Hanging In The Balance

By Jaime Diaz Photos by J.D. Cuban
September 30, 2009

Harding Park has suffered some setbacks since it's celebrated restoration.

There's a lot riding on what happens at the Presidents Cup -- plenty more than whether the U.S. or the International team wins. Arguably what's at stake is the future of San Francisco public golf, and by extension, the value of public golf everywhere.

That San Francisco is a central battleground is significant. Along with the competitive history of the Olympic Club and the architectural masterpiece that is the San Francisco Golf Club, the city has the most storied public golf legacy in urban America. The three sites for its city championship, where Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward played before some 10,000 spectators in 1956, were its three most charming municipal courses -- Harding Park, Lincoln Park, and Sharp Park.

But that was then and this is now. Two of the three courses are currently in pitched battle for survival, and the third, Harding Park, is the only one with the potential to turn San Francisco's public and political tide back in favor of golf.

Harding Park will no doubt be at its shining best next week, a polished jewel restored through the energy, acumen and passion of San Francisco's public golf angel, Sandy Tatum. But getting it to that point hasn't been easy. Ever since it held to great fanfare the 2005 American Express Championship, won by Tiger Woods in a playoff with John Daly, Harding Park has had problems.

One has been the political problem of repaying the $16 million loan from the state and the city's Open Space fund. Harding's daily revenues haven't been up to projections, and at a time of severe recession in a cash-strapped city, that's not good for golf's popularity.

Second was the ongoing maintenance of the course. San Francisco's public employee system is strongly unionized, and rather than a greenkeeper job description that would require only one union, the golf courses instead have five separate unions under the Recreation and Parks Dept. that include gardeners, groundskeepers, and irrigators. All of whom are prohibited from doing the work of the other, which hurts efficiency and increases costs. The PGA Tour grudgingly accepted this arrangement before the American Express event, after assurances that the union workers would significantly step up the quality of the maintenance. By all accounts, they haven't.

The tour has been keeping a close on eye on Harding in the last few years, and provided overdrive assistance from its own agronomists in the run-up to the Presidents Cup. Those efforts helped avert disaster after a mishap in July, when a city worker misread a fertilizing machine and badly burned nine greens. For now, all's well that ends well, but it's not a scenario the tour wants to have to pour money and manpower into again.

After the Presidents Cup, the tour has a contractual commitment to play four more events at Harding Park -- another WGC event, the BMW-sponsored FedEx Cup playoff event, and two Champions Tour Schwab Cups. But if the city doesn't meet a minimum standard of maintenance, the tour could break the contract and end Harding's revitalization.

It's not that the tour wants to do this. It loves San Francisco as a stage. What the tour would like is for the city to contract with a private company that would be paid union wages to maintain Harding, a proposal that is currently proceeding through the city's labyrinthine political system.

Conversely, San Francisco should love the PGA Tour. The Presidents Cup will bring an estimated $100 million to the local economy, along with 28 hours of television viewed worldwide by 500 million people. In the process, it makes the city look like a golf haven even more attractive to tourists.

If that message gets through, the city will accede to a way to make Harding Park work. More importantly, it's a solution that could help save Lincoln Park and Sharp Park.

Sharp Park, which lies a few miles south in Pacifica but owned by the city of San Francisco, is a coastal course designed by Alister MacKenzie in 1932. It's survived as a blue collar muny with current green fees of $24. But it has come under attack by the national environmentalist group Center for Biological Diversity, which wants to shut down the course in order to provide a pristine habitat for the red-legged frog and an indigenous garter snake. The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, legally liable if the CBD files suit, hold Sharp Park's fate in its hands.

Lincoln Park is perhaps the most felicitously situated urban golf course in the country, perched on a bluff nearly adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. Its location makes it perhaps the most coveted piece of real estate in the entire city. A convention center has been proposed on the site of the ultra-scenic 17th hole. Meanwhile, neighborhood groups want to convert the grounds into soccer fields. The lobbying has become more intense as Lincoln's condition has worsened in recent years and rounds have gone down.

Right now, golf is under siege in San Francisco, once considered a paradise of the public game. It may never be that again, and moving farther from paradise regained and closer to paradise lost. For public golf, the Presidents Cup is coming to the right place, at the right time.