TPC Harding Park's emotional rollercoaster to hosting the PGA Championship
In mid-March, life as we knew it in the United States came to a screeching halt. Within days the NBA suspended its season and THE PLAYERS Championship was canceled mid-week. States across the country issued shelter in place orders and businesses were shut down.
TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, California was one of those businesses.
On March 16, the course ceased operations in the midst of a structural build-out to host the PGA Championship, which was originally scheduled for May 2020. The venue is nestled within one of the city’s 225 public parks and welcomes around 1,000 people per day on property with 10,000 rounds of golf played at the height of summer. But for seven weeks, there were just four individuals who stepped foot on property. One of those was TPC Harding Park General Manager Tom Smith. From Smith’s office he could see where bleachers had already been built. Seats were already in place. They were ready to host fans in less than two months.
“We were that far along when the shelter in place ordinance was issued specifically here in San Francisco,” Smith said via phone from TPC Harding Park. “Everything immediately stopped like a light switch and it sat here. It sat here for those 40 days and it was just a very unusual feeling.”
Six years into preparations to host their first major championship, Smith didn’t know if they would still host the PGA Championship. Quickly the conversation turned from not if, but when. Questions began to swirl around a new date and then, whether the event would be held with or without spectators. It was an emotional rollercoaster for Smith and his team, who were thrilled to be given time to adjust to the new reality in which they found themselves living while still being able to host the Championship. In April, new dates were announced for August 3 – 9, 2020.
“We were thrilled to be playing the PGA Championship here in San Francisco, we still are, but in that time we just didn’t know, and I don’t think the world knew, what was going to happen in professional sports and golf specific to the Championship,” Smith said. “Sports aside, what was going to happen in life? How things were changing, people were lining up trying to find toilet paper. It was a very different scenario.”
In June, the PGA of America announced the Championship would be staged without spectators, which sent Smith and his team into overdrive as they looked to repurpose structures that had already been built and deconstruct those that would no longer be needed. The empty bleachers Smith could see from his office would never be used. The structures on holes 9, 1, 3 and 4 were taken down in order for the golf course maintenance team to repair any damage to the course after sitting in place for four months. Now, the team faced the challenge of keeping TPC Harding Park in peak condition until the Championship in August.
“I’ve told people it’s like an athlete training for the Olympics,” Smith said about the course. “You train to peak at your absolute best during the Olympics during that one finite window. Well, now you’re trying to stretch that out over 90 days. That’s dang near impossible.”
The challenges Smith and his team have faced extend off the course, too. Now, there is the bubble to consider, or multiple bubbles for that matter, as each group attending the Championship from players, to media, to staff are looking to protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19. The merchandise pavilion, which would have been bustling with thousands of fans eager to take home a piece of TPC Harding Park, was repurposed into a space exclusive to players and caddies in order to be mindful of social distancing regulations. The media center was redesigned due to a drastic reduction in on-site media and shifted to a virtual media center. Catering, food distribution and dining have all been adjusted.
After a seven-week closure, TPC Harding Park reopened on May 4, three months ahead of the PGA Championship. While Smith and his team have kept busy bustling with adjustments, the course has slowly returned to normal. On July 10, the tee sheet was full of 208 golfers scheduled to play until six o’clock in the evening.
“There’s a soul here. There’s a heartbeat here on property that just resonates when you feel it,” Smith said. “So, to go from that to zero was definitely very unusual. We’re glad we’re back 200 players a day. It’ll be awhile before we get back to 1,000 people per day, but we’ll get there eventually.”
Despite the change in venue, the loss of spectators and the countless other adjustments Smith and his team have had to make at TPC Harding Park, he’s no less thrilled to host the PGA Championship.
“Six years’ worth of planning and then a postponement, you can just imagine the emotional rollercoaster we’ve had here on property,” Smith said one month ahead of the Championship. “We’re excited we’re going to tee this sucker up and play this PGA Championship come August 3.”