Let’s play make-believe. Pretend you’re piloting a blimp this week, providing aerial coverage of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. Cruising inland off the Pacific, along the western flank of San Francisco, you gain a bird’s-eye view of the tournament venue. From above, you get a good sense of the routing. You can see how it works outward in concentric circles, with the front nine looping around itself and the back nine wrapped around the front side. The image calls to mind a cross-cut cinnamon roll.
But wait. There’s something else. Folded within the footprint of the championship 18, you spy the outline of another nine. Harding Park has 27 holes? Unfamiliar with the area, you’re unsure what that extra track might be. Setting your airship to auto-pilot, you pull out your phone and click on GOLF.com. It’s where you always go when you’ve got a pressing question.
Once again, the site comes through. Here is what it tells you.
That extra nine is the Fleming 9, a user-friendly layout designed by (and named for) the late Jack Fleming, a looming figure on the local scene. Fleming was the city of San Francisco’s first golf caretaker and a golf course architect himself, a protege of Alister MacKenzie and the author of a number of Bay Area munis. Harding’s 18-hole course is not his work. The 18-hole course was designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, and it opened in 1925. The Fleming 9 came later, in 1961. An executive-size course, it tips out at 2,165 yards (the forward tees measure 1,865 yards), with six par-3s and three par-4s. If you shoot 30 on the Fleming 9, that’s even par.
Ever since it opened, the Fleming 9 has offered an accessible alternative to its older sibling. You simply show up and ask to play it. If it’s busy, you put your name on a list. Not surprisingly, the Fleming 9 has also been a grooming ground for juniors and beginners of all ages. Today it is the home of the San Francisco chapter of the First Tee.
The fact that it is short doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge. Like the championship course, it enjoyed a renovation in the early 2000s, its bunkers sharpened, its greens rebuilt. It is tight and tree-lined, and the same shots you might hit in, say, Palm Springs, don’t fly as far here, in San Francisco’s often foggy, coastal air.
For tournament week, the Fleming 9 is being put to various uses. Holes 2-5 will be the broadcast compound, with all the infrastructure needs for TV coverage. Holes 7 and 8 have been converted into the driving range, and the 9th hole will serve as the short-game area. The pros won’t be playing the Fleming 9, but they’ll be practicing on it.
After the event, all the tournament extras will be removed and the Fleming 9 will go back to being the Fleming 9, though its precise reopening date has yet to be determined. If you’ve still got the blimp, fly back soon to play. Greens fees are a steal for juniors, seniors and residents of all ages. But out-of-towners don’t get a bad deal either. On weekends, the tee is yours for $38.