Every once in a while, Tom Smith pulls out a blue folder with dozens of Polaroid pictures from the 1998 U.S. Open as if he’s settling a bar bet. Smith, the general manager at TPC Harding Park, wasn’t there that week when the national championship was contested across Lake Merced at Olympic Club and Lee Janzen hoisted the silver trophy. But the photos are visual proof for any doubters of Harding Park’s parking-lot pedigree.
“Look at all those vehicles,” Smith says as he flips through photos for a host of onlookers in his office. “Here’s the third green looking back down to No. 7 covered in cars, and the 18th fairway, row after row of cars. It makes you wonder: Would it have ever crossed these fans’ minds that they were parking on a course that one day would be the host of a major championship?”
The running joke in the lead-up to the PGA Championship now scheduled Aug. 6-9 at TPC Harding Park – at least before fans were barred from attending because of the global coronavirus pandemic – was that cars should be parked on Olympic’s fairways this time. Situated on a bluff in the southwest corner of the city and surrounded on three sides by Lake Merced, TPC Harding Park has become a darling of the golf world and ready, at last, for its finest hour. The story of its rejuvenation from beloved-but-neglected course to major worthy is a saga involving class warfare, city history, backroom politics and even a Shakespearean storm.
Named after President Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer who died at the Palace Hotel while visiting San Francisco, the course opened in 1925 and was considered the second-best muni in the world, next to the Old Course at St. Andrews. The imaginative flair of Scot Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, who had teamed to design Olympic Club, stamped Harding Park’s greatness for the princely sum of $300. Construction on this striking piece of sandy, naturally rolling terrain cost $295,000 and left a worthy rival as neighbors to the Bay Area’s famed private courses, San Francisco Golf Club and Olympic Club.
Harding Park’s sterling reputation was sealed as host of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 1937 and 1956, as the site of Byron Nelson winning the San Francisco Open in 1944 and 1945, and where major winners Ken Venturi, George Archer and Johnny Miller cut their teeth in their youth.
Venturi, the winner of the 1964 U.S. Open, grew up not far from the 12th tee and played his first 18-hole round at Harding Park at the age of 13 with a set of hickory-shafted clubs. (For the record, he shot 172; in the 1952 club championship he set the course record, 63, which stood for years.) His father, Fred, was the starter at the course and operated the pro shop with his wife, Ethyl. Venturi won the PGA Tour’s Lucky International on home soil in 1966, his last Tour victory, but after 1969 the conditions of the course and its dated facilities sent the Tour packing.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the fact the course’s net income went directly into the city’s general fund is widely regarded as responsible for the years of deferred maintenance. Dandelions dotted the fairways, bunkers became like quicksand and greens were shaggy battlefields. With an understaffed and underfunded maintenance team, Harding Park became the quintessential scruffy, beat-up but beloved muni.
“It broke my heart,” Venturi told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the course’s deteriorating condition.
Harding Park hit rock bottom when it was converted into a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open and no one seemed to care. Well, one person did. It would take a fearless leader willing to endure a quixotic quest to spearhead Harding’s turnaround from run-down muni to a championship track for the world’s best players.
Frank “Sandy” Tatum, who won the 1942 NCAA men’s individual golf championship as a student at Stanford, was just that man. He first set eyes on Harding Park in 1939 as a competitor in the San Francisco City Golf Championship, known affectionately to Bay Area golfers simply as The City. He went on to play the event 40 times, reaching the quarterfinals once. Tatum and fellow devotees of the course believed the bones of Willie Watson’s superb routing remained.
“The quality of the place just fixed in my being,” said Tatum, who died in 2017 at age 96, in a 2003 story in Golf Digest.
Tatum persuaded PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to attend a dinner with him and powerbrokers Charles Schwab and former Bank of America executive Gene Lockhart, and Tatum made his pitch that Harding Park could again be a shining example of the best that public golf represents. Finchem was sold, especially with Tatum’s inclusion to build a First Tee facility, a program conceived during Finchem’s watch and designed to bring golf and its core values to inner-city youth. In July 1999, Finchem and Tatum were joined by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to announce their desire to renovate the course and bring the 2002 Tour Championship to town.
It didn’t take long for opposition to the plan to form. Friends of Muni Golf, led by a quartet of men dubbed “The Four Horsemen” and concerned they’d lose access to affordable golf, sparked great debate, and the political machine delayed approval for several years. In the meantime, the Tour Championship was promised to Atlanta, but Finchem committed to take the occasional Tour event to Harding Park if the course was deemed worthy. Tatum, a lawyer by trade, clung to his vision like a life raft during a storm and overcame one legal and political obstacle after another.
The turning point was a city bureaucrat realizing the availability of $16 million from an Open Space bond issue – state money given from the 2000 passage of Proposition 12 – to fund the project and to be repaid by the course’s profits. (The project eventually ran $7 million over budget.) A separate deal was hammered out that allowed city residents to continue to pay reasonable rates as part of a green fee plan that rakes most of its revenue from out-of-area golfers. In March 2002 the city’s board of supervisors approved the project 11-0.
Venturi was hired as a design consultant, and under Tatum’s watchful eye, Chris Gray, the lead architect at PGA Tour Design Services, Inc., restored the luster to the cherished design, returning the best attributes to the narrow, cypress-lined fairways for modern play. Nothing came easy with this project, and it endured another setback along the way: Its new irrigation system failed during a deluge that flooded the course, and it cost nearly $2 million to replace it.
“I almost felt a metaphysical aspect was at work, that there was something supernatural that wanted to kill the project,” Tatum told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Despite all these hardships, fantasy became reality and Harding Park reopened in 2003, giving Bay Area public golfers a world-class course to call their own (and operated as part of the Tour’s TPC network).
“I would argue it’s a best practice for local government and the private sector anywhere,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. “Local government can’t do it alone. We don’t have all the resources we need. We have lots of competing demands and this golf course wasn’t in very good shape, but a partnership between the city’s political leadership and the city’s civic leadership and the golf community really made this happen.”
The first day of play at Harding Park was reserved for golfers who didn’t belong to private clubs. There was a blind draw with slips of paper for each player that had signed up for the 120 available slots.
“I looked in the drum and thought there must be 700 names in there,” Tatum recalled to The Times. “There were 7,500.”
“It used to be basically a clover field out here,” said Tiger Woods, who played the course frequently during his Stanford days, ahead of his victory at the 2005 WGC American Express Championship at TPC Harding Park. “It’s just hard to believe what they’ve done.”
Only through Tatum’s tireless work did Harding’s restoration spring to life. In recognition for his efforts, the city placed a commemorative plaque in front of “The Tatum Tree” near the first tee bearing the words: “San Francisco honors Frank ‘Sandy’ Tatum Jr. for his invaluable gift to the City – the renaissance of a treasured jewel, Harding Park Golf Course.” A new clubhouse, funded with $8 million in private donations, also bears his name.
“I didn’t want them to do that, but if they did, I wanted it to be subtle,” Tatum said at the reopening. “There was a sign so big I thought I’d trip over it.”
Woods and Rory McIlroy both won World Golf Championships at the course, as did a U.S. team in the Presidents Cup (another is scheduled here in 2026), and three Charles Schwab Cup winners have been crowned here. But all of those were “an audition,” in Tatum’s words, for the major championship he envisioned. Tatum, who served from 1972 to 1980 on the U.S. Golf Association executive committee, including a two-year stint as president, dreamed of a U.S. Open, but the Wanamaker Trophy will do just fine. The PGA of America, in search of a site for its first PGA Championship on the west coast since 1998, signed an agreement in City Hall in 2014 with San Francisco’s late Mayor Ed Lee, a golf enthusiast.
“It’s affirmation of what I thought that golf course could be,” Tatum told the San Francisco Chronicle when Harding Park was awarded the PGA. “This development really verifies all the thoughts and feelings I had coming into this project.”
Ginsburg compared it to hosting the Super Bowl at a public field, and when asked to summarize what staging this championship means to the community, he never hesitated. “I can do it in five letters,” he said. “P-R-I-D-E.” Gwk
This article originally appeared in Issue 3 – 2020 of Golfweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.