An inside look at Harding Park

No. 15 at Harding Park, which will be used as No. 12 in the Presidents Cup.

One of the country’s legendary municipal tracks returns to the spotlight Oct. 8-11 for the eighth edition of the Presidents Cup. Harding Park, designed by Willie Watson (who also did nearby Olympic Club’s Lake Course at the time) and opened in 1925, was a perennial home to the PGA Tour’s Lucky International during the 1960s.

For decades, the Bay Area’s keenest amateurs honed their skills here, along Lake Merced and near the Pacific, where the course is susceptible to cool, pea-soup fog. In an era when San Francisco municipal courses are under political attack, the Presidents Cup at Harding Park provides a much-needed opportunity to showcase the cause of public golf.

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The course closed five years ago for a major renovation by PGA Tour Design Services and reopened in time to hold the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship. Since then, Harding Park has accommodated 60,000 rounds annually, with players drawn by lush turfgrass, towering eucalyptus trees and (for Northern California residents) moderate green fees for such a quality facility. Kemper Sports manages the golf operation. Day-to-day course maintenance is the province of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, with course superintendent Wayne Kappelman overseeing a crew of municipal employees.

A round here produces the sense of waiting for something to happen that never quite materializes. It’s a perfectly pleasant place, though devoid of the charm and intrigue that distinguish a truly great course. Perhaps it’s the fact that the holes, for all their proximity to Lake Merced, barely utilize the water for strategy, or even much of a view. The main landing areas seem to have been ironed out and leveled – perhaps as a concession to the expectations of Tour players. And the bunkering, is, unfortunately, insulated from the main lines of play and from the ground game by thick protective collars of rough that keep balls out rather than feed them inward, as they should.

For the Presidents Cup, the course has been rerouted. Because few matches would reach the 18th hole and its dramatic drive across the water (and its thousands of corporate seats lining the fairway), it will play as the 15th hole.

The new sequence forces some extra long walks that aren’t normally there, but the oddly imbalanced course, with the back nine nearly 500 yards shorter than the front, ensures drama at the conclusion by leaving two nearly drivable par 4s (the 13th and 17th) and a short par-5 concluding hole that everyone in the field can reach.

Three-up leads after 12 holes will not be safe. Look for plenty of birdie action here, as well as eagle possibilities in the risk/reward better-ball format.

Rater’s notebook: Harding Park

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