Harding Golf Course: Controversy by the Bay

By F. Richard Allen, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO - Everything about Harding Golf Course is larger than life, but the most memorable feature are the ancient redwoods and pine trees, often 4-5 feet thick at their trunks.

Harding is located across Lake Merced from the Olympic Club and across Skyline Blvd, (Rte. 35) from the Pacific Ocean. It is managed by Arnold Palmer Management and owned and maintained by the City of San Francisco.

My golfing buddy and I had the good fortune to golf with an Old Duffer on this date and got a lot of the skinny on the new plans for Harding.

This friendly, exuberant ex-physician is the epitome of an Old Duffer. Somewhat more than 70 years old, he had Oxford golf shoes, 70's light colored pin stripe polyester slacks, a loose fitting shirt with a button up sweater which parted around his hard little beer belly, a Benson & Hedges stuck between his lips, and a 49ers cap which had seen much better days pulled low over his left eye. He could hit the ball straight and forever on his drives until he got to the last 4 holes.

On either the fairway or the greens he had no problem boldly repositioning the ball if he didn't like his lie. And he might try to convince you to do the same. He is a font of information on any subject, but, in this case, our Old Duffer was especially informative about the Harding Golf Course.

Harding is managed by Arnold Palmer Management and owned and maintained by the City of San Francisco.

Harding has been in the local news for some time. Chosen as a course needing help (it's obvious that the landscaping maintenance is a serious problem), it's had a controversial past and it's future is still up in the air.

Our Old Duffer believes that the price of playing golf at Harding has to go up whatever they decide to do.

Press releases indicate that Harding has been chosen by the PGA as a location for a Tour Championship in 2002. According to the PGA, Harding will need a facelift. Five holes will be lengthened, all greens rebuilt, a new drainage and irrigation system installed, a new driving range constructed, and the nine-hole, par-3 Fleming Course remodeled.

According to Sandy Tatum, who is the force behind this new turn of events, the costs will be around "nine million dollars."

When we take to the course, it's a gray day without rain or a serious breeze. As we approached the 9th, I asked the Old Duffer to select his favorite hole at Harding.

In a raspy smoker's voice, he replied, "I like the 11th; it's a par 3 and I usually get it on the green in one."

On the 11th, only 185 yards long, it's easy to hit a drive into Lake Merced off to the left over the green. I speak from personal experience.

The Old Duffer tapped it onto the green and then proceeded to birdie the hole. As we walked to the 12th green, he talked further about the controversial Harding transformation.

"The reason I know they're going to raise the prices is because they're not going to want to spend an extra dime without getting their money back. I don't care who they are. And they don't care about the local people who use this course. Take a look around. A lot of this would be considered 'the rough' under normal circumstances."

The Old Duffer pointed to the ground around us which was suppose to be the 12th green. He said, "Who are they trying to kid? This stuff is as rough as a cob." And it was very rough for a putting green.

On the 13th it was a pleasure to hear the musical "thunk" my ball made as it squarely hit one of those enormous old trunks.

You may joke about denuding trees on most courses, but here the trees are giant redwoods and old pines and they're not going to even notice a misdirected golf ball or two. The Old Duffer had a few more stories to share as we wrapped up our game making it all very enjoyable.

On the 18th hole, a 417-yard par 4, the fairway curves around to the left following the shore of a very blue Lake Merced. Here the grasses are a beautiful emerald, the dark red trees by the shoreline seem especially tall and thick. It's slightly uphill to the green. And as you walk through the grass you may forget everything but the look and feel of this moment.

Afterwards I talked to the Harding pro, Joe Vavra, who said, "Palmer, BSL, Kemper, and American Golf are all in the running as course management bidders. The PGA requires that all of the repair and improvement be done 13 months prior to their date of September 30, 2001." Which would mean completion no later than the end of August 2000, only eight months away.

I told Joe that I read the tour date was in 2002. He said, "Well, to be realistic, it might very well be. We'll just have to see."

Our Old Duffer sort of sums up the quandary of Harding Golf. On the one hand, nobody wants the price for a round of golf to increase. On the other hand, nobody much likes the condition of the course.

According to the Old Duffer, "This is a cash cow for the city. This place is full all the time. If they spent a fair percentage of the money they took in to maintain it and socked some away for improvements as they come up, we wouldn't have to go through all of this. So who do you think is going to be maintaining the place once everything is said and done? It'll be the city again and they'll do a poor job again. What else is new?"

Harding rumors abound. It's hard to separate the truth from the views of the people who play or even manage here. I don't live in San Francisco so to a certain extent all of this is outside my concern. But Harding is definitely a classically beautiful place. And as a golf course it deserves fairway and greens improvement to bring it up to its potential.

Just another great thing about golf... golf courses need never get too old to play.

Inside the Ropes: Harding is an 18-hole Bent grass course designed by Willie Watson and built in 1925. This 6,743 yard course has a rating of 72.1, slopes of 124 and a par of 72. Weekday green fees are $26 and weekend fees are $31.

Harding Park Golf Course
Harding Road & Skyline Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94132
(415) 661-1865

F. Richard Allen, Contributor

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