Favorite Fairways: The Many Moods of San Francisco’s Harding Park

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IT IS NOT WITHOUT IRONY that I say the 18th tee at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco is a place so special you could linger for eternity there. In fact, the ashes of more than one departed golfer have been lovingly spread about the teeing ground, which resides on a hilltop above Lake Merced.

Yet for the still-upright it is a place to pause, slowly turn and take in the lake and the cypress trees that stand poetically-whether shrouded in fog or splashed in sunshine-and to feel thankful to be standing on this quintessential bit of Bay Area turf.

And then the time arrives to unsheath the driver and face a daunting tee shot over a good-sized portion of the lake, with hopes of finding the doglegging, lake-hugging fairway of this long par-4. This is, simply, one of the finest closing holes in golf.

I’ve been making pilgrimages to Harding Park for 20 years, and the course that opened in 1925 is much like San Francisco itself-a place of many moods. The mood of the moment has much to do with whatever combination of sunlight, shadow and fog Mother Nature is dispensing. I’ve swung under impossibly blue September skies, as well as attempted to keep focus in cold, swirling fog while dressed as if on expedition to the Arctic.

Frankly, I love them all – San Francisco’s moods as well its fantastic municipal courses. It’s safe to say that Harding Park, Torrey Pines in San Diego and Bethpage Black in New York are the three best municipal courses in the land. Since undergoing renovation that wrapped in 2003, Harding Park is so good that if forced to choose between teeing it up there or at the uber-private Olympic Club just across Lake Merced, a course I’ve also been playing for 20 years, I’d have to flip a coin.

This is also historical San Francisco turf. Harding Park began hosting tournaments shortly after Sam Whiting and Willie Watson put the finishing touches on their design. USGA championships were played there in 1947 and ’56, and the PGA Tour made it a regular stop beginning with the Victory Open in 1944, and the Lucky Open in the 1960s. The legends who teed it up and made their victory walk up the 18th fairway include Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Gary Player, Gene Littler, Jackie Burke, Chi Chi Rodriguez and San Francisco native Ken Venturi. After the renovation, in which Venturi assisted lead designer Chris Gray, Harding Park hosted the 2005 WGC American Express Championship, won by Tiger Woods over John Daly in a thrilling three-hole playoff. The U.S. team captained by Fred Couples won the 2009 President’s Cup over the Internationals captained by Greg Norman. John Cook won the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup Championship back-to-back in 2009-10. So to stand on the tee at 18 and to walk the fairway is to walk in the footsteps of giants. If only those old cypresses could talk.

And Harding Park, which in November entered into an agreement to become one of the PGA Tour’s TPC courses, is on the USGA’s list to host a future U.S. Open. No wonder country club guys who would normally never think of playing a muni stand in line here.

San Francisco Chronicle golf columnist Brian Murphy calls Harding Park one of the city’s finest walks, and he’s right. Right is also where you want to be with your tee shot on the severe dogleg left 18th fairway, away from the lake. Though not too far right, because that brings into play two bunkers in the landing area. The right side also presents the best angle of attack for the second shot. If you must miss, do so to the right and avoid two more bunkers left-front of the green. The putting surface is multi-tiered, severely sloping from back to front, so club selection on the approach and a steady putting stroke are key.

After putting out, no matter my score, I always take a grateful backward glance from the green and a vow to return.

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