of golf at Harding Park, many local families cherished memories that were tied to afternoons spent at the golf club with family and friends.
“We hear a lot of ‘I grew up playing here’ stories, of golfers who used to come out and play with their dads, and are now bringing their own kids out to play golf,’” he says.
“There was a lot of passion for the property and so people were willing to go to bat and fight for it.”
The willing fighters included long-time San Francisco attorney (and former USGA President) Sandy Tatum, who was instrumental in securing a $16 million renovation and redesign in 2002-’03, which led to the course joining the PGA Tour’s TPC Network in 2010.
Today it’s one of the finest golfing destinations on the West Coast, if not in the country, featuring 18 holes of championship golf and a nine-hole course that benefits from a supportive city and from a unique microclimate, often cooler than the rest of the Bay Area, which helps with water retention and accounts for typically green fairways and healthy greens.
Says Smith: “It’s like that quote from Mark Twain: ‘The coldest winter I lived through was a summer in San Francisco.’ I wear a wool sweater in July and August; you go to Oakland and it could be 90 degrees.”
As a city-owned course operated by the TPC Network, the city is responsible for 100 percent of maintenance, yet benefits from PGA Tour agronomist consults, while 100 percent of course profits go back to the city and its municipal golf system.
“Look at the people here, it really is the heartbeat of golf,” says Smith. “You’ll see the guy who just punched a clock showing up in overalls, and in the same group there’s a guy who just came off work at the stock market, in a coat and tie. It’s a great melting pot for golf and for the city.
“Technically it’s a municipal golf course, but we refer to it as a ‘better than municipal’ golf course. It’s a public course that’s [about] to host a major.”
Indeed, tournaments started returning to TPC Harding Park shortly after the renovations, notably beginning with the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship won by Tiger Woods, and then the 2009 President’s Cup—at which Woods went 5-0 for the American hosts—with the President’s Cup set to return in 2025. As he hunts for this 16th major title, Tiger will be delighted to see the PGA Championship arrive in northern California for the first time, at one of his favorite courses. Another contender bringing happy memories back to Harding Park is Rory McIlroy, who took the WGC Cadillac Match Play at Harding Park in 2015, going 7-0 in the head-to-head format that week, on the last occasion that Harding Park hosted a tour event.
“It’s a fair test of golf,” says Rory McIlroy, one of the favorites to win this week. “I like big trees that frame holes and you’ve got a lot of definition to work the ball off. I really enjoy the golf course.”
It should be a fascinating Championship and with Koepka, Johnson, McIlroy, Justin Thomas and even veteran Phil Mickelson hitting form at the same time it is tough to predict even top-5 finishes, what we do know though is that there won’t be any parking on the course and as far as we are aware there is no reciprocal arrangement that would see The Olympic Club used as a parking lot during the 2020 PGA Championship either. If that status changes we’ll let you know.