An Elite Field Comes to Play on Public Domain

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For much of the last three decades, it was difficult to see Harding Park as anything but a tattered municipal golf course taking up valuable property along Lake Merced.

Sandy Tatum only saw opportunity.

Never mind that the greens were brick hard, chewed up by disease and pitch marks. Or that weeds had pushed their way through the sparse grass in the fairways. Harding Park, built in 1925, once held its own against the two courses it adjoins -- Olympic Club and the prestigious San Francisco Golf Club -- but neglect left it a pauper among princes.

And that broke Tatum's heart.

'This golf course, one of the most effective golf courses you can find, had deteriorated so grievously that something needed to be done to even keep it alive,' Tatum said.

Thanks to Tatum, Harding Park is back in its glory this week.

The municipal course surrounded on three sides by Lake Merced hosts a World Golf Championship that brings together Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and the best players from around the globe.
 
'It's certainly not the golf course when I was pretty young playing it,' Woods said Tuesday. 'It's unbelievable how much they've changed the golf course. It used to be basically a clover field out here. The greens are unbelievable, perfectly smooth. It's just hard to believe what they've done here.'

Tatum, 85, considers the resurrection of Harding Park the most pleasing project of his career, no small statement coming from a well-heeled attorney, Rhodes Scholar, NCAA champion at Stanford and former USGA president.

'I can't think of anything I may have done that gives me quite the level of satisfaction as having participated in this process,' Tatum said.

And what a process it was.

It started with a phone call to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in 1997, the day after Finchem created The First Tee program aimed at making golf more affordable and accessible to kids.

'Sandy had this idea of rebuilding Harding Park, and we decided to work together on getting it rebuilt,' Finchem said. 'And then it took awhile -- it takes awhile to do things in California. But it works for the community. And we'll see how it works for the big boys.'

It took six years for the project to weave its way through a maze of politics in San Francisco, a miracle in itself. Tatum's stately blend of acumen and passion persuaded the 11-member board of supervisors to go along with a $16 million renovation that took 15 months.

The final touch is the American Express Championship, which Tatum believes will serve as a worthy test while putting Harding Park back on the map as an elite golf course everyone can afford.

'The fundamental was, and is, that you can provide those who can pay $45 for a round of golf with a premier experience that will add something significant to the life they live,' Tatum said. 'The way to do that is to give the golf course an identity -- a cache, if you will -- that a premier tournament could give it.

'I couldn't ask for a tournament that has more to offer for that project.'

It will be the first time a World Golf Championship is staged on a truly public venue. The American Express has been played at Valderrama (Spain) and Mount Juliet (Ireland) twice, along with Capital City Club, an exclusive piece of property north of Atlanta. The NEC Invitational is at Firestone Country Club, with one trip to Sahalee.

The Accenture Match Play Championship is at La Costa Resort, available to the public, but at a steep price.

The only question is whether Harding Park can hold its own. The renovation added about 400 yards, and the course will play as a par 70 at 7,086 yards. Among those concerned is Ken Venturi, the former U.S. Open champion who grew up at Harding Park and won his last PGA Tour event there in 1966 at the Lucky International.

'These guys, where they hit it, they're going to shoot some low scores,' he said.

More relevant than the scores, however, is the message it sends by staging such a big event at Harding Park.

USGA executive director David Fay worked hard to bring the U.S. Open to Bethpage Black in 2002, the first time it was held at a truly public golf course. A few years later, the USGA again promoted the importance of public golf by awarding the 2008 U.S. Open to Torrey Pines in San Diego.

'I just think the game took a wrong turn 20 years ago when public golf became denigrated to a third-rate experience,' Tatum said. 'The game became so desperately expensive to play, particularly on premier golf courses, that the game lost its fundamental appeal.'

He pointed to Bethpage and Torrey Pines as a significant steps toward a return to more big-time tournaments being staged at public golf courses, a trend he would like to see continue.
 
There would appear to be ample opportunity.

Imagine how many other public courses are wasting away in America, needing only the vision, a smart financing plan and some nurturing to become as worthy as the private clubs in town.

'My guess would be there are legions,' Tatum said. 'Maybe this will move the game in the right direction.'
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - WGC-American Express Championship