February 29, 2016
San Francisco City Championship Celebrates 100 Years
There simply isn’t a golf tournament like it anywhere else.
California amateur great Randy Haag, who’s won NCGA Player of the Year honors a record six times, recalled a year when it rained so hard, players couldn’t see where a hole was located on a green at Lincoln Park.
There was another round when, due to heavy rains, players were unable to take an unplayable lie—because there wasn’t anywhere to take a drop.
“One year, we couldn’t tell on the greens if a ball was in the hole or not because of all the water on the greens. You had to hammer your putts,” Haag said. “It was so wet another time you couldn’t take an unplayable lie. The whole course was a river.”
Welcome to the San Francisco City Championship.
Known affectionately as just ‘The City’, the championship has been held every year—through sometimes hell and definitely high water—since 1917.
And that’s what makes it one of greatest golf tournaments around.
Record six-time champion Gary Vanier recalled that during one round at Harding Park, there were 16 temporary greens due to severe rains. To make things even more interesting, the temporary greens were all located on unmown fairways.
“There were no automatic two-putts and we had to play the ball down,” Vanier recalled. “The pins were on ridges and hills. They were all over the place.”
There have been other quirks too. A two-time winner of the Women’s Championship, Pat Cornett once had an instance where the caddies couldn’t get a flagstick out of the hole.
“I think it’s the most unique tournament there is,” said Cornett, a former Curtis Cup captain. “I grew up in an era when it was all front page news.”
There’s also been the glory of the championship. In 1956, there was the showdown between Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. In 1963, meanwhile, George Archer broke through to win. Archer would go on to win the 1969 Masters, but it was ‘The City’ that really counted.
“Around here, George Archer was a San Francisco City champion, then a Masters champ,” Cornett said. “It went in that order.”
Last week, a number of former champions returned to Harding Park for a special gala to celebrate the event’s 100th birthday. This year’s championship has been dedicated to former S.F. resident Ray Pellegrini, who died in December. Pellegrini qualified for match play in the championship 40 straight years, winning the title in 1982.
The night of the celebration, even San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, a golfer himself, stopped by to give ‘The City’ a hug.
“Thanks for keeping this championship running,” Lee told the tournament’s brass. “Let’s keep the entire world about golf.”
One of the 10,000-plus fans in the gallery who watched Venturi and Ward go at it was Tom Culligan. Then a kid, Culligan won his own title in 1974.
“My dad would bring me out to watch in the 1950’s,” Culligan said. “As a kid, it was like watching the U.S Open.”
The epic Venturi-Ward match still means something special to Matt Venturi too. The night of his father’s big win, Matt was born.
“Harvie was with my dad at the hospital,” Matt Venturi said.
Over the century, there have also been those who have tried to win ‘The City’ and failed. Guys like Tom Watson and Johnny Miller.
As Haag simply put it, “The San Francisco City is one of the most important tournaments you can play growing up in Northern California.”
Happy 100th to the San Francisco City Championship!