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The Year in Golf

Harding Park Thriving Anew

Former USGA president Sandy Tatum leads the charge to help restore the San Francisco course back to its glory days of the 1940s and '50s.

November 20, 2003|Michael Arkush | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — For Sandy Tatum, the round he played at Harding Park in late 1996 was most disturbing.

It wasn't what he shot. It was what he saw. Tatum, who first played at Harding in 1939, saw a golf course in serious trouble.

"The fairways were weeds, the greens were battlefields, and there was virtually no maintenance going on," Tatum, 83, recalled.

"It was a disaster and was on its way toward being absolutely hopeless."

Tatum, a San Francisco attorney and former president of the United States Golf Assn., decided on the drive home that he would do everything he could to save Harding, a longtime venue for San Francisco's prestigious City Championship, which featured such native standouts as Ken Venturi, Harvie Ward and Johnny Miller. The public course, surrounded on three sides by Lake Merced, also was the site of the PGA Tour's Lucky International, which Venturi won in 1966, his last tour victory.

"It broke my heart," said Venturi, referring to Harding's deterioration.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Harding, he added, "was in as good a shape as the Olympic Club or any of the other private clubs."

For several years, with one political or legal obstacle after another to overcome, Tatum's dream appeared more like a fantasy. But in August, seven years and $16 million after he got started, a restored Harding opened for play.

Tatum, of course, was far from a solo act. Besides the invaluable support of PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, other key figures who moved the renovation effort through the political process included Deputy City Atty. Michael Cohen, who helped locate the financing when Arnold Palmer's golf-course management group backed out, and city Supervisor Tony Hall, who mobilized support among his fellow supervisors. Harding sits in Hall's district.

In March 2002, the board approved the project, 11-0.

The first day of play was set aside for golfers who do not belong to private clubs.

"We had a blind draw for 120 slots," Tatum said.

"There were slips of paper of the names of the people who had signed up. I looked in the drum and thought there must be 700 names in there. There were 7,500."

According to Tatum, the American Express Championship is scheduled to come to Harding Park in October 2005, and a similar marquee event is scheduled to be held there every three years afterward.

The PGA Tour has played a leading role from the outset, sending its own designers to help renovate the course. The result: Larger greens, as well as rebuilt tees, fairways and bunkers. Greens on three holes were relocated. Harding, a par 70 as a championship layout, measures 7,250 yards from the tour tees, 6,850 from the blues, and 6,450 from the whites. The blues and whites play to a par 72.

The challenge for Tatum was to satisfy two disparate, yet equally critical, clienteles: The city residents, who would account for the majority of paying customers, and the best players in the world, which would justify the tour's investment and provide the necessary cache to charge higher green fees for non-residents. Harding will also feature a nine-hole First Tee facility to bring golf to poor youngsters.

So how did Harding Park, designed by Willie Watson in 1925, fall apart in the first place? One reason is that, for years, the course's net income went directly into the city's General Fund. Under the new arrangement, the revenue goes into a special golf fund that will help maintain the course. The maintenance staff has increased from 14 to 24. Harding will repay the state's Open Space fund, which contributed the $16 million to renovate the course.

Ideally, Tatum would like to see a 65%-35% split between non-residents and residents. So far, the amount of play has been 70%-30% in favor of non-residents. Residents pay $33 during the week and $45 on weekends; non-residents pay $76 and $88. For residents, who had feared the new Harding would be priced beyond their means, the fee structure differs only slightly from the previous amounts.

Tatum is not done. For one thing, Harding does not have a clubhouse, which means a lot of potential revenue isn't being collected. Tatum estimates it will require at least $6 million for a clubhouse and hopes to have one completed by spring 2005. He also intends to restore two other San Francisco public courses, Lincoln Park and Sharp Park, which was designed by the famous architect, Alister MacKenzie. Money from the new golf fund will be earmarked for those projects.

The work at Harding, which followed restorations at Bethpage Black in Long Island, site of the 2002 U.S. Open, and Torrey Pines in La Jolla, which will play host to the 2008 U.S. Open, is clearly another boost for public golf.

"I've had an incredibly privileged life," Tatum said. "Nothing I have ever been involved in has given me any more satisfaction than this project."

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Bay Area upgrades

Two other notable San Francisco municipal courses that have plans for renovation

Sharp Park Golf Course

* Designed in 1929 by Alister MacKenzie.

* 6,300 yards from the current tees. New yardages for all the tees are soon to be determined.

* Nonresident rates are $31 Monday through Thursday, $35 Friday through Sunday.

* Resident rates are $20 Monday through Thursday, $24 Friday through Sunday.

* Par 72.

* Contact: (650) 359-3380

Lincoln Park Golf Course

* Designed in 1914 by multiple architects.

* 5,146 from the blue tees, 4,948 from the white tees, 4,732 from the red tees.

* Par 68.

* Nonresident rates are $31 Monday through Thursday, $35 Friday through Sunday.

* Resident rates are $20 Monday through Thursday, $24 Friday through Sunday.

* Contact: (415) 221-9911.

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