It should be expected that a golf championship in San Francisco could be on shaky ground. The PGA Championship was to be played in mid-May at TPC Harding Park, a city-owned, privately operated daily-fee course overlooking Lake Merced. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the championship was postponed until Aug. 6-9.
The PGA is to be the next step in turning TPC Harding Park into the Bethpage of the West Coast. That transformation has been a messy process, to be sure, but one worth detailing. Bethpage, of course, is the New York State Park complex whose Black Course has become the always reliable, always available, somewhat contentious host for championships.
By hosting this year’s PGA, its first major, Harding Park would emerge as the Left Coast equivalent.
How Harding has acquired all this bling involves a bit of altruism, a healthy dose of homerism, and lots and lots of politics—the dealmaking, promise-breaking, I-need-a-quid-before-I’ll-agree-to-a-quo kind of politics.
FROM BIRTH TO DECAY TO REBIRTH
First, a brief history: This municipal course was laid out in the mid-1920s by Willie Watson, an immigrant from St. Andrews, Scotland, who worked on at least a dozen course designs in the Bay Area and in many other parts of the United States. Located on a barren bluff overlooking Lake Merced, directly across from the Olympic Club, which Watson also designed, the layout incorporated the lake only on the 18th, a dogleg-left par 4 over a cove.
Well before the course opened in July 1925, city fathers decided to name it Harding Park in honor of President Warren G. Harding, who had died in San Francisco in 1923. It mattered not that his administration was considered, even then, the most corrupt ever. The man died in a hotel in their city. It seemed the least they could do.
In the mid-1930s, relief workers planted rows upon rows of eucalyptus, cypress and Monterey pines along Harding’s fairways to buffet golfers from gusty Pacific winds. That established Harding’s character for the next 85 years.
In 1960, Jack Fleming, the city’s superintendent of parks and a part-time course designer, remodeled a section of the front nine to insert a nine-hole par-32 meant for junior golfers and beginners. It’s now called the Fleming 9 in his honor.
Harding Park is not new to tournament golf. It has been the co-host (with Lincoln Park Golf Course) of the San Francisco City Golf Championship, a match-play event, since 1930. The PGA Tour played there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the Lucky (Lager) International in 1966, the last tour victory by hometown favorite Ken Venturi.
Unlike Bethpage Black, the Harding Park course is no architectural wonder. It hasn’t been nationally ranked by Golf Digest since 1966, when it was listed as one of America’s 200 Toughest strictly on the basis of its USGA Course Rating. It’s not presently ranked by Golf Digest among America’s 100 Greatest, or the Second 100 Greatest, or America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. It’s not even among the top-30 courses in California. Yet it is becoming the West Coast Bethpage.
Which brings us to four of the most astute politicians the game has seen, men who have provided much of Harding’s gravitas:
▶ The late Frank (Sandy) Tatum, San Francisco lawyer and president of the United States Golf Association from 1978-’79. He rescued Harding Park from neglect and decay.
▶ Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner from 1994-2016. He showered Harding Park with opportunities.
▶ Ted Bishop, longtime club professional, owner/operator of The Legends Golf Club in Indiana, president of the PGA of America from 2013-’14 and recent author of Unfriended: Power Brokers, Political Correctness andHypocrisy in Golf. He’s the reason Harding Park is hosting this year’s PGA.
▶ David Pillsbury, former head of PGA Tour Properties, now CEO of Club Corporation of America, with strong ties to the Bay Area. He attended Cal-Berkeley in the 1980s, played strong safety for the Bears’ football team, and was on the sideline during the infamous “The band is out on the field!” final play that beat Stanford in 1982. He clerked at Tatum’s law office before deciding not to attend law school, and he played Harding a few times. He’s the man who made Harding Park part of the Tournament Players Club network.
Tatum had played in the San Francisco City amateur for decades, starting in 1939. He’d seen Harding at its best, during its PGA Tour years, and at its worst, in the mid-1990s, when the city government, like many across the country, slashed budgets and diverted funds to balance the books.
By 1997, Harding Park was a mess. Its greens were kept shaggy to keep the grass alive, its bunkers overgrown with barely any sand, its fairways mostly bald because turf was deprived sunlight by the constant shade from walls of trees. Tatum was appalled and made it his mission to save Harding Park.
He turned not to his old friends at the USGA but to Finchem, urging the tour to spruce up the course and conduct a regular tour event that would provide it a steady flow of revenue.
Tatum did what any good politician does: He let the other guy think it was his idea.
In early 1998, it was leaked to the San Francisco Examiner that Finchem was considering Harding Park for the season-ending, limited-field Tour Championship. The tour’s communications spokesman, John Morris, soon confirmed the rumor. “We would be looking at Harding Park as the potential site,” he said. “The perfect way to get that done would be to have the golf course refurbished for the tournament.”
Tatum courted corporate leaders like Charles Schwab to create a public/private partnership to fund the reconstruction. But city officials shot down that idea after labor unions objected, fearing outright privatization. So Tatum lobbied Mayor Willie Brown and Board of Supervisors member Tony Hall for public funding, assuring them big-time PGA Tour involvement if they could just get the course rebuilt.
Hall, a nongolfer, later took credit for the idea. “As the originator and driving force behind the restoration of Harding,” Hall wrote in a 2009 Examiner editorial, “I believed, because of its physical uniqueness, it could become a recreational treasure for San Franciscans and a profit-yielding gold mine for the city’s coffers.”
These days, most everyone gives Tatum credit for Harding Park’s revival, especially at the course. There are two plaques in his honor, one at the first tee box, honoring his devotion, the other at the clubhouse entry trance, dedicating the new building to him.
Hall was certainly essential in persuading fellow supervisors to agree to a controversial deal that would combine individual state grants given to each city district, intended to be spent on recreational facilities for low-income residents, into one huge $13 million fund to fix Harding. To make the deal palatable, it was promised that the money would eventually be paid back through profits that the new Harding Park would surely generate.
In April 2002, the city Board of Supervisors finally voted to fund the reconstruction, mainly because the previous fall Finchem had already announced Harding Park would host the season-ending Tour Championship beginning in 2006, in a three-year rotation with East Lake in Atlanta and Champions in Houston.
Because of the PGA Tour’s involvement and the urgency of the upcoming event, its course design and construction division handled the remodeling. Chris Gray, who has since left for his own practice, was the lead golf architect. Venturi, retiring from the CBS broadcast booth, was announced as a design consultant, but he was not involved. Neither was Tatum, despite the fact that he’d co-designed a few Northern California courses in the 1990s. Gray said Tatum served as the “spiritual leader” of the project.
The rebuilding was a total blow-up job. Hundreds of trees were toppled. All the kikuyu grass on the course was eradicated and replaced by rye and bluegrass. Fairways were regraded and new irrigation installed. All greens were rebuilt, a few relocated, all seeded to bent. All bunkers were rebuilt, many relocated, all filled with sparkling white sand.
Total reconstruction costs were reported, in a final audit, to be $24 million, but that might have included the new clubhouse.
All that money spent, and yet the results of the massive redesign are surprisingly uninspiring. Several holes are indistinguishable from one another. Except for the dramatic drop and rise of the 14th fairway, the topography is not compelling.
With that much money and that much effort, how is it that the reconstituted Harding Park remains a rather pedestrian design, particularly when compared to Bethpage Black?
It’s because Gray was cognizant of the fact that he had to design something suitable for 80,000 average-golfer rounds per year, and Harding needed to challenge the pros for only one week every third year. He says he did so mainly by replacing Harding’s small, flat, circular greens with carefully crafted putting surfaces containing subtle and often deceptive breaks not easily learned. Though 11 holes have a bunker at the front-right corner of the green, which must annoy slicers, Gray says that wasn’t deliberate. It’s just the way the design turned out after addressing strategies, balance and traffic flow.
Bethpage Black could afford to be brutally hard because that complex has four other 18s. Harding Park’s only other alternative is its nine-hole precision course. Plus, Gray shared Tatum’s old-school philosophy that any course can be made tough simply by growing the rough and speeding up the greens. Gray has been frustrated that no tour event at the course has ever had substantial rough.
A DEAL (WITH A HITCH)
KemperSports out of Chicago won the bid to manage Harding Park, selected over several other firms, including American Golf, whose president at the time was Pillsbury. But the city contract contained one restriction that was a problem for Kemper: The company would run the golf shop, food and beverage, practice range, tee times and local tournaments, but the city’s Recreation and Parks Department would continue to maintain the golf courses. No one on the maintenance crew, not even the superintendent, would answer to Kemper-Sports.It was awkward—Kemper was selling a product but had no control over its presentation.
Harding Park reopened in August 2003. Eight months later, Finchem announced that the tour would not play its Tour Championship at Harding Park after all. Instead, it was given another limited-field event a year earlier, a World Golf Championship event. It would be the first of a five-tournament package deal running through 2015.
The WGC-American Express Championship in October 2005 was a huge success, with big crowds watching Tiger Woods defeat John Daly in a playoff. Tatum then tried but failed to persuade the USGA to schedule a U.S. Women’s Open at Harding. Then, in February 2007, the PGA Tour announced that Harding Park would host the Presidents Cup in October 2009.
In July 2009, disaster struck. Two R&P Department employees, directed to apply granular fertilizer to some greens, spread far too much nitrogen fertilizer on the odd-numbered greens (another team was handling the even-numbered ones). Much of the grass was burned, but it wasn’t apparent until two days later. Course superintendent Wayne Kappelman flushed the greens with water, but parts of greens still died. So he took the sod from greens on the Fleming 9 and resodded major portions of five greens. Five temporary greens were then mowed from fairway approaches to accommodate everyday golfers.
Cal Roth, the tour’s senior vice president of agronomy at the time, seemed unconcerned about the development. But Pillsbury, who had been hired to serve as president of PGA Tour Properties in 2004 and assumed duties as the tour’s championship manager in 2008, was livid.
“When I got there, the greens were practically gone, and we’re talking two weeks before the Presidents Cup,” he says. “They were basically dirt. To make the greens look good for TV, we had to paint them.”
Others dispute Pillsbury’s recollection. Certainly, the greens had been heavily top-dressed with sand leading up to the event, and perhaps Pillsbury mistook the sand for dirt. Maybe tinted sand was used. The condition of the greens went unreported in coverage leading up to the matches, although a week before the event, Kappelman gave an Examiner reporter a rather cryptic quote: “I think the players wouldn’t mind seeing a patch of brown here and there if it means the ball moved a little faster and more consistently.”
Josh Lesnik, vice president of Kemper-Sports, the firm his father, Steve, founded, says Pillsbury is wrong. Josh says he was there for the Presidents Cup, and after the closing ceremonies, he and two other Kemper employees, members of Harding’s staff, went out and played a few holes, just to get a taste of a real championship golf setup.
“I remember remarking at the time that the greens were perfect,” Lesnik says. “There were no complaints about the greens during the Presidents Cup because there was nothing to complain about.”
HOW THE OLYMPICS, THE PLAYERS & PRESIDENTS CUP
In 2010, Kemper’s management agreement came up for renewal, and it discovered that the PGA Tour Properties was bidding for the contract, too. “We made our usual proposal, which involved a reasonable management fee,” Lesnik says. “But then Pillsbury offered to manage the course for free. You can’t compete with that and stay in business.”
Pillsbury’s bid wasn’t to handle everything for free. But he did propose that the PGA Tour would do it for cost—it would collect from revenues only the amount needed to pay its on-site employees and deliver the remaining revenue to the city. To sweeten the pot, Pillsbury offered to license Harding Park as a member of the TPC network at no charge to the city.
Pillsbury believed at the time that Harding Park was not getting sufficient nonresident play, which given the higher nonresident green fees, could result in more revenue. (Today the green fees start at $64 Monday through Thursday and $78 Friday through Sunday for San Franciscans with a resident card, and go up to $200 for those living outside the Bay Area.)
The city agreed to the proposal but retained the same provision as it had with KemperSports: Recreation and Parks would maintain the courses. Pillsbury agreed that the interests of the five unions involved should be preserved but did get a pledge that the superintendent would accept advice from a PGA Tour agronomist who would visit frequently.
The Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup was at Harding Park in 2010 and 2011, but Pillsbury wanted something much bigger to attract destination golfers. He says in 2013 he suggested to Pete Bevacqua, then the PGA of America CEO, that it bring a PGA Championship to Harding Park. (The PGA had never before been played at a TPC course.)
Bishop, who was president of the PGA of America at the time, remembers it differently.
“Obviously, with Dave Pillsbury running PGA Tour Properties, he may well have talked to Pete about a PGA at Harding Park,” Bishop says, “but the idea originally came from us.”
After it was announced that golf would be included in the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2020, Bishop knew the PGA Championship’s August dates would conflict with the Games. The 2020 site had not yet been picked, and Bevacqua wanted a March date to avoid competing with the Players Championship, then in May. That meant a warm-season venue. (Ultimately, the Players was shifted to March, and the PGA Championship is now scheduled for May each year.)
Aware that the PGA hadn’t been to California since 1995, Bishop went not to Pebble Beach or Olympic, which had long contracts with the USGA; instead, he talked to the city of San Diego about bringing the PGA to Torrey Pines in La Jolla.
“But they wanted us to commit to also giving them a Ryder Cup, and that’s something we couldn’t agree to,” Bishop says. So he dropped Torrey and looked to Harding Park, the only other logical public-access choice, he says. But there were issues to be resolved.
“At the time, there was talk that the 2021 Presidents Cup would be awarded to Harding Park,” Bishop says. (It ended up going to Quail Hollow in Charlotte.) “We didn’t want our event and theirs to be so close together, so Pete and I approached Tim Finchem with a proposal that they move the Presidents Cup at Harding back a few years.”
Because every deal needs sweetening, Bevacqua and Bishop also agreed to increase the PGA Championship purse to $10 million from $8.5 million each year. (It’s now at $15 million.)
Finchem wanted a couple of things in return. The PGA of America had an exclusive deal with Bethpage Black from 2019 to 2024. Finchem wanted the PGA to release that hold so the tour could conduct a FedEx Cup playoff event at Bethpage during one of those years. Bevacqua and Bishop agreed.
Also, the PGA Tour had long been providing three guaranteed spots for all PGA members—club professionals—to compete in any Web.com Tour event (now the Korn Ferry Tour). Finchem wanted the PGA of America to give up those spots. Bishop didn’t like the idea of denying his members big-event competitive opportunities, so he convinced Finchem to exchange those spots for three guaranteed spots in every Monday qualifier of a regular tour event.
The deal was made. In July 2014, Finchem and Bishop stood in San Francisco City Hall and announced that TPC Harding Park would be the site of the 2015 WGC-Match Play, the 2020 PGA Championship and the 2025 Presidents Cup.
Finchem said it was an unprecedented collaborative effort between the PGA of America and the PGA Tour. (The latter entity split from the former after a rancorous 1968 riff.)
Bishop says the deal was important to his membership because it helped ease the suspicions of many members that the PGA Tour secretly wanted to push aside the PGA Championship and make the Players Championship the game’s fourth major, and likewise convince the world that the Presidents Cup was a more important international contest than the Ryder Cup.
Just before the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play, won by Rory McIlroy, the budget analyst for San Francisco announced that, although five previous tour events had been played at Harding Park, generating millions in gross revenues, the city had not received a dime, even though it had a profit-sharing contract that stipulated San Francisco was to receive 6.6 percent of all revenues in excess of $8 million per event. The threshold was too high, city officials told tour officials during renegotiations. Tour officials agreed to drop the threshold to $4 million per event, but they weren’t negotiating on behalf of the PGA of America, which has made its own financial arrangements for use of Harding Park for this year’s PGA Championship. Those arrangements have yet to be publicly announced.
Harding Park is still operated by PGA Tour employees and maintained by city employees. Its irrigation system isn’t as up to date as it should be, with full-circle sprinklers used to water fairways and rough. To grow rough means getting fairways wetter than desired. To dry out fairways means thinner rough.
Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer for the PGA of America, says he’s been happy with city workers over the past two years. They’ve cooperated in his requests for setup, particularly in adjusting fairway mowing patterns to retain narrow corridors yet bring fairway bunkers into play. Shelter-in-place directives kept Haigh from visiting the course between mid-March and early June, but he was told that because the course was closed for six weeks, maintenance like additional aerification and topdressing have Harding looking better than it has in years. The putting surfaces should be fast and consistent.
Haigh is excited for this year’s event, which will be prime-time television on the East Coast. That will give Bethpage Black fans a chance to scrutinize its West Coast cousin, if not its doppelgänger.