TPC Harding Park Golf Club To Host 2020 PGA Championship
Credit: Gary Kellner/PGA of America

TPC Harding Park has many stories to tell from its compelling past.

The municipal course owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department opened in 1925, created by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, who also designed the nearby Lake course at The Olympic Club. It was named after U.S. President Warren G. Harding. The 163-acre site along the shores of Lake Merced in San Francisco’s southwest corner has proven to be the ideal playground for recreational golfers as well as the world’s best.

It held its first tournament right out of the gate, the 1925 Harding Inaugural Tournament won by Russ Cochran, and despite a rough patch from the 1970s through the 1990s, it shines on as a premier tournament venue thanks to a rebirth spearheaded by a 2002-03 renovation. With its first major, the 2020 PGA Championship, set to begin, let’s take a deeper dive onto some of the key facts and stats heading into 2020’s first major.

TPC Harding Park's Tournament history

No muni in America – and perhaps no public or resort course outside of the handful of titans like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2 – have hosted more influential tournaments than TPC Harding Park. Its recent run of events is well documented – World Golf Championships in 2015 and 2005, won by Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods; the 2009 Presidents Cup and three Charles Schwab Cup Championships from 2010-12 – but its heart and soul dates back to 1917, the first year of the San Francisco City Golf Championship. The tournament locals call “The City” is the country’s longest-running municipal golf tournament. Its field is broken into multiple divisions that compete at TPC Harding Park and also Lincoln Park: Men’s, Men’s Senior, Women’s and Open. Past Champions include 1964 U.S. Open Champion Ken Venturi, 1999 U.S. Women’s Open Champion Julie Inkster (twice) and 1969 Masters Champion George Archer. In 1956, an estimated crowd of 10,000 fans were in attendance as Venturi beat reigning U.S. Amateur Champion Harvie Ward, 5 and 4, in the match-play final.

Professional events were more sporadic but still memorable. Byron Nelson won the San Francisco Open back to back in 1944-45. The Lucky International from 1961-68 crowned many recognizable champions, notably Gary Player (1961), Gene Littler (1962), Jackie Burke Jr. (1963), Archer (1965), Venturi (1966) and Billy Casper (1968). A future Presidents Cup is already on the schedule as the next big event for TPC Harding Park.

TPC Harding Park's toughest holes

TPC Harding Park Golf Club To Host 2020 PGA Championship
A view from the ninth hole of TPC Harding Park in San Fransisco, California.
Credit: Gary Kellner/PGA of America

Picking the four toughest holes isn’t a slam dunk based on past events at TPC Harding Park. According to the 15th Club, the four toughest holes were completely different from the two World Golf Championships held at the course – holes 2,3, 7 and 17 at the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play and holes 6, 9, 14 and 18 at the 2005 American Express Championship. Six of the eight were par 4s. It will probably be a mix of those this year.

  • No. 8, the longest par 3 at 251 yards, will certainly test every player’s long game. There’s only one bunker, but the elevated green is perched above a grassy swale to the left, making up and downs difficult.
  • The 515-yard ninth is the longer of the two par 5s that are being converted into a stout par 4 during the Championship. Bunkers up the right side could gather up errant drives. Two bunkers and a swale on the right lurk at the green.
  • No. 14, a 470-yard par 4, kicks off the finishing five-hole run along Lake Merced. The breeze off the water every afternoon will make it more challenging, as if hitting an elevated green off an uneven lie wasn’t daunting enough.
  • Right-to-left holes dominate the back nine, none more dangerous than No. 18. Its new back tee stretches the finishing hole along Lake Merced to 480 yards, bringing the bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway more into play and forcing a longer approach into an elevated green.

TPC Harding Park's unique challenge

The thickness of the rough and how long certain holes are playing in the heavy air has caught the attention of the players during practice rounds. “The golf course is playing great,” said Shane Lowry. “It’s going to be very difficult because it could be quite cold and playing long and the rough is thick and bad in places.”
That doesn’t bode well for scoring when comparing the current setup to the last important stroke-play event held at TPC Harding Park, the WGC in 2005. That year, TPC Harding Park ranked as the third-hardest course on the PGA Tour for hitting the fairway. Players stayed in the short grass only 48.6 percent of the time. Only the fairways at Quail Hollow Club (47.1 percent) and the Cottonwood Valley Club (47.6) were more difficult, according to the 15th Club.

Gary Woodland said he’s been hitting 5-irons into a number of holes, due to their sheer length and heavy air. “You've got to drive the golf ball in the fairway,” Woodland said. “The fairways are tight. The rough when it gets wet like it was yesterday, it doesn't matter if you miss 3-wood or driver, very hard to get to the greens, especially on some of the longer holes. Driving the golf ball this week I think is as premium as any week we've seen, especially if it gets cold and damp. If it firms up a little bit and we get some sun; the rough is patchy and you can get some good lies.  But if it's wet, it's brutal.

Nobody understands the impact of the local climate, with its marine layer and fog, better than Woods, who played at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Coming 30 miles north up the Peninsula was always an adjustment. “It’s going to be playing longer,” Woods said Tuesday. “It’s heavy air, whether the wind blows or not, but it’s still going to be heavy. The ball doesn’t fly very far here. I’ve know that from all the years and times I’ve had to qualify up in this area. It’s always 20 degrees cooler here than it is down there in Palo Alto. We knew that coming in. I think the weather forecast is supposed to be like this all week: Marine layer, cool, windy, and we are all going to have to deal with it.”

Odds and Ends

The longest hole is the 607-yard par-5 fourth. Players who miss the fairway could lose out on a rare scoring opportunity. At the 2015 WGC Cadillac Match Play, it played as the most “penalizing fairway to miss”, according to the 15th Club, at plus-.45 strokes. … The shortest hole, the 171-yard 17th, is no cakewalk, either, ranking among the hardest holes at the 2015 WGC. … The TPC Network took over management of the course in 2010. … Green fees when the course reopens August 11 following the tournament range from $80 for city residents and $200 for Bay Area residents (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma counties) to $300 for visitors.

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