Every day, countless diehard golfers drove by or snuck in, watching a long-overdue, 16-million dollar renovation---new grass, a dismantled clubhouse, a new driving range. And they waited?but it was certainly worthwhile.
The new Harding Park is magnificent. Give credit to Sandy Tatum, the former president of the United States Golf Association, who pulled strings to make it happen. "The municipal golfer deserves a quality experience for a reasonable price," he says. Now, that golfer will get much more; a course that looks and plays like a world-class, private club.
"It's a miracle," describes Harding historian Bo Links. "This is magic. Before the renovation, Harding Park had become a disaster---a dust bowl in summer, and a mud bath in winter.Anybody who knows what Harding Park used to be, and sees what it is, will feint dead away. It blows your mind."
In July, 2003, we convinced San Francisco's parks and recreation department to allow us to shoot television show about playing the new course.
Harding maintenance staff cut the first holes, on new greens, on this grand old course made young again.
I played with ABC7 sports reporter Mike Shumann, teaching professional Susan Young, and also with 16-year old Paula Creamer of Pleasanton, then the nation's number one ranked junior player. She hit the ball 285 yards and showed up in tight, pink capri pants.
Better still, we had the place to ourselves. Shumann and I challenged the women to a low-ball match. If we won, they would clean our clubs. If they won, we would do the same. But Paula is a +4 handicap and wasn't giving strokes, so it wouldn't be easy.
Harding's 1st hole looks much as it always did---a straight par four, but now with five tee boxes, ranging from 307 to 393 yards. A greenside bunker guards wayward shots from the right.
Shumann played his second from the rough. Susan landed a little left. Paula and I both hit sand wedges into the green and made par. The group stayed even and remained polite, although by the par five fourth, which measures 606 yards from the tips, Paula stepped down to our level.
"Let's go all the way back," I suggested.
"Too far," countered Shumann.
"You afraid?" taunted Paula.
Hardly. Shu drove his ball past all of us.
The 4th hole's tee box now sits near where the 13th green used to be. It's the first of several changes on this big-boned brute of a hole. You'll notice cleaner tree lines, and some additional fairway mounding. It was on this hole that Shumann carved out a piece of Harding history ? the first divot. "Maybe Paula will sign it for me," he quipped, and then replaced it.
Our match remained even, at par, through the par three 8th, which measures from 148 to 230 yards. "Look! Crop circles," Shu joked about the five new tee boxes.
"Check that view," marveled Susan as she gazed past the eighth, down the long fairway of the par five ninth. It's a big-league panorama.
On the 8th, Susan and Mike Shumann both made lengthy par putts---notable because they rolled true on new, bent grass greens. At the old Harding Park, putts used to weave like drunken sailors on shore leave. Now they roll where you hit them, although not always where you want.
If you know the old Harding, you may become disoriented on the 428 yard, par 4, 13th. What used to be a dogleg right has become a longer dogleg left. To make room for that deeper tee box for the fourth, they moved the 13th green about 100 yards left.
"The view is a thousand times better," said Susan, who once worked at Harding. "It's a prettier hole. Just hit it toward the Olympic Club."
Old-timers say Harding doesn't really begin until you reach Lake Merced. That's the 14th hole, and it's a monster. It now plays 50 yards longer from the tips, 477 yards down to a landing area, and then up a hill. The 14th is the hardest hole on the golf course. Paula, in her pink pants, hit it ten yards past me, and about three past Shumann. As if that weren't embarrassing enough, she followed by nearly chipping in, putting us one down in the match.
"Are you gloating?" I asked.
"No," she said sweetly. "It's a nice hole."
When combined, the holes at Harding Park have a nice rhythm to them. It has long par fours, and then short ones.
On the relatively easy, 321 to 405 yard par four fifteenth, they cleaned away some scrub brush along the left side of the fairway. That was lucky for me. All four of us faced moderate birdie putts. Susan and i missed. Then, when Shumann drained a ten footer, we had a match again.
"May I remind you that you need this to stay one up," he reminded Paula, who coolly dropped an eight footer for a birdie of her own. "Ii make those in my sleep," she said to Shu.
Harding Park's short, par 4, sixteenth has become the prettiest hole on the course. New bunkers, opposite the trees, frame your approach from the right. Hit a long iron or fairway wood 230 yards and lay back for an accurate wedge. Shumann ignored strategy and bombed a drive up the gut.
"How perfect is that?"
"Beyond." But the shot left him between clubs for his approach, and he hit long into the green. We all made pars, prompting Creamer to chirp, "My seven iron looks a little dirty. Needs cleaning."
This has always been a memorable, but short par 3. After the renovation, the seventeenth may, in fact, play easier, due to the trimming of those dominant trees along the left side. But they caught Susan's tee shot, slapping her ball to the ground 50 yards in front of the hole.
But golf has a way of turning triumph into adversity, and the other way around. That's what happened here. Susan pitched her ball, and it rolled into the hole.
She danced. She laughed. She hooted. She gave high-fives to all of us. Formally, this ended the match, but golf provides losers a tradition called 'the press'.
"If you win or halve eighteen, we will do more than clean your clubs. We'll also do your shoes," I proposed to the women.
"Good," said Susan. "They could use a cleaning."
The eighteenth has always been a wonderful finishing hole---a 468 yard dogleg from the tip, with a big carry over the hazard. At 290 yards straight-away, you'll find new bunkering ready to capture long, errant drives.
Paula hit a good ball. Susan played safely to the right. I bombed my best drive of the day 328 yards around the corner, to wedge range.
Then it was Mike Shumann's turn. Normally, he prides himself on getting into an opponent's head, but Paula had been doing the same to him. Now, as he set up for his tee shot, she inquired about the tilted position of his head. "Doesn't it hurt your neck? How can you see out of only one eye?"
Shumann hooked his drive into the hazard and re-teed. . His second never cleared the trees. By the time he hit his third long and perfect, Shu was lying six.
"Thanks for noticing that neck thing," he said to Paula as we left the tee box.
Now it came down to Paula Creamer versus me. She faced a difficult iron to a deep pin, 175 yards out, and nailed it to twenty feet.
There is nothing like a 16 year old girl putting the heat on a grown man. I hit a pitching wedge to 15 feet. "But can he putt?" Paula asked.
Then I rolled mine, pure and true. It hung on the lip.
"Oh good. Shu's cleaning my clubs," said Paula, as soon as she could.
And so, our unofficial first round at the new Harding Park ended.
File it in the history books, somewhere.