The renaissance of Harding Park is a tale that has been told many times. By now even casual golf fans know that when Harding opened in 1925 it was arguably the second-best municipal course in the world, trailing only the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland; that decades of benign neglect by the city of San Francisco reduced Harding to a weed-infested paradise lost; and that in the late 1990s Harding Park acquired a silver-haired guardian angel in Sandy Tatum, the Bay Area native and former USGA president who decided to stake much of his legacy on returning the course to its former glory. ¬∂ Harding was reborn in 2003 after a 16-month, $16 million renovation, but next week it finally gets its coming-out party, hosting the prestigious American Express Championship, one of the PGA Tour's four World Golf Championship events. The only unknown left for Harding Park is how it will stand up to the best players in the world. In its former life the course nurtured Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller, among others, but only a handful of today's pros have seen the new 7,086-yard, par-70 layout. ¬∂ "It's a nice old-style course," says PGA Tour vet Joe Ogilvie, who shot even par during a recent corporate outing at Harding. "It has a good routing. I like the big, old cypress trees. It's nice to be able to think your way around a course." ¬∂ Glad you enjoyed it, Joe, but cut to the chase--is this little muni good enough to host a $7.5 million World Golf Championship extravaganza? "Well, I think it ought to be fine," says Ogilvie.
Hmmmm, not exactly a ringing endorsement. Ogilvie's Tour colleague Kevin Sutherland played Harding about a year ago, shooting one under par in a casual round with friends. Sutherland's assessment? "It's a beautiful course," he says. "I thought it was very fair."
Uh-oh. In Tour parlance fair is a code word for easy. Mount Juliet, in Kilkenny, Ireland, is considered exceptionally fair. That's where Tiger Woods went 25 under on his way to winning the 2002 AmEx and where a victorious Ernie Els shot 18 under last year. Scores like that will do nothing to enhance the stature of the new Harding Park, and everyone associated with the course hopes to avoid a birdie bonanza.
"I think eight under is a realistic winning score," says Tatum, who while president of the USGA oversaw the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974, when seven over par won the U.S. Open. "I would hope it's not more than 10."
This is not about vanity but viability. Going forward, Harding is slated to host the AmEx every three years, but there is an understanding that the Tour will cut and run if Harding's playability or conditioning is deemed subpar. San Francisco officials also have their sights set on a USGA championship. Last year Mayor Gavin Newsom wrote to USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., formally requesting that Harding host the 2009 U.S. Women's Open. Newsom was rebuffed--the '09 Women's Open was instead awarded to Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.--but discussions are ongoing about future Opens at Harding. Tatum's ultimate dream is to land not only the Women's Open but also the big enchilada, the men's Open. These grand ambitions add even more frisson to how Harding will be received this week. "You bet it's an audition," says Tatum, "not only for more WGCs but also for the USGA."
The Tour is not taking any chances on the setup for the AmEx. The rough, a mix of rye and perennial bluegrass, will be kept at a shaggy four inches. Most fairways have been reduced to 27 paces wide, and they'll be even narrower on the 344-yard 7th hole and the 336-yard 16th, potentially drivable par-4s. There will be four par-4s of about 470 yards, including the 474-yard 9th and the 475-yard 12th, which play as par-5s for paying customers. Part of what makes Harding fun to play is the variety of holes. With its twisty fairways framed by the long rough and the ball-gobbling cypress trees, Harding should present a thorough long-game examination.
At issue, though, is whether the relatively flat greens will prove tough enough. "This course gets so much play that extreme putting surfaces were never a practical option," says Tatum, citing the 80,000 rounds played at Harding every year. "As it is, there are a lot of subtleties that make them very interesting. Add the speed and firmness of tournament conditions, and we hope these greens will give the pros all they can handle."
Steve Carmen, who as an advance rules staffer for the PGA Tour helps oversee tournament pin placements, says there is an upside to flat greens. "It allows us to get the flags pretty close to the edges," Carmen says, "bringing the bunkers and other terrain features more into play."
Anyway, to obsess over the scoring at Harding Park misses the point. The course will join Bethpage, on Long Island, and Torrey Pines, outside San Diego, as a standard-bearer for public golf. One spillover from the AmEx is that tournament revenue will help fill the coffers of Harding's bustling First Tee facility. Those kids represent golf's future at a course that is a bridge to the past. It was a half century ago that Harding hosted one of the most fabled amateur tournaments ever, the final of the 1956 San Francisco City Championship, at which Venturi defeated Harvie Ward 5 and 4 before 10,000 spectators.
Tatum played in his first City Championship in 1939, when he was a member of the Stanford team, honing the form that would make him the NCAA champ in '42. At 85 he is still a vital presence. Tatum goes to his law office most days of the week and, more impressive, during a recent round at Harding routinely busted the ball 250 yards off the tee with a sweet draw. On the 18th hole, a spectacular 468-yard par-4 that doglegs left along Lake Merced, Tatum leaned into a stiff Bay breeze--another of the course's defenses--and looked ahead to the AmEx and beyond. "There's something special about this place," he said, "and it's going to be nice for the world to rediscover it."