Public golf has always been a mainstay in San Francisco, providing city dwellers the chance to walk the same historic courses that have produced some of the game’s greatest champions.
By Josh Sens
This article first appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of NCGA Golf
For a glimpse of what awaits you on a tour of San Francisco’s public courses, pause beside the putting green at Lincoln Park, a scruffy, scenic layout on the city’s outer reaches. The modest practice area commands scene-stealing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, which looms so close it almost seems that you could touch it.
But forget the postcard vistas.
Focus on the plaque.
Mounted on a stone a few paces from the green, the plaque pays tribute to the late George Archer, a San Francisco native and winner of the 1969 Masters. A wizard with the flatstick, Archer lived just down the street, and often worked his magic in low-stakes evening putting games at Lincoln Park, back when the practice green was lit at night.
The memorial to Archer makes for a striking contrast- major champion; humble muni -but that’s what you get in San Francisco, where blue-collar courses have long been grooming ground for blue-chip talent.
“Historically, San Francisco was a working-class city, and that history is reflected in its golf,” says John Abendroth, a former Tour pro and co-host of the TV and radio show, Hooked On Golf. “A lot of the best players who came up here, they weren’t exactly your silver spoon-types. So very often, when you’re playing public golf here, you’re playing in the same places where they learned the game.”
Raised in San Francisco’s West Portal district, Abendroth starred on the junior golf circuit, and like other local prodigies who came before him-Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller, Bob Rosburg, Bob Lunn, to name a few- he enjoyed ready access to a topflight cluster of municipal layouts, all grouped within a 30-minute drive.
That constellation holds today, and TPC Harding Park (pictured above) remains its brightest star.
Opened in 1925, and named for the U.S. President who died in San Francisco two years before, Harding was designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, the men behind The Olympic Club’s prestigious Lake Course, which peers out at Harding from the other side of Lake Merced.
Even in its infancy, Harding was widely hailed as every bit its private neighbor’s equal, and it soon attracted tournaments that underscored the point. The U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship was held at Harding in 1937, and then again in 1956. In the 1960s, the course emerged as a regular Tour stop, and in 1981, it hosted the Tour’s first full-field senior professional event.
Harding’s reputation as a mighty muni, the Everyman’s answer to the polished private club, sprang largely from its staging of the San Francisco City Golf Championship, which was born at Lincoln Park in 1917.
Fiercely contested, frequently in inclement conditions, “The City,” as the still-thriving event is known, has long embodied San Francisco public golf in all its wild inclusiveness and color, never more so than in those early years.
Its eclectic fields pitted plumbers against plutocrats, cab drivers against corporate lawyers. And its unforgiving, multi-day format produced a roster of champs (Venturi, Archer, Juli Inkster) that is rivalled in prestige by the list of those who came up short. (Tom Watson, Bob Rosburg, Johnny Miller).
As many see it, the tournament’s most epic iteration took place in 1956, when native son Venturi, freshly returned from military service, squared off in the finals against his friend and defending champ, Harvie Ward, in a match that drew more
than 10,000 fans.
Standing on the first tee, Venturi, who cut his teeth at Harding, and who claimed the City tide in 1951, turned to Ward and stage-whispered in a tone of amiable aggression: “You’ve stolen my city, and I want it back, so I’m going to whip you.”
Which he did, 5 and 4.
As decades passed, Harding’s golden era gradually gave way to a prolonged period of neglect, the notorious nadir coming in 1998 when the course was used as a parking lot for the U.S Open at The Olympic Club.
But that was then.
Following a S16 million renovation lead by the city of San Francisco and the PGA Tour, completed in 2005, these are heady days once more for Harding. The course, which now operates as TPC Harding Park, has regained its status as a marquee venue, having hosted the 2005 WGC American Express Championship, the 2009 Presidents Cup and three Schwab Cups, the season-ending Champions Tour event. This past summer, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America added to that luster with the announcement that Harding had landed three big-time events, scheduled over the next 11 years (the 2015 WGC Match Play Championship; the 2020 PGA Championship; and the 2025 Presidents Cup).
Play Harding today, and you understand its renewed appeal. The layout’s lovely bones remain intact, as does (with minor tweaks) its distinctive routing in which a dramatic backside wraps around a nuanced front.
But the body of the course has been fleshed out to its full beauty, the fairways and green complexes brought back to life. Though Harding gains some of its grandeur from the stately trees that frame it, it also owes its aura to its place in history.
It’s a great walk that doubles as an amble back through time. Then again, the past is ever present when you peg it at a public track around these parts. You sense it when you make the rounds at Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a sweet par-3 track engulfed by the storied park that shares its name. You feel it when you swing by gritty Gleneagles, a great sleeper of a layout, run on a shoestring, that Lee Trevino is said to have described as the toughest nine-holer he ever played. And it hits you with full force when you shoot south, just beyond the city limits, to Sharp Park, yet another muni whose shabby facade belies it sparkling pedigree.
One of the rare public courses built by Alister Mackenzie, Sharp Park has endured years of legal battles, targeted by environmentalists who would like to see it closed. But the course has staunch defenders, and a movement is afoot to refurbish the coastal layout, which bears Mackenzie’s vivid imprint in its deceptive bunkers and artful doglegs, flanked by bouffant hairdo cypress trees.
“There’s so much history,” says Richard Harris, co-founder of the San Francisco Golf Alliance, a group devoted to supporting public golf through the city. “But there’s also its remarkable beauty. You just aren’t going to find a prettier place to play.”
San Francisco Area Public Courses
Gleneagles GC at McClaren Park
Golden Gate Park Golf Course
Lincoln Park Golf Course
Presidio Golf Course
Sharp Park Golf Course
TPC Harding Park
For all its deep roots in San Francisco, golf is always growing in new directions. Earlier this year, the fabled City was held for the first time at Presidio Golf Club, a venerable layout but a relative newcomer to the public scene. Born at the turn of 19th century as a private course, the Presidio evolved into a military course, a fitting incarnation for a layout carved within an army base.
Officers weren’t alone in enjoying it. Babe Ruth, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Charles Schulz all took their backs here. So did Joe DiMaggio, usually in early-morning outings, the better, as one sportswriter later put it, to hide his “crude attempts at learning the game.”
In 1997, after the Presidio (above) was decommissioned as an army base, the golf course morphed once more, this time into a public track. Its routing bucks over rollicking terrain, swooping over crests, ducking into valleys, with pines and eucalyptus standing sentinel all around. Since its military days, the course has gone through vast improvements: greens reworked, drainage upgraded, sight lines opened to create wide-angle views of the surrounding hills. Look west from the 10th green, and the city stretches out like a rumpled bed sheet, its fringe the foam-licked sands of Ocean Beach.
The panoramics become even more arresting when you head west yourself, deep into the avenues toward Lincoln Park. Like so many munis, it’s a little rough around the edges; Archer’s former playground could use some TLC. But its 18 holes, which tip out at a sneaky 5,149 yards, offer up an invigorating round. Filled with slender doglegs and deftly employed elevation changes, the course cuts its way around the Legion of Honor, a jewel among the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, but the entire setting is something of a showpiece. The stirring scenery reaches its peak splendor on the 17th hole, a 240-yard par 3, set on bluffs along the Golden Gate.
Your goal is the green, but you can’t help but fix your gaze on the graceful span, stretching, in the strikingly near distance, from from the city to the Marin Headlands.
JOSH SENS is a contributing editor for GOLF Magazine who writes out of his home in Oakland.
Harding’s Hidden Gem – The Fleming 9 Golf Course at TPC Harding Park
Call it Harding’s Mini-Me. It played a major role in Ken Venturi’s career. Before he had enough game for the championship course, Venturi built his skills on what was then a six-hole practice course, tucked within the boundaries of the larger 18. 1n 1961, that practice track expanded into a nine-hole layout, and was named in honor of former city golf caretaker, Jack Fleming. A par-30 course, the Fleming 9 has two sets of tees, playing 2,165 yards and 1,865 yards, respectively, and offers much of the beauty and artistry of its sibling, at a more manageable scale.