The Legend By the Lake: A Short History Of Harding Park
Sept. 6, 2005 (KGO) -- It didn't always look like this. It wasn't always called by this name. And in 1837, Harding Park wasn't a gleam in anyone's eye when Francisco de Haro purchased Lake Merced, then known as Laguna de al Merced, from Jose Antonio Galindo for the grand total of 100 cows and $25 in gold coin of the realm.
A lot has changed since then, particularly during the last 80 years. When the City and County of San Francisco first proposed building a golf course in the southwest corner of town, the major league home run record was 59, set in 1921 by a young Yankee outfielder named Babe Ruth. Lindbergh had not crossed the Atlantic. There was no such thing as television. And yet, it was a boom time. The 1920's were truly roaring. Bathtub gin flowed despite a constitutional ban on liquor. A new form of music, called "jazz" had caught on as did a dance sensation known as the Charleston. Bill Tilden ruled the tennis court. Jack Dempsey reigned supreme as the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
American golf, however, was still taking baby steps. Francis Ouimet, an unknown amateur from Boston, may have scored a tremendous victory over British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open, but the Professional Golfers Association of America was only a few years old. That young prodigy from Georgia named Bobby Jones had yet to win a national championship. He was still impatient and restless, longer on potential than accomplishment. The world would have to wait a bit for his awesome talent to bloom in full. Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen were the pros to watch. And yet, although the game was relatively young in the United States, it nevertheless was a golden age, when men like Donald Ross, Alfred Tillinghast and Alister Mackenzie were busy constructing courses all over the country.
By the mid-1920's, San Francisco had caught the golf bug in a big way. The City first got serious about its golf in 1916, when Lincoln Park opened for play. Before anyone could say "nice shot," however, the spectacularly scenic layout was overrun with golfers struggling for a tee time. By 1923, City leaders knew they had to develop additional golf facilities to serve a demanding clientele.
Enter the Spring Valley Water Company, a privately owned utility that held title to much of the southwest corner of San Francisco. Among the water company's holdings was acreage in and around Lake Merced. It was prime golfing ground, primarily due to the fertile, loamy soil and rolling terrain. Civic leaders who knew something about golf could see the opportunity. They could advance a popular sport and serve the public demand for additional golf facilities. They could also see what was happening around them.
Several private golf clubs had already planted their seeds in the neighborhood. San Francisco Golf Club had moved south from its original home in the Presidio. The Olympic Club had leased land from the water company and had built a course across the lake; the club would soon expand to two courses, the Ocean and the Lake, the latter destined to become the storied home to four U.S. Opens - the place where Fleck defeated Hogan, Casper came back against Palmer, Simpson nipped Watson at the wire, and Janzen held off a knickered (and determined) Payne Stewart. Lake Merced Golf Club had also acquired land in 1922 and was in the process of constructing its course further to the south, just across the county line.
City leaders, including Herbert Fleishacker and William F. Humphrey, had the foresight to conceive of a municipal "green belt" around Lake Merced. Their plan was a grand one - a huge recreational area where everyone could come for relaxation, sport and renewal. A vital part of that vision was a championship golf course, which they originally named the "Lake Merced Municipal Links." In 1923, Fleishacker and Humphrey, and their fellow members of the Board of Park Commissioners, made arrangements to lease 170 acres of land from Spring Valley Water Company. Construction soon followed. (In 1930, the lease arrangement was terminated when the City took over the water company and purchased the golf course land.)
The City agreed to retain Sam Whiting and Willie Watson, the two architects who collaborated at The Olympic Club, to design the new course and supervise its construction. Their fee? The princely sum of $300. Total construction costs were approximately $295,000.
History intervened in August of 1923 when President Warren G. Harding died while passing through San Francisco after an Alaskan vacation. Although Harding's campaign theme was a "return to normalcy," his administration was beset from the beginning with scandal and corruption. Over time, the toll of unending controversy had begun to wear on Harding himself. He died of a heart attack at the Palace Hotel at the age of 57. Although his administration is best known for the "Teapot Dome" scandal - which involved the transfer of Wyoming oil reserves in exchange for a bribe to the Secretary of the Interior - and although Harding himself has been labeled by historians as among the worst US Presidents, the man did have at least one redeeming quality: he was an avid golfer. He is, in fact, the only sitting U.S. President to have awarded the U.S. Open trophy to the winner. He handed over the cup to Jim Barnes following his victory in 1921. Harding was known to sneak out to play at every opportunity.
Soon after President Harding's death, the call came forth to dedicate the City's new golf course in his memory. Thus was born "Harding Park," the grand municipal golf course that sits on the shores of Lake Merced.
When the course opened for play, the City was in the midst of a recreational renaissance. In a very real sense, San Francisco was still rising from the ashes. The City had been destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906. Less than two decades later, it had been completely rebuilt and a new wave of excitement was propelling everybody's favorite city back into the national limelight. In 1925 alone, the City completed several prominent municipal projects, and national competitions took center stage. In April, Fleishacker Pool opened. It was the largest salt water swimming pool in the world. As part of the dedication, the City hosted the national AAU swimming, diving and water polo championships. In May, local dignitaries dedicated Kezar Stadium, which would become the first home to the Forty Niners. In early July, just weeks before Harding Park's gates opened to fanfare, the City hosted the national track and field championship.
The official "opening day" for Haring Park was July 18, 1925, but the story is not quite that simple, for the Recreation and Park Department decided to hold a week long tournament to test its newest creation. Over 2,200 players participated, making it one of the largest golf competitions the world had ever seen. Players from every corner of the City, and surrounding suburbs, participated. Everyone from elected officials to prominent wrestlers teed it up. Mayor "Sonny Jim" Rolph cracked the opening tee shot and the race for 14 separate trophies began in earnest. The lowest score was recorded by an Olympic Club caddie named Louis Navi who fired an even-par 73. Course designer Sam Whiting carded 80. Parks Commission President Herbert Fleishacker fired 89. The highest score was 135, turned in by a tired fellow named G.T. Dowd. There were flights for players of all ages and abilities: men and women; professionals and amateurs; private club members and public course players, including two separate divisions for caddies (under and over the age of 16).
From that point forward, Harding has been crowded with players, and loved by everyone. The golf course itself, however, did not stand still. The design evolved with the times.
The evolution of Harding's design
Harding Park was the grandest public golf course of its era. The original design, a robust 6,505 yards, was a sturdy test. The original par was 73 (the 11th hole played as a modest-length par 4). There was no "Fleming Nine" (that feature was not added until 1961). The original course ran in two loops - the front nine routed entirely within the outer loop of the back nine. The last five holes, finishing then as now along the lake, were, in a word, spectacular.
On the interior of the property, there were six "practice fairways," ground where a player could take a bag of his own balls and practice to his heart's content. A clubhouse sat between the 18th green and first tee. Players could drive out to the course and park on the property or, as was common, take either the "L" streetcar, or the No. 12 Market Street Railway car, to the end of the line on Sloat Boulevard. From there, they had to walk the remaining distance though sand dunes, eventually crossing a narrow footbridge across what was then known as "North Lake." (During the opening tournament, the City sponsored buses to carry streetcar passengers, and their golf clubs, to the course.)
The original scorecard looked like this:
Although the 11th hole evolved into a par three by the mid 1940's, and par dropped to 72, the course layout remained essentially the same until it was substantially upgraded in 1960.
Jack Fleming's Nine
One of the great unsung architectural heroes of the day was a man named Jack Fleming. He was Alister Mackenzie's construction supervisor at Cypress Point and many insiders credit him as being the man who really brought Mackenzie's inspired design to life. In his later years, Fleming worked for the Recreation & Park Department as the supervisor of the City's golf courses and, from time to time, he would tweak Harding's design to provide subtle, but needed, improvements. In the late 1950's, given increased play, a decision was made to take those original "practice fairways" and create a new nine-hole course out of them. Fleming reworked several of those old practice fairways, borrowed from a few of the existing holes, and by the time he was done, Harding Park Golf Course had grown by several hundred yards, stretching out to 6,722 from the back tees, while the "Fleming Nine" came into being at the center of the property. It played to a par 32 and measured just over 3,200 yards. The new course debuted in 1961.
(Essentially, what Fleming did was to lengthen the fourth hole and turn it into a par 5 at 560 yards - a monster in its day. Then he routed the course back through the old practice fairways, creating what are today the fifth and sixth holes. The "Fleming Nine" was bounded primarily by the first, tenth, eleventh, twelfth and fourth holes of the main course, just as it is today.)
After a few years, Harding Park settled in for a long period of steady decline. Whether it was the inattention of players not replacing divots, restricted City budgets that could not provide necessary maintenance and upkeep, a dilapidated irrigation system - or a combination of these and other factors, the reality was that the golf course, once a monument to the possibility of municipal grandeur, was dying a slow death.
Everyone who had played Harding Park knew it was worth preserving, but it was not until a local City resident, Frank (Sandy) Tatum, stepped forward to provide the leadership, energy and drive that the dream of restoring this once magnificent facility became a reality. Tatum came to the task with a long and distinguished pedigree. A Rhodes Scholar and respected lawyer, he was also a talented golfer, having won the 1942 NCAA Championship while a student at Stanford University. Tatum went on to become President of the United States Golf Association and is perhaps best known (and admired) for his response to professional golfers who complained about difficult conditions at the U.S. Open. They had protested that Tatum and the USGA were out to embarrass the game's great players. To that, Tatum responded, "We're not trying to embarrass the great players. We're simply trying to determine who they are."
Tatum brought a lifetime of experience, and a true love of the game, to his task. He knew what Harding Park once was, and what it could become again, if only people would listen to his plea.
To hit the shots necessary to rebuild Harding Park, Tatum called on virtually every friend he had in the game, and he had many. Tatum forged alliances with golfers young and old, the PGA Tour, the USGA, local politicians, staff members of the Recreation and Park Department, and just about anyone who would listen. When he finally convinced Mayor Willie Brown that the project was worthy, Tatum had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of his tweed cap. Once Mayor Brown came on board, and with the guiding arm of Supervisor Tony Hall, things started to happen.
The result was a massive renovation project that has, at long last, restored Harding Park to its original glory. The new course, which was designed by PGA Tour architect Chris Gray and constructed by Kubly Construction Company, now measures a "tour strength" 7,172 yards from the back tees, and provides shot values that are second to none, on any course, public or private. The routing has not changed, but subtle improvements have brought Harding's greatness back to life.
The new course will get its first professional test in October of 2005 when the American Express World Championship comes to San Francisco.
Tournament Play at Harding Park
The coming of the "Am Ex" is hardly Harding Park's first encounter with tournament play. The United States Golf Association twice conducted the national public links championship at Harding, in 1937 and 1956. The "publinx," as it is more commonly known, is the U.S. Open for public course players. The first event was won by Bruce McCormick, a fireman from Los Angeles. The second was won by James H. Buxbaum, a reinstated amateur. Among the noted competitors in that second publinx was Joe Roach, the national Negro amateur champion, who reached the quarter-finals.
Harding Park's first significant professional event was the 1944 "Victory Open," a wartime surname for the existing San Francisco Open, which annually rotated among the City's better courses. During the 1930's, it had been played at The Olympic Club, Lake Merced Golf Club, Presidio Golf Club, the old Ingleside Golf Club (near what is now Parkmerced) and San Francisco Golf Club. It was an unbelievable rotation of courses, and in the mid-1940's, the City's best municipal course was added to the list, but not before the event temporarily changed its name during wartime.
The "Victory Open" was held at Harding Park in January of 1944. It was won by Byron Nelson, who returned to the City - and to Harding Park - in December that same year to capture the San Francisco Open, which had returned to its original name. It may be the only time in the history of the PGA Tour when the same player twice won the same tournament on the same golf course in the same year. Nelson's December triumph set the stage for his historic 1945 campaign, when he won 11 straight tournaments, and a total of 18 our of 31 in which he competed. It is a steak that will never be matched.
Nelson's 1944 victories at Harding were not chopped liver. He outplayed full fields that included many of the game's greatest players, including Sam Snead, Craig Wood, Claude Harmon, Denny Shute, "Jug" McSpaden, Ky Lafoon, Ralph Guldahl, Lloyd Mangrum, "Lighthorse" Harry Cooper, Joe Kirkwood, Toney Penna, Johnny Revolta and Olin Dutra.
The San Francisco Open died a quiet death after that. A 1946 version was conducted at The Olympic Club, followed by an eight-year hiatus, and then a final competition at Lake Merced Golf Club in 1954.
The pros returned to Harding in 1959, when Mason Rudolph won the Golden Gate Open, defeating Dow Finsterwald and Bob Goalby by two strokes.
The professional event most associated with Harding Park, however, is not the San Francisco Open or the Golden Gate Open. It's the Lucky International. Sponsored by a local brewery (Lucky Lager), the PGA Tour stopped by Harding Park every January from 1961 through 1966 - usually the week after the Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach - then returned for two more years in 1968-69. The first "Lucky" was won by Gary Player - his second victory on US soil after the 1958 Kentucky Derby Open. Player earned the trophy by slogging through rain and mud the last day. In words that would bring a smile to anyone who has ever played Harding Park in the winter, Player pocked the winner's check for $9,000 and promptly noted: "I've been in virtually every country in the world except Russia, and today the weather conditions were the worst I've ever played in." He added that the course itself was "excellent" and that he had "muddled through it quite well."
At one point, the Lucky lived up to its name in prize money, offering a total purse of $77,777.77 - a handsome sum in those days. In 1962, defending US Open champ Gene Littler walked off with the crown, followed in ensuing years by former Masters and PGA Champion Jackie Burke, Jr. (1963), Chi Chi Rodriguez (1964), Gilroy's George Archer (1965 - the first of his 31 professional victories) and local hero Ken Venturi, who won his last tournament when he captured the 1966 Lucky International Open. Not surprisingly, Venturi, whose father Fred was the head professional at Harding Park for many years, also holds the course record (63) and has the distinction of having eagled every hole on the course.
In 1967, the event took a sabbatical as sponsors debated another venue, but it returned to Harding Park in 1968, when two-time US Open champ Billy Casper won the title. The "last Lucky," which by then had reverted to the historical sobriquet of the San Francisco Open, was won by Steve Spray in October of 1969.
The fledgling senior tour made a brief stop at Harding Park in 1981, when Don January edged Bob Charles to win the Eureka Federal Savings Classic. The "classic" lasted only that one year.
The City Championship: The Heart and Soul of Harding Park
Although professional golf has come and gone at Harding, it is amateur competition that has kept the legend of this storied links alive. And despite the fact that the national public links championship is the pinnacle for a municipal facility, the two USGA events in 1937 and 1956 are not Harding's true signature. That high honor belongs to the San Francisco City Championship, inaugurated in 1916 with the opening of Lincoln Park, and later shifted over to Harding following its opening in 1925.
"The City," as the local championship is known, is the oldest consecutively played competition in the world. Even the British Open - golf's oldest championship, which began in 1860 - took time off when the world was at war. So did the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters, the other events comprising the modern "Grand Slam." So did virtually every other major event. Not so, the City. Players have trudged through rain and mud for 86 consecutive years, even while American troops were engaged on foreign battlefields. In one sense, the real combat took place at Harding Park, as golfers, not unlike Gary Player in the 1961 Lucky International, "muddled through it."
The City Championship is as diverse as San Francisco itself. Hackers hitting the ball sideways play alongside more accomplished golfers who bomb it down the middle. There are flights for all abilities, but the Championship Flight is the one that grabs the headlines. It is there that many of the great ones cut their teeth. Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller, George Archer and Bob Rosburg, to name a few, all started their competitive careers trying to win the City Championship. Even Tom Watson, while a young psychology major at Stanford took a crack at it. But only Venturi and Archer among them was successful.
Women, too, have played a prominent role in the City Championship. Before she became a two-time U.S. Women's Open champion, Juli Inskster was a two time City champion. Other past winners include present and former-LPGA members Jan Ferraris (a four-time champ), Shelley Hamlin (a three-time champ), and Dorothy Delasin. In addition, former Curtis Cupper Pat Cornett-Iker has won the women's title three times.
Despite the passing of time, knowledgeable locals still talk about the many Bay Area greats who, although virtually unknown outside of San Francisco, are nevertheless a treasured part of the course's history. Players such as Charlie Ferrera, Jim Molinari, Bob Silvestri, Cy Pennel, Bill McCool, Frank Mazion and John Susko, champions all. In the present day, two golfers stand out from the crowd: Gary Vanier, an ex-Stanford player who has won the men's championship a record six times, and Sally Krueger, who is the most successful player in the history of the City Championship. She has won the women's title an incredible ten times.
Although the players have been many and the years have rolled by, there is one single match that typifies the mystique that is the essence of Harding Park. It is the championship contest of 1956, when Ken Venturi defeated E. Harvie Ward to win the City Championship for his third and final time. That one match attracted over 10,000 fans. It made the front page of every daily newspaper in San Francisco. It was an epic duel that captivated the City, for 1956 was a time when San Francisco had no major league baseball team, no NBA franchise, and only three television stations. But the City did have the two best amateurs in the world, and they butted heads for a title only one of them could win. Venturi was a Walker Cup player who came within an eyelash of winning the 1956 Masters. Ward had already won the British Amateur and was the reigning U.S. Amateur Champion (he would successfully defend his title later that same year). He was also the defending City Champ, having taken the title while Venturi was busy fulfilling his military obligations. When they met at the first tee, Venturi shook Ward's hand firmly and declared, "Harvie, I've come to take my City back." And he did, vanquishing Ward 5 & 4. People who were there remember every shot, and they talk of the match as if it took place yesterday.
Harding Park has that kind of an effect on people. Whether it's the fog drifting in off the ocean, the twisted branches of a cypress tree lining one of her majestic fairways, the echo of a gallery from long ago, or simply the undulation of this rolling, beguiling golfing ground, Harding Park is a taste that lingers. It always has. It always will.
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