(CBS San Francisco) — TPC Harding Park has enjoyed a long and interesting life on the banks of Lake Merced in southwest San Francisco. The notable history of this municipal course began in 1925, two years after the death of its namesake Warren G. Harding. The 29th president, who enjoyed golf, died at the city’s Palace Hotel, while on a tour of the west. The public gem will add another chapter this weekend when it hosts the 2020 PGA Championship.
Renowned course architects William Watson and Sam Whiting built Harding Park Golf Club on 163 acres of city property almost a century ago. (The pair also designed the Lake Course at the nearby Olympic Club.) Watson and Whiting were paid $300 for their design services; the cost of constructing the par-70 course neared $300,000. The course opened as a 6,505-yard, par-73.
Harding Park Golf Club’s stature rose fairly quickly. The course hosted the United States Golf Association’s U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 1937, garnering praise nationwide. (The event returned 19 years later.) In 1944, it debuted on the PGA Tour, with Byron Nelson winning the San Francisco Victory Open there twice in the same calendar year. The course became a regular Tour stop in 1961, with the inaugural Lucky International Open, won by Gary Player.
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Harding Park also hosted anyone who could pony up the very modest greens fee. As a result, it exposed countless players to the game and helped some local players ascend to the highest level of the sport. San Francisco native and 14-time PGA Tour winner Ken Venturi credits the course with his development in the sport. His parents worked in the pro shop, and he spent his youth on and around Harding Park. Johnny Miller, who won two majors among his 25 PGA Tour wins, enjoyed summers playing Harding’s nine-hole course and practicing on the putting green. George Archer, 1969 Masters champion and 13-time Tour champion, honed his short game at Harding Park.
By the end of the 1960s, Harding Park was deteriorating. The PGA Tour left, and the deterioration continued. Fast-forward to the 1980s, when “weeds, clusters of daisies and splotches of dirt came to characterize this once-pristine layout,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s lowest point came in 1998, when its fairways were used as parking lots for the U.S. Open at the neighboring Olympic Club.
Former Stanford golfer and USGA president Sandy Tatum took on the task of rejuvenating Harding Park. Despite opposition, the local government was eventually convinced that restoring the course would lead to high-profile events that boosted the local economy.
A $16-million restoration in 2002-2003 overhauled the course, upgrading it to championship caliber. The renovations lengthened the course by about 400 yards, but also highlighted its former glory. Since the upgrades, the course has hosted the WGC-American Express Championship (2005), Presidents Cup (2009), Charles Schwab Cup Championship (2010-2012) and WGC-Cadillac Match Play (2015). It became part of the PGA Tour’s Tournament Players Club network in 2010. The upcoming PGA Championship, the fourth to be held at a municipal course, will be Harding Park’s first major.
The course will play at a par-70, stretching to 7,234 yards. Cypress trees line the fairways, which will play firm and have been narrowed significantly. The trees may induce conservative play given their propensity to disappear golf balls. “It’s going to be incredibly risky because they cut the fairways down by 60 percent,” says CBS San Francisco sports director Dennis O’Donnell, who grew up near Harding Park and has played the course many times. “And within the rough, lush rough is going to be thick. So you can boom it, but at your own risk.”
The heavy sea air will also keep balls from flying as far as they might otherwise. The greens, refurbished with bentgrass in 2014, tend to be large and relatively flat, but should play fast, given this is a major. And then there’s the weather, with wind and fog always a potential factor. According to O’Donnell, “it’s a shot-making course, not a boomers course. It’s going to be a course of strategy, not wail away from 400 yards…”
Harding Park includes 12 par-4s. While at least two of them are driveable (seventh and 16th holes), two others are in the vicinity of 500 yards (ninth and 12th holes). The 470-yard, par-4 14th hole begins an impressive closing stretch along the lake, with amped-up views and amped-up challenges. It’s a straight approach to a front-sloping green with a gully on the left. The short par-4 on 15 measures only 401 yards but plays downhill with a sharp-left dogleg. The scenic closing hole, another par-4 at 480 yards bends around the lake on the left, with right-side fairway bunkers brought into play by a new tee. The wind picks up in this closing stretch with the water on the left.
The lack of fans may seem a little odd for a major on a municipal course that O’Donnell describes as “a gem of San Francisco. Harding Park has so much history for the locals because it’s a public course. Everybody can play it.”
With a pandemic raging, the PGA obviously made the right call in keeping fans away. And it shouldn’t detract from the season’s only major. Storylines abound, as golf’s best face a TPC Harding Park course to which they’ve had limited exposure.
Watch the PGA Championship, Saturday, August 8, 4:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET and Sunday, August 9, 3:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET on CBS.