Golf, by nature, is never perfect, but there was a time and a
place in America--before the words cartpath only were first
heard--where the game came close. In this Camelot, July and
August were never too hot, and classic courses, built on sandy
coastal soil akin to the linksland of the British Isles, turned
the deepest green. A cross section of townspeople played, 18
holes could be walked in three hours, young golfers had a place
to learn, and local champions were celebrities.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
Golf was just golf--beautiful, natural and simple. The time was
the two decades between the end of World War II and the Summer
of Love. The place was San Francisco.
Today, anyone who endures five-hour rounds at one of the city's
threadbare municipal courses knows those halcyon days are long
gone. "I'm afraid that at the moment golf in San Francisco could
be classified as paradise lost," says Sandy Tatum, the former
president of the USGA who is leading a campaign to make the
city's public courses wonderful again. Whether that happens or
not, next week's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club will bring back
memories of an era of golf as rich as any this country has ever
San Francisco had it all. The half-dozen courses near the rugged
western rim of the city--from A.W. Tillinghast's masterpiece,
the San Francisco Club, to the 5,300-yard miniaturistic marvel
at Lincoln Park--require a style of play that struck a chord
with the game's best. Ben Hogan, the finest U.S. Open player in
history, called the Olympic Club his favorite of all the venues
used for that championship. Byron Nelson had an even stronger
bond with the city's courses, formed when he won the San
Francisco Open three times in the mid-'40s and strengthened in
the '50s when he came to the city to play exhibitions and tutor
the young Ken Venturi. "In my experience," says Nelson, "it's
the best area in the country to play golf if you want to be a
good player. I really loved playing there."
San Francisco's courses acted as greenhouses that nurtured such
homegrown greats as Venturi, George Archer, Johnny Miller and
Bob Rosburg--a foursome that collectively has won the Grand
Slam--as well as honing the games of transplants such as Tony
Lema, Lawson Little and Harvie Ward. Sprouting along with them
were dozens of locals nearly as good. "Damn, we had a lot of
good players," says Rosburg. "I used to wonder if I was born too
soon, but the older I get, the more I think I was in the right
place at the right time. To grow up a golfer in San Francisco
when I did was special."
Golf strongholds such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have
courses that rank with San Francisco's, while Sun Belt cities in
Florida, Southern California and Texas have produced more
players. Venues other than Olympic have held more championships,
although of the three previous Opens there, two are among the
most memorable--Jack Fleck's upset of Hogan in 1955 and Billy
Casper's impossible comeback against Arnold Palmer in '66. What
made San Francisco special during its golden age was the
ambience and energy of the town, and the way golf was woven into
the fabric of the community thanks to the annual City
Championship, which remains one of the largest amateur
tournaments in the world. San Francisco had a spirit that seemed
to have been delivered directly from St. Andrews.
According to Ward, a North Carolinian who became the top amateur
in the country after moving west in 1953, San Francisco "was
probably the best city ever in which to be a good player. It
seemed like everybody played golf, especially all the restaurant
owners, and they treated us like we were big time. When we
walked into one of their places, we were on par with Joe
DiMaggio or Hugh McElhenny."
Not every good golfer was given a key to the city. Consider Hank
Magnaris, a 72-year-old retired starter at San Francisco's
munis, whom Archer calls the best putter he has ever seen.
Magnaris's turf was a now-defunct putting green at Lincoln Park,
where he would play putting games for money with up to a dozen
other men. The game was simple: Collect a dollar from everyone
for his one-putts; pay everyone 50 cents for three-putts. On
warm weekend evenings, under the glow of a perfectly placed
street lamp where 34th Avenue meets Clement, the games would
sometimes go all night and into the next day, with exhausted or
tapped-out players floating in and out, sometimes catching some
sleep on a nearby bench.
"On the practice green I had an edge," says Magnaris. "I could
putt six or eight hours at a crack without getting tired. When
it got dark I gained the advantage, especially around one or two
in the morning, because I'm a night person and I could remember
all the breaks around the holes."
San Francisco's golf history began on the western side of the
city, on an urban greenbelt that would later include Golden Gate
Park. At the turn of the century most San Franciscans found the
area undesirable because of persistent fog, but when the golf
architect Alister Mackenzie visited the city in the '20s, he saw
potential. "The sand dune country owned by the Olympic Club,
although not so spectacular as that on the Monterey Peninsula,
is the finest golfing territory I have seen in America," he
wrote. John Fleming, the superintendent at Olympic, whose
father, Jack, assisted Mackenzie in building several courses in
Northern California, says the area possesses perfect growing
conditions. The proof is the thousands of cypress, cedar, pine
and eucalyptus that the course builders planted on the otherwise
barren landscape. Today, the gnarled and majestic trees are the
most distinctive feature of the city's courses.
San Francisco golf is different. Visually, the pervasive gray
that shrouds the verdant landscape is peaceful as well as
intimidating. The air is invigorating but thick with moisture,
which reduces the distance a ball will carry. Because of the
trees, accuracy is critical. The land seems rumpled and a level
lie is rare, as is a ball that sits up in the damp grass. The
greens tend toward the small side and, especially at the private
clubs, are framed by artful bunkering. The putting surfaces are
relatively flat, but the irregularities in the ground, and the
poa annua grass, make a straight putt rare.
Such conditions produced an inordinate number of well-rounded
players: straight hitters who could bend drives either way;
imaginative iron players who could control both shape and
trajectory; improvisational scramblers and deadly putters.
Miller, Rosburg and Venturi had the added advantage of having
learned, as junior members of Olympic, to deal with what Miller
calls reverse banked fairways, which demand that the golfer fade
approaches from sidehill hook lies, and vice versa.
The level of competition was also a plus. "Hell, I thought the
California State Amateur in the '40s and '50s was harder to win
than the National Amateur," says Rosburg. "A lot of the San
Francisco guys couldn't afford to go back east for the big
national tournaments, but they would be at Pebble. I could have
picked 12 guys you never heard of from San Francisco and we
would have had a hell of a Walker Cup team."
Rosburg was no unknown. The son of a doctor, he was a prodigy of
such renown that at two he was taken on the vaudeville circuit,
on which he hit cotton balls into the audience. Rosburg first
played at Lincoln Park, a few blocks from his home. At seven, in
1934, he had a hole in one from the ladies tee on the 8th hole
at the Stanford course while shooting a 99. At 11 he shot 69 at
Lincoln and a year later beat Ty Cobb 7 and 6 in the first
flight of the Olympic Club championship. Despite his pudgy body
and thick glasses, Rosburg was a good enough athlete to play
second base for Stanford, but his real gift was uncanny hand-eye
coordination. He could juggle, was a pinball wizard and could
throw a playing card over the roof of a two-story building. "As
kids we called Bob 'The King,'" says Magnaris, who went to
Presidio Junior High and Washington High with Rosburg. "He could
do things nobody else could do."
Still, in 1948 Rosburg almost quit golf when he lost the final
of the State Amateur at Pebble Beach in sudden death. For the
rest of his career, even when he won the '59 PGA, Rosburg
battled his temper and burnout. "I might have suffered from
starting too early," he says. "It can be a burden. That's why I
look for signs of problems from Tiger Woods."
Venturi, who used to babysit Rosburg's children, grew up at
Harding Park, where his father, Fred, was the pro. Venturi
developed an iron game so accurate that by the time he won his
second City, in 1953, at 22, he had eagled every par-4 on the
course. Venturi stammered badly as a teenager and gravitated
toward golf because he could play alone. While hitting shag
balls in solitude at Harding Park, he talked to himself,
experimenting with ways to correct his speech.
Venturi's early career was guided by Eddie Lowery, who had
caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open and moved to
San Francisco in the '40s as a Ford dealer. Lowery arranged for
Nelson to work with him at the auto dealership.
Lowery did the same for Ward, whom he persuaded to move to San
Francisco after Ward won the '52 British Amateur. Venturi and
Ward made the Walker Cup team in '53 and stayed sharp by playing
money games set up by Lowery.
Of all the San Franciscans who made it big, Archer was the most
competitive; that made up for what he lacked in natural ability.
"I wasn't very good for a long time," says Archer, who took up
the game at 14, at San Mateo Muni. "The thing I had going for me
was that I loved to play, and still do. I just kept playing."
Most of that playing was at Harding, where Archer perfected the
short game that earned him the nickname Trashcan George. Archer
once bet that he could play from the 18th tee to the 10th hole
at Harding, a distance of more than 800 yards, in five
strokes--and with a pitch and a putt pulled it off. Still,
Archer didn't win many tournaments and sustained himself by
fleecing a steady stream of pigeons. "I kept getting games
because I looked like a guy you could beat," he says. In 1963
Archer's awkward tee-to-green game finally came around, and he
won the Trans-Miss as well as the City. He joined the Tour in
'64 and went on to win 12 events, including the '69 Masters.
Although Miller, too, began at Harding, playing his first rounds
at seven, he soon was working with instructor John Geertsen at
the San Francisco Golf Club and honing what he learned by
hitting practice balls into a tarpaulin his father had hung in
the basement of their house. Like Venturi, Miller attended
Lincoln High (the only high school with two grads who won the
U.S. Open) and, like Archer, caddied for Ward. After receiving
his membership at Olympic, Miller won the 1964 U.S. Junior when
he was 17. "Because of the San Francisco players who came before
me, I grew up with a standard I knew I had to reach," Miller says.
One title eluded Little, Miller and Rosburg, as well as Tom
Watson while he was at Stanford. None of them won the City. The
winner of the championship flight must survive six rounds of
match play over four weekends in usually sodden February. Since
1917, but especially during its golden era, the City gave San
Francisco a unique tie to the game's origins. "There is no event
like it in golf," says Tatum, who has rarely missed a City over
the last 50 years. "The fact that it's held on municipal courses
in lousy shape only adds to the mystique."
Ward won the City once, in 1955. "When I moved to San Francisco,
I was defending British Amateur champ, but that didn't impress
the local sportswriters," he says. "They wrote that I wouldn't
prove myself until I won the City." Ward finally proved himself
the same year he won the first of his two consecutive U.S.
Amateurs and tied for the 36-hole lead in the Open at Olympic.
In '56 Venturi was back from military service, and his game was
nearing a peak (in April he would lead the Masters by four after
54 holes only to finish with an 80 and lose by one). He met Ward
in the final of the City, and the match between the national
champion and the favorite son brought more than 10,000 fans to
Harding, most of them Venturi rooters.
"When I saw Harvie on the 1st tee, I said, 'Harvie, you've
stolen my city. Now it's you and me, and I'm going to get it
back,'" says Venturi. "He was three under for 33 holes, but I
was 10 under." Venturi won 4 and 3.
That night, Venturi's first son, Matthew, was born. Sitting in
the hospital waiting room with him was Ward. "We were rivals,
but all the golf we had played together had made us close," says
Venturi. "We were amateurs, and it was a gentleman's game. What
a wonderful night that was."
The future looked bright. For a brief moment San Francisco had
become the center of the golf universe. Hogan's loss at the Open
had been one of the most dramatic in history. Venturi would
nearly win the Masters, and Ward would win his second straight
Amateur. That was the peak of San Francisco golf. Soon after
Ward's win, an investigation by the city attorney into possible
tax evasion by Lowery produced information that he had been
covering Ward's expenses. The USGA found the arrangement a
violation of the rules and suspended Ward for a year. He was
never the same player, and in 1956 Venturi turned pro. "The
effect was significant," says Tatum. "It took Lowery away from
the scene, and it ended the rivalry between Venturi and Ward,
which was irreplaceable. It was a blow to amateur golf, but a
bigger blow to San Francisco golf."
A slow decline began, brought on by the same problems that
plagued urban golf all over the country. As late as 1964, San
Francisco was still home to three national champions--Miller in
the U.S. Junior, Venturi in the U.S. Open and William Higgins,
an Olympic member, in the U.S. Senior Amateur. But that was the
last hurrah. In 1966, two years after he had won the British
Open at St. Andrews, Lema, a San Leandro, Calif., native who had
worked at the San Francisco Golf Club, was killed when his small
plane crashed on a golf course. In '66 Venturi won for the last
time on Tour, fittingly at Harding Park, in the Lucky
International. Within two years severe circulation problems in
his hands would end his playing career.
Miller kept San Francisco's heritage alive with great years in
the 1970s, but no San Franciscan since has played the Tour
regularly. "Today the city golf courses treat the kids like
crap," says Venturi. "Nobody's helping them. When I grew up,
people in San Francisco wanted to help you."
Says Gary Vanier, a former Stanford player who won the City six
times between 1971 and '94, "If you grow up in San Francisco
today and don't belong to a club, it's virtually impossible to
be a good player."
Tatum has a dream. He is trying to broker a $12 million deal to
renovate Harding Park and make it a permanent site in the PGA
Tour's rotation for the Tour Championship. Tied into the project
would be a First Tee program providing equipment and instruction
to urban youth as well as access to the course. In Tatum's blue
sky, the restoration of Lincoln Park would follow.
"Part of my challenge is impressing upon people how wonderful
things used to be for golfers in the city," he says. "If they
can understand that, I believe they will want it again." For San
Francisco, where golf was once natural, simple and beautiful, it
would be paradise regained.
THE LAKE COURSE
HOLE PAR YARDS HOLE PAR YARDS
1 5 533 10 4 422
2 4 394 11 4 430
3 3 223 12 4 416
4 4 438 13 3 186
5 4 457 14 4 422
6 4 437 15 3 157
7 4 288 16 5 609
8 3 137 17 4 468
9 4 433 18 4 347
35 3,340 35 3,457
"It can be a burden."
"Nobody's helping them."