October 9, 2009

Let's Do This Again

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Harding Park has proven itself deserving of more Presidents Cups

Harding Park as the permanent U.S. home of the Presidents Cup makes sense on a number of levels.

Harding Park as the permanent U.S. home of the Presidents Cup makes sense on a number of levels.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Presidents Cup and Harding Park are a perfect match, so to speak: High-end tour pros playing for no financial reward on an urban municipal about 20 minutes south of downtown San Francisco, where such world-class gatherings have been few and far between. This week marks the first time a U.S.-soil version of this series hasn't been sentenced to four days at Robert Trent Jones GC, an ultra-swanky playground for the privileged in northern Virginia.

If RTJ became known for its lavish clubhouse, lackluster layout and lethargic turnouts, Harding Park has quickly emerged as its alter-ego. Crowds have been huge, the atmosphere divine, the afternoons cool but sunny -- ideal golf weather that doubles as a template for northern California's push-button climate. The greens aren't exactly Augusta National-smooth, but there have been few, if any, complaints about course conditions, and the players have voiced an abnormally high approval rating of Harding Park, with several calling it the perfect match-play venue.

So keep it here. Park the Presidents Cup right where it is being held this weekend, in a premier market with a delectable cosmopolitan disposition and a rich golf history. San Francisco hasn't hosted a regular PGA Tour stop since the mid-1960s, and though the biennial chumfest between the Americans and Internationals wouldn't return until 2013 -- the other team deserves home games, too -- Harding Park is where the Presidents Cup belongs, at least in this country.

Pro golf's aversion to NorCal makes very little sense. The PGA Tour's annual visit to Pebble Beach is an official crying shame, a celeb-scarred yuk-and-duck conducted in the heart of the rainy season, the only time all year Pebble isn't really Pebble. A couple of hours up the coast, Olympic CC hosts a U.S. Open once every decade or so, but otherwise the local cupboard is bare.

With an ounce of imagination, the tour would hold its final FedEx Cup playoff tournament at Pebble, where a prime-time telecast on the East Coast might at least shake things up interest-wise, but Camp Ponte Vedra is too worried about title-sponsor revenue to try something so bold. The PGA of America, meanwhile, has mistakenly identified the Mississippi River as the Pacific Ocean, thereby concluding that this country stretches no further west than Minneapolis.

A Ryder Cup hasn't been held in California since 1955. In the 54 years since, just four PGA Championships have been played on the West Coast. For an organization that includes its country of origin in its very title, this amounts to a blasphemous oversight, an alarming shortage of geographic acumen or short-sighted arrogance. Or maybe all three.

There is an obvious responsibility to play golf's biggest tournaments in every part of this nation, which takes us back to Harding Park, a reclamation project of the highest order that was overseen by longtime USGA bigwig Sandy Tatum. Financier Charles Schwab is said to have put up half of the $10 million spent on the modest clubhouse, under one key stipulation -- that a proposal to name the building after him never get airborne . It didn't, so it wasn't, but the refurbished Harding has never been about the grill room.

This is a superb layout, one International captain Greg Norman issued a sideways compliment to in saying, "As a player and an architect, I think it holds up very, very well. It would be so easy to make this one of the best golf courses in America. That probably won't happen because it needs money, but it's a great venue."

He's probably right, although an extended commitment from the tour and a few million Camp Ponte Vedra dollars wouldn't hurt the cause, which is just one more reason to dock the Good Ship Presidente on Lake Merced and turn Harding into a public palace extraordinaire. In its current state, I don't think it's all that inferior to Olympic, the private shop next door. Harding is simple but sophisticated requiring deftly shaped shots both off the tee and into the green, and the way the tour set it up this week, the final four holes offer a scoring range rarely seen in the land of topographic maps and trite TPCs.

Speaking of good shape, Norman's squad couldn't expect much better than to trail by one point after two days. The Yanks should be three or four points ahead, but the home team has given away two 1-up leads on the 17th and 18th, losing both matches, and as a group has played the short, par-4 16th very sloppily.

Still, this is the strongest roster the U.S. has fielded for international team competition since 1999, and I suspect Club Eldrick will pull away Sunday, when the singles matches are likely to reveal the lack of depth on the visiting side. That may not sit well with those who believe this event needs an International victory to keep growing, to which I cry hogwash. Bring back Norman and Fred Couples, and bring back Harding, a triumph of vision and diligence that doesn't have to be one of the best golf courses in America to host a terrific Presidents Cup.

It just has to be what it is. And where it is.