Harding Park, new-look Match Play form winning combo

TPC Harding Park in San Francisco will host the 2015 WGC Match Play Championship, the 2020 PGA Championship and the 2025 Presidents Cup.
TPC Harding Park in San Francisco will host the 2015 WGC Match Play Championship, the 2020 PGA Championship and the 2025 Presidents Cup.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Four things came to mind when San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park was announced Wednesday as site of the 2015 WGC-Match Play, 2020 PGA Championship and 2025 Presidents Cup:

1. You won’t recognize the WGC-Match Play. Besides getting a terrific new venue, it will have a different format starting next year. The 64-man field will be divided into 16-four player groups, and each group will play round-robin matches Wednesday-Friday. Players with the best record in each group will advance to 16-man, single-elimination match play, with two rounds on Saturday and the semifinals and final Sunday. (Head-to-head results will break a two-man group tie, sudden-death playoff will break a three-way tie.)

2. The May schedule on the 2015 PGA Tour is so packed with important tournaments, there’s no way everyone can be happy, particularly when considering the European Tour’s flagship event (BMW PGA) is in the mix. Not that anything this side of inner peace or free money can make everyone happy.

3. Harding Park, a municipal course, has come such a long way that any Hair Club for Men transformation has nothing on Harding’s drastic "before" and "after" photographs.

4. The scenic, rolling layout on the shores of Lake Merced is most worthy of playing host to a major championship for myriad reasons – not the least of which is that it’s nice any time a Grand Slam event visits a daily-fee site open to the public. The only time the PGA has been held on a municipally owned course previously was in 1974 at Tanglewood Golf Club in Clemmons, N.C. In 2020, the PGA will be held in San Francisco for the first time and make its first trip to the West Coast since 1998.

The WGC-Match Play, in Marana, Ariz., the past eight years, has a one-year deal at Harding. The Tour is said to be close to getting a "yes" or "no" from an unnamed prospective title sponsor.

The one-year agreement enables the Match Play to remain on the schedule and gives the Tour time to figure out when and where to stage the event starting in 2016. It has been held on Week 8 of the Tour schedule, ending the West Coast Swing. The Tour is said to want to return to that date again starting in 2016.

As it stands for next year, May is bulging. There are five Sundays that month. The Match Play, ending May 3, takes the traditional date of the Wells Fargo Championship and moves to the week before The Players. The Wells Fargo comes next, ending May 17, followed by the Colonial and Byron Nelson tournaments, respectively. The Colonial, normally played after the Nelson, will be the same week as the May 21-24 BMW PGA in England.

Hence, a top European player such as Rory McIlroy, who has been loyal to the Wells Fargo tournament (site of his first Tour victory, in 2010), will be put in a position of playing three consecutive weeks in the U.S. before going to England. Such global players probably will be inclined to skip something, and Wells Fargo could suffer for a year.

“May has gotten crowded with a lot of good tournaments; there’s no doubt about that,” said Nelson tournament director Jon Drago, who learned of the Nelson’s date on Tuesday.

And, remarkably, Harding Park is getting a lot of international attention, a far cry from its downtrodden days of 20-30 years ago.

Your correspondent played a scratchy Harding Park 20 years ago, and “major championship” didn’t come to mind. The host of a regular Tour event in 1961-68, plus the San Francisco City Championship for decades, had transformed from a gem to a clover patch by the 1980s. A San Francisco Chronicle story said “weeds, clusters of daisies and splotches of dirt came to characterize this once-pristine layout.”

Back then, it was all the grounds crew could do to get Harding mowed for the city event. What’s more, it was used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open at nearby Olympic Club.

Frank “Sandy” Tatum, former U.S. Golf Association president, was instrumental in turning Harding Park around, with help from local government leaders. Harding would go on to host the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship (now Cadillac) after a 15-month renovation that lengthened the course almost 500 yards, to 7,200. Harding became a TPC course in 2010, about a year after hosting the Presidents Cup.