The first major of the season gets underway this week: the PGA Championship, at TPC Harding Park. The TPC network is owned by the PGA Tour, but Harding Park belongs to the city of San Francisco. Meaning, it’s a muni. But you probably knew that. And since we’d like you to keep reading, here are nine other things about Harding Park that you might not know.
1. It has the Same Pedigree as a Nearby Private Club
The closing stretch of Harding Park looks across Lake Merced at the green fingerlings of another golf club: the Olympic Club, no less, a storied private venue and five-time host of the U.S. Open. The Olympic Club was designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting and — guess what? — so was Harding Park. The duo’s design fee for Harding Park was $300. That was in 1925. On weekends these days, $200 is the base fee that out-of-towners pay to play the course.
2. There’s a Presidential Connection
And not just in the form of the Presidents Cup, which Harding Park hosted in 2009. The course is named for Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States and an avid golfer, who died of a heart attack in 1923 while staying at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
3. It Has Another 9
From a bird’s eye view, the routing at Harding Park resembles the cross-section of a cinnamon roll, with the front nine folded inside the back nine. And folded within them both? Another course. The Fleming 9. A nine-hole, par-30 layout named for Jack Fleming, a golf architect and former city golf caretaker for San Francisco.
4. It’s Been a Grooming Ground for Greats
Johnny Miller. George Archer. Bob Rosburg. Tony Lema. That’s a partial roster of the future major champions who cut their teeth at Harding Park. Another was Ken Venturi, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose father, Fred, ran the Harding Park pro shop for years. A stern man, Fred Venturi once bought his son a Model-A Ford, bestowing the gift with one condition: young Ken could only drive the car to school or to the course.
5. Amateur Hour is Serious Here
Along with Lincoln Park, another San Francisco muni, Harding Park is the longtime host of the San Francisco City Golf Championship, which locals simply call “The City.” The first City was played in 1917, and it hasn’t skipped a year since, making it one of the longest consecutively held amateur golf tournaments in the country. The list of City winners — Venturi, Archer, Juli Inkster and on — is impressive. But so is the roster of players — Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Scott McCarron, among others — who tried but never won it. In 1956, in the tournament’s most celebrated iteration, the finals of the City pitted Venturi against his pal, E. Harvie Ward, the reigning U.S. Amateur (and City) champion. Some 10,000 fans swarmed Harding Park for their 36-hole match, where Venturi, speaking in a partly playful stage whisper on the first tee, told Ward: “You’ve stolen my city and I want it back, so I’m going to whip you.” Which he did, closing out his buddy, 5 and 4.
6. It Was Once a Regular Tour Stop
Throughout the 1960s, Harding Park hosted the Lucky International Open (the exception was 1967, when the tournament wasn’t held), a PGA Tour event that produced an A-list of winners that included Jackie Burke, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, George Archer, Ken Venturi and Billy Casper. In 1969, the tournament’s final year, the event was won by Steve Spray, an ominous name for a golfer who hit it laser straight.
7. It Has Experienced Dramatic Ups and Downs
In the 1980s, after many golden years, Harding Park began a period of steep decline, the victim of familiar municipal course indignities. Budgets dwindled. Course conditions decayed. A low point came in 1998, when the U.S. Open was held just across the lake at the Olympic Club. And Harding Park was used as a parking lot for the event.
8. A Blue-Collar Course Got a Blue-Blood Boost
Frank “Sandy” Tatum was a Stanford graduate and winner of the 1942 NCAA individual golf championship who went on to become the president of the United States Golf Association. He was a member of Cypress Point, San Francisco Golf Club and Pine Valley, among other famously private courses. Bluer blood than his was hard to find. But Tatum was also a rabid fan of Harding Park, and a frequent participant in the City. It pained him to see the course in its decline. It was Tatum who spearheaded a multi-million dollar renovation of Harding Park, an ambitious project that went over budget and polarized opinions around the city, though few are griping now about the result, which was completed in 2003. Tatum died in 2017, at age 96, but his memory endures at Harding Park. The clubhouse, which is named in his honor, has a plaque that bears his likeness out front.
9. Many Eagles Landed Here, All Made By One Man
Tatum’s is not the only name memorialized at Harding Park. Another is Ovid Seyler, who was known as “The Institution” because, well, he was one — a longtime regular at Harding Park and four-time winner of the club championship. Cool achievement, right? Perhaps even cooler is the fact that over a 25-plus-year span of playing golf at Harding Park, Seyler eagled every hole on the course. A concrete bench near the putting green pays tribute to Seyler, and a feat that no one else is known to have pulled off.