Golf in its purest form - "The City"

2020 PGA Championship - TPC Harding Park

Golf in its purest form - "The City"
Courtesy of Premier Aerials

Yes, TPC Harding Park is hosting the PGA Championship this week, but the facility is no stranger to big time events. In 1917, the San Francisco City Amateur Tournament commenced and has been played every year since with no interruptions. In the USA, the event is the oldest municipal golf tournament in the USA. This continuous run makes it quite special because the wide range of contestants truly encapsulates the dynamic appeal of San Francisco. TPC Harding Park is named for the former President Warren G. Harding, who died in San Francisco while in office in 1923.

While hard to imagine for those outside the Bay Area — “The City” — the preferred name for those competing — provided the foundation for a number of players just beginning their climb up the golfing ladder.

Notable golfers such as Bob Rosburg, George Archer, Ken Venturi and E. Harvie Ward, Jr. all played significant roles in the history of the event. Johnny Miller and Tom Watson also played in the event — but never won. Julie Inkster, a multiple major champion in women’s golf — won the ladies division twice.

Golf in its purest form - "The City"
Team USA captain Juli Inkster during the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles Golf Club (Ian Rutherford/PA Wire)
Golf in its purest form - "The City"
Tom Watson during the 2019 Senior Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club (Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

The cast of characters who have played in “The City” runs the gamut. You have deep-pocketed lawyers and doctors playing matches alongside truck drivers and plumbers. Love of golf is the central catalyst for all the competitors. In recent years, the winners have been highly talented younger players  

The event is played at two courses — TPC Harding Park and nearby Lincoln Park. Contested during the winter months the vagaries of Bay Area weather are a constant item but one that simply emboldens contestants to overcome. While there is a championship flight for men, women and seniors, there are also other flights where various handicap levels can compete. In sum – “The City” is truly reflective of the people calling San Francisco home.

The hopefuls play 36-holes to narrow the championship flight field to 64 players for match play. Unlike other tournaments the matches are played over the weekends thereby permitting working class golfers the wherewithal to play without interference with work schedules. Given the weekend matches the event stretches out over a period of time and the competitors must be able to keep their games sharp throughout the duration. In years past during the final weekend — the semi-finals and finals were conducted at 36-holes.

The most notable match occurred in 1956. Pitting E. Harvie Ward, the title holder of the US and British Amateur championships in concert with him “The City” defender against San Francisco native and local golf virtuoso Ken Venturi. Venturi had recently been discharged from military service, having won “The City” twice earlier in 1950 and 1953 and also adding two California State Amateur titles to his growing golf portfolio of accomplishments.

Eager to reclaim “The City” from Ward the match was watched by estimates of 10,000 people with Venturi winning and garnering front-page placement via the San Francisco Chronicle. In less than a month’s time Venturi would nearly win The Masters — finishing with a wind-blown final round 80 and losing by a single stroke to winner Jackie Burke. In 1964, Venturi would claim his single major championship — winning at Congressional on a sweltering day when his completing play was clearly in doubt.

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Frank “Sandy” Tatum, Jr. was another long-time contestant and supporter of TPC Harding Park. The prominent Bay Area attorney would go on to become USGA President and a main force in leading the efforts in restoring the qualities of the course which had significantly worsened over the years. How bad? Harding was used as a parking lot for the 1998 US Open at the nearby Olympic Club. During “The City” it was not uncommon for multiple holes to have temporary greens used for putting, and to say the least, clearly an adventure for all to face.

Golf in its purest form - "The City"
Frank D. Tatum, Jr. (Sandy Tatum), USGA President in 1976 – 1977. Photo by Gabriel Moulin Studios. Courtesy USGA Archives

Tatum’s dogged determination was saluted through a commemorative plaque in front of “The Tatum Tree” near the first tee with the following words inscribed — “San Francisco honors Frank ‘Sandy’ Tatum, Jr. for his invaluable gift to the City — the renaissance of a treasured jewel. Harding Park Golf Course.” Adding to the occasion, a new clubhouse — underwritten with $8 million in private donations, also bears his name. Tatum played in “The City” 40 times with a best finish coming in a quarterfinal appearance.

When the world’s best players conclude play this week — the famed Wannamaker Trophy will be presented to the PGA champion. TPC Harding Park is clearly not as famous as other world-renowned public venues such as The Old Course at St. Andrews or California-based Pebble Beach. However, Harding continues to make its mark on golfers from all walks of life. Although only five miles away from such iconic golf venues such as The Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, “The City” has provided an equalizer where competitors can leave their billfold and degrees on the sidelines and engage in the purest form of match play competition.

Like its home San Francisco, “The City” is truly one of a kind.