By Tom LaMarre
TPC Harding Park in San Francisco has been out of the world spotlight for a few years, but before long the course on the shores of Lake Merced will shine again.
Regarded as one of best municipal courses in the United States, Harding Park will play host to its first major championship, the 2020 PGA Championship, and also will be the site of the 2025 Presidents Cup. It will be the first PGA Championship contested in California in 25 years.
“Great memories of Harding Park, and it’s good to see the PGA Championship played at a public golf course,” Tiger Woods said when he heard the news that the City by the Bay had landed another major in two years’ time. “Significant renovations were made to the course, and it’s exciting that this is the (site of the) PGA Championship in San Francisco.”
The measure of a course’s challenge for the best players in the game can be quantified in the quality on its list of champions, and the 93-year-old layout designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting matches up very well.
The course, which was named after golf enthusiast President Warren G. Harding when it opened two years after he died while visiting San Francisco in 1923, first was on the national stage when Bruce McCormick captured the U.S. Amateur Public Links there in 1937.
The pros arrived in 1944 and a trend of the cream rising to the top at Harding Park began when Byron Nelson outlasted Jug McSpaden to win the San Francisco Victory Open that celebrated the end of World War II in Europe.
When the PGA Tour’s Lucky International was played at Harding Park from 1961-68, the winners were all greats of the game – Gary Player, Gene Littler, Jack Burke Jr., Chi Chi Rodriguez, George Archer of nearby Gilroy, native San Franciscan Ken Venturi and Billy Casper.
Harding was in the rotation for the San Francisco City Championship and among the winners there were Venturi, Archer and amateur great E. Harvie Ward, while women champions included LPGA Tour great Juli (Simpson) Inkster of Santa Cruz and Dorothy Delasin of San Francisco, who went on to win four times on the women’s tour.
However, the PGA Tour eventually left because of deteriorating course conditions at Harding Park. The downturn lasted nearly three decades, in part because of city budget cuts, with the last straw for Harding Park fans coming when the course was utilized as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open at the neighboring Olympic Club.
Sandy Tatum, a San Francisco attorney and former president of the United States Golf Association, came to the rescue and started a drive to renovate Harding Park. Mayor Willie Brown approved a plan to have Arnold Palmer Golf Management retool and operate the course.
The culmination came when Woods beat John Daly in a playoff to win the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, and four years later Woods posted a 5-0 record as the United States defeated the International team 19½-15½ in the Presidents Cup.
“It’s a lot different golf course than when I played it (as a youngster),” Woods said. “It’s certainly not the golf course when I was. It’s unbelievable how much they’ve changed the golf course. It used to be kind of a basically clover field out here. The greens are unbelievable, perfectly smooth, and it’s just hard to believe what they’ve done here.”
The PGA Tour Champions held its season-ending Charles Schwab Championship at TPC Harding Park in 2010, 2011 and 2013, with the titles going to Fred Couples, John Cook and Jay Don Blake.
In 2015, top-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland captured the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship at TPC Harding Park, beating Gary Woodland in the final, 4 and 2.
“I never played Harding Park before, but as soon as I played the course, I liked it,” McIlroy said. “It’s a fair test of golf. You get rewarded for good shots. It suited my eye. I like big trees that frame holes and you’ve got a lot of definition to work the ball off stuff. I really enjoyed the golf course.”
Johnny Miller, who knows great courses having won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont and the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, has a special place in his heart for TPC Harding Park.
Miller grew up in San Francisco and started playing the course at a young age.
“It’s where I learned the game,” said Miller, who is NBC’s No. 1 golf commentator. “I just loved going there. It was the prized gem that everyone could play. It’s been brought back to what it should be.”
And the world will see it again in two years.