Harding Park

TPC Harding Park, San Francisco. Willie Watson and Sam Whiting (1925) with changes by Jack Fleming and renovation by Chris Gray (2003).

This is one of those courses that is not great but that I love nonetheless. It is kind of like San Francisco in that way.

There are many things to recommend about the course, but perhaps we should be upfront about the flaws. It was my impression before playing the course that the TPC in front of the name was only a moniker and the only real way you’d notice it was that the merchandise in the pro shop had a very bad logo instead of a very good one.

But even though the deal that made Harding Park a TPC didn’t come until 2010, their involvement with the PGA Tour goes back to the renovation in 2003, which was led by Chris Gray of PGA Tour Design Services. Now, fair enough to all involved with that project which famously renewed a run-down course that was being used as a parking lot for the 1998 US Open, their work was wonderful in many ways. But part of the plan to make the course succeed was to attract big events. This has happened—two WGC events, a President’s Cup in 2009, and the 2020 PGA Championship have come already—but the cost from the start was interesting greens.

To put it bluntly: To run at the silly speeds of modern tournament golf, greens designed for tournament play have very little slope in them. And sure enough, the greens at Harding are, frankly, pretty uninteresting. It didn’t have to be this way. Willie Watson was no MacKenzie but he’s not known for building boring greens, either—the list of courses with his name on them (Olympic Club, Town & Country, Belvedere, Annandale) is proof enough of that.

More interest in the greens would go a long way toward spicing up the front nine, which is perfectly solid golf but rarely anything more. There are a few nice holes on the front and the setting is lovely, but the course is saved by the fact that the back nine finishes so well. It’s sort of a reverse Spyglass Hill effect.

The ocean is closer to Harding Park than you realize while on the course (Credit: Premier Aerials)

As anyone who has watched a tournament from Harding knows, the course has sort of an anti-Muirfield routing, with the front nine contained in the interior of the property, while the back nine runs along the edge in clockwise fashion with Lake Merced to the left side of several of the closing holes. But what really helps make the course (and this is of course true of all these wonderful courses jammed into this amazing section of San Francisco) is how close the course is to the ocean. The 17th green is just 750 yards from the beach, which helps to account for so many of the stiff breezes (nevermind the quick appearance of Karl the Fog) that can quickly make otherwise benign holes into beasts.

As I said, much of the front nine is rather plain. Typical muni style holes played between trees (though they are beautiful cypresses in this case) to greens protected by shallow bunkers. The beginning stretch of the course does not offer a great deal to think about, and the narrowed fairways—I played here in 2019 when the course had already begun preparation for the 2020 PGA Championship—don’t do anything to help with that. In fact holes like the first and the fourth really suffer—the corridor between the trees is plenty wide, but the 25 yard strip of fairway that’s still being mowed is silly. There’s not even an option to try to play down the left side of the first fairway to open up an angle into the green, because all of that fairway is now rough. Hopefully Harding can buck the trend from other major venues like Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines and return its fairways to their prior width, though I wonder if reports that the course may become an annual PGA Tour venue make that less likely.

Though the fairways were narrowed for the PGA, the tournament kept this closely mown area that surrounds the green at #5

The course really begins to pick up at the seventh, a short par 4 with an elevated green tucked behind a couple of bunkers. At 335 this is more of a drive and pitch hole than a reachable one, despite what some of the bombers in the PGA may have led you to believe, but the green shape and bunker placement make you consider what club you want to hit off the tee and where you want to approach from. It’s also one of the handful of greens on the course that has some actual tilt to it.

#7 looking back to the tee (Credit: Gary Kellner/PGA of America)

The eighth is a long par 3 back down the hill with a bunker right and a worse grass bunker to the left. Again, there’s not a tremendous amount of movement in this green but it is one that I would call “subtle” without meaning it as a sly insult. The high point of the green is essentially a gentle spine running through the mid point, so corner hole locations can be very difficult, as everything seems to be running away at the edges.

The 10th is a lovely par 5 that plays along the lake to a green with a dip in front and a wicked false front, but for me the real party starts at the 12th. The tee is hard against Lake Merced Blvd to your left and yet somehow the hole turns left to a fairway that’s nearly out of sight beyond trees and a fence—hey, this is a muni after all. For daily play the 12th is a par 5 and if you want to get home in two, there’s no option but to hit a draw.

At #12 it helps to be able to play a draw (Credit: Gary Kellner/PGA of America)

At the 13th, however, you’ll be asked to hit a fade off the tee. This is an underrated aspect of the course. There are six holes at Harding Park with no fairway bunkers at all and a couple others where they may not come into play, depending on how you approach the hole. San Francisco GC this is not. But unlike many other munis where no fairway bunkers means no trouble at all with the tee ball, most fairways at Harding Park curve one way or the other and controlling your ball flight is helpful—the second, seventh, ninth, 13th, and 16th favor a fade; the fourth, sixth, 10th, 12th, 15th, and 18th a draw. And yet this isn’t Olympic Club either—famous for having just one fairway bunker on its Lake Course but being one of the toughest driving courses in the world due to the doglegs and camber of the fairways. This is a muni. You don’t have to work the ball here. You’re just at an advantage if you do.

#14 goes down then up

The 14th is one of the most dramatic holes on the property, with some of the most land movement on a property that is otherwise rather mundane (by San Francisco standards). With Lake Merced to your left, you drive to a fairway in depression, which then rises to the green. You want to hit your drive as far as you can, because long uphill approach shots here play very long, but finding the fairway is vital. At 440 yards from the blue tees, the hole is brutal when the wind is blowing in.

Though I praised the course for not overdoing fairway bunkering, I must admit: I have no idea what purpose the bunker on the outside corner of the dogleg on the 15th is supposed to serve. This is a nice dogleg left downhill off the tee with an angled green protected by a bunker front right, so really you want your drive down the left hand side of the fairway. Another good green site here, though, with lots of short grass around it, so short iron shorts that miss can end up missing by a lot.

#15 from the preferred left side of the fairway—good angle and no bunker over here

Thanks to Collin Morikawa and one of the best shots in PGA Championship history, the 16th will probably forever be thought of as a reachable par 4. It’s not really, for mortals, at over 300 yards and often playing back into the breeze. But it is an excellent short par 4 nonetheless, with a T-shaped green that has some hole positions that can very much determine the proper line to take off the tee.

You can check the hole location on #16 as you drive in (Credit: PGA of America)

The 17th might be the hole that suffers the most from not being able to get close to the lake edge. As I understand it, similar to the cliffs at Torrey Pines, concerns about erosion made pushing the golf holes right to the edge of Lake Merced impossible—in fact in many places the ground actually slopes toward the course at the lake edge to prevent irrigation runoff from hastening erosion. The prior holes would be more dramatic could they be pushed up against the water, but they are good holes as they exist—the 17th however isn’t much of a par 3 despite its dramatic setting. A pull left of the green could kick down the hill toward the lake, but it’s not your primary concern when standing on the tee. Realistically, the bigger concern from a shot to the left is that it will be caught up in one of the cypress trees that line that side of the hole. The green doesn’t add any interest, either. The penultimate hole here deserves to be better.

#17 is by Lake Merced but the lake isn’t really in play (Credit: Gary Kellner/PGA of America)

Finally, you cross the entrance road to the 18th, with its well-known dramatic drive over the lake. This was one of the holes that was much improved by the 2003 renovation as the green site was pushed back and to the left from where it had been, making the hole much more of a dogleg and the green site much more dramatic. It’s curious that one of the all-new green sites yielded by far the most interesting green on the course—a two-tiered affair with a narrow back shelf. While it’s a thrilling finishing hole, it is oddly out of place with the rest of the course, which is otherwise much more subdued.

The approach to #18

There are a couple ways Harding Park could go from a solid course in a lovely spot to a very good course—more interesting green contour, restored fairway width—while remaining a playable daily muni. Other suggestions (like adding and deepening bunkers) could toughen or strategically improve some holes but might do so at the expense of its muni soul. Then again, it’s already a TPC and there are those who recall the pre-renovation days fondly and feel the course’s soul is already gone (you can never please everyone).

The thing is, even if you made Harding Park the best it could be, it would still not be among the best public courses in California. (This isn’t even really a knock on Harding Park, just a simple acknowledgement of how much great public golf exists in the state.) But the course as it is works, both as a championship venue and as the kind of muni that charges reasonable rates for locals while getting big dollars from visitors who want to visit after seeing the course hold PGA Championships and Presidents Cups. They don’t really need to change a thing … except to ditch that TPC logo.

California 2nd Quintile [2019]