Harding Park just one of a few San Francisco treats

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18th green at Harding Park Golf Course
A view of the finishing hole at Harding Park Golf Course during the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship. The 18th hole will play as the 15th at this week's Presidents Cup.

SAN FRANCISCO – The City by the Bay has numerous tourist treats within and around the city, from Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge, North Beach, Lombard Street and Alcatraz. But head southwest from downtown, toward the Pacific, and you’ll find a golfer’s paradise tucked into a three-mile stretch of doglegs and Cypress trees surrounding Lake Merced.

To the south and west of Lake Merced is the Olympic Club, host to the 2012 U.S. Open and four previous U.S. Opens; on the east side is Harding Park, home to this week’s President’s Cup; and just south and east of Harding is San Francisco Golf Club, a classic A.W. Tillinghast design ranked No. 17 on Golf Magazine’s list of Top 100 Courses in the U.S.

Of the three gems, only Harding Park is open to the public. But fear not, the recreational golfer has plenty of other options nearby to sneak 18 holes in between cable car rides and scenic tours. Just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, only 10 minutes from downtown, is the Presidio Golf Course, a tree-lined course which, until 1995, was owned and operated by the military. A few miles west of the Presidio is Lincoln Park Golf Club, offering spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown on rare days when the fog has taken a vacation.

If nine holes are all you have time for, there’s Fleming Golf Course, located within the interior of Harding Park. And if you feel like going for a scenic drive, Half Moon Bay Golf Links and its 36-hole facility is just 17 miles from Harding Park, and is also open to the public.

There’s a reason Northern California was chosen to host two of the next three U.S. Open championships (Pebble Beach has the honors in 2010) and a President’s Cup: It’s ocean vistas, rolling terrain and majestic tree-lined fairways make it one of the most desirable golf destinations in the world. Here’s a little peek into the San Francisco scene, headlined by Harding Park.

Harding Park Golf Course

Harding Park Golf Course
San Francisco, Calif.
Website

Getting there: From the airport, take I-380W to I-280N to CA-1 S toward Pacifica. Exit onto CA-35 N/Skyline Blvd.

Prices: $135 Mon.-Thu., $155 Fri.-Sun; $46 and $59 for San Francisco Resident Card Holders.

Did you know: Harding's fairways were used for parking during the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

Harding Park is the third municipal golf course in the last 18 months to be thrust onto the world stage, following in the footsteps of Torrey Pines (2008 U.S. Open) and Bethpage Black (2009 U.S. Open). Harding is no stranger to big events, however, having hosted the American Express Championship – part of the World Golf Championships – in 2005. Tiger Woods and John Daly traded 300-plus yard blows in that event, with Woods prevailing in a sudden-death playoff when Daly three-putted the 16th green (Daly missed a 3-footer on the 72nd hole to win outright).

Woods will be back at Harding this week for the President’s Cup (Oct. 8-11), and he’ll find the course relatively unchanged since ’05. There is some concern about the greens, however, after an incident in late July when course officials mistakenly over-fertilized and burned several greens. Five greens sustained significant damage and were immediately closed for repair, with temporary greens in place on holes 1, 3, 7, 11 and 13.

A month ago all the greens were open again with the exception of No. 11. There were no visible signs of damage. Harding Park is a straightforward golf course, but if your tee shots stray just a little offline you must contend with the overhanging tree limbs, which spread out like a bird’s nest. The Monterrey Cypress and Pine trees beautifully frame each fairway, but they also can be a nuisance on your approach shots, as I discovered on the first hole when my second shot plunked one of these branches. The trees are very tight to the fairways here, so it’s essential you keep your ball in play to score well.

The inward nine at Harding Park (7,169 yards from the championship tees; 6,845 blue; 6,405 white) is certainly the more photogenic of the two nines. The 13th hole, a slight dogleg right par 4, provides you with your first glimpse of the Olympic Club and Lake Merced. Just to the right of the flagstick on this cool, foggy Saturday morning, you could see the giant Olympic clubhouse. Holes 14 through 17 all run alongside Lake Merced. The par-4 14th is the prettiest of this set of holes: The fairway slopes significantly from right to left, but not nearly as much as the fairways on Olympic’s Lake Course. From the 14th tee, you can see just how much these fairways pitch; it’s as if someone took a coffee table and turned it on its side.

The 16th is another spectacular hole. A short dogleg right playing only 330 yards from the back tees, a mammoth Cypress tree stands guard over the right side of the fairway, about 75 yards short of the green. The play is to take dead aim at the first fairway bunker on your left with a fairway wood or hybrid, which will leave you with a short-iron approach.

Harding’s finishing hole (440 yards from the back tees) is the one which will inspire the most chatter at the 19th hole following your round. A sweeping dogleg left, you must carry a corner of Lake Merced to a fairway that slopes hard from right to left. The more you’re able to draw your ball off the tee, the less yardage you’ll have in for your approach shot, which plays uphill to a green that slopes subtly from back to front and is fronted by two deep bunkers. Woods and Daly both cut the corner and hit 320-yard drives on this hole during the 2005 WGC event.

The 18th will play as the 15th hole in this week’s President’s Cup matches, so it has a chance to factor into most of the matches. Among the more notable holes, the par-5 ninth (525 yards) will play as No. 18, and the par-5 10th (562 yards) as the first, meaning the opening and finishing holes will both be par 5s.

Fleming Course

Sandwiched between the 10th and 11th holes of Harding Park to the east, and holes 2, 4, 5 and 6 of Harding to the west, sits the Fleming Course. This interior nine-hole course, originally dubbed the ‘Fleming Nine,’ features three par 4s and six par-3 holes, and measures 2,165 yards (1,865 forward tees). Opened in 1961, it was designed and built by Jack Fleming, who worked with legendary golf course architect Dr. Alister Mackenzie on such courses as Cypress Point and Pasatiempo.

With assistance from the PGA Tour design staff, Fleming recently underwent an extensive renovation much like neighboring Harding Park. With the exception of its length, it’s hard to differentiate it from Harding with its tight, tree-lined fairways, elevated greens and well-placed bunkers. Many regulars to Harding will head to Fleming after playing 18 at the big park. So whether you’re up for playing 27 holes or just have time to squeeze in nine, Harding Park has it all.

View from the ninth green at Presidio Golf Course

A view from behind the par-5 ninth hole at Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco.

Presidio Golf Course

Presidio Golf Course
San Francisco, Calif.
Website

Getting there:Take I-280W to Highway 1/19th Ave., which becomes Park Presidio Blvd. Turn right onto Lake St., then right onto Arguello Blvd.

Prices: Non-residents pay $125 Mon.-Thu., $145 Fri.-Sun.; $69 and $85 for Bay Area residents

Did you know: The Presidio served as a refuge camp for survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The famous quote about “the coldest winter ever being a summer spent in San Francisco” was never more true than on this afternoon at the Presidio. Located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, not far from the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio is exposed to a lot of fog and wind, something this newly transplanted Floridian was not ready for. At times, especially at higher elevations, the wind was gusting some 25 to 30 miles per hour.

Elevation is something you’ll see a lot of at this former military installation, which from 1898 to 1991 hosted top military brass and world leaders such as former Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Thirteen of the holes play uphill, although on the first two holes you feel like you’re teeing off from the clouds.

The par-5 10th hole (489 yards from the white tees) plays about two to two-and-a-half clubs uphill and usually into the wind, making it near impossible to reach in two for all but the longest of hitters. When you reach the top of the hill, you’ll find a green that slopes heavily from back to front and from left to right. When the wind is howling, this is a very difficult par.

Walk a few more steps to the 11th tee box and your at the highest point on the course. On a clear day, which is rare, you can see the span of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can’t see the landing area on this downhill par 4, but a 225-yard drive should leave you in flattest part of the fairway with a short iron in hand and a good look at the green.

The par-3 13th hole may be the strangest par-3 you’ll ever play, as an oak tree sits directly on your line to the green, halfway to the hole. It’s just big enough to block your view of the green, making it play almost blind. Your day ends with a straightaway par 5 hole which is guarded on the left by a row of tall Eucalyptus and Monterrey Pine trees that frame the hole like a series of Manhattan skyscrapers.

The Presidio (6,424 blue tees; 6,097 white; 5,705 red) opened to the general public in 1995, when it was converted to a National Park. Shortly thereafter, it underwent a four-year, $9 million renovation under Arnold Palmer’s Golf Management group, and like Harding Park, quickly became recognized as one of the nation’s top public courses. The greens fee is no longer 50 cents, as it was back in 1895 when it first opened as a nine-hole course, but for $125 you can walk among giants such as Byron Nelson, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.