PGA Championship no walk in Harding Park

Brooks Koepka putts on the third green during a practice round ahead of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. The American calls it a "big boy course" with its tight fairways lined by majestic cypress trees.
Brooks Koepka putts on the third green during a practice round ahead of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. The American calls it a "big boy course" with its tight fairways lined by majestic cypress trees.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SAN FRANCISCO • Less than three weeks ago, TPC Harding Park, a city-owned golf course, was roamed by duffers of all abilities.

About 65,000 rounds are played at the facility in a typical year, plus another 30,000 at the nine-hole course tucked inside the 18-hole layout.

Some pay as little as about US$50 (S$68.50) a round, depending on residency and the day's demand.

But until Sunday, the world's best golfers will be at Harding Park for the PGA Championship, the first Major in this coronavirus-hit season. "It's a big-boy golf course," said Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion. "Tough place. Tough setup."

It sounds like a magic trick. How could the same patch of grass and trees go from being so accessible to recreational golfers to so foreboding to the pros?

The transformative task fell largely to Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America, and the local parks and recreation crews that maintain the course, even this week.

Their method made the most of time, imagination and geometry, all made trickier by Harding Park's availability till July 17.

"Tee times every day from dawn to dusk make it challenging for anyone to grow grass and prepare a golf course in championship condition because of how difficult it is to even get onto the golf course and work in an efficient manner," Haigh said.

"You've got to keep clear of golfers that aren't always hitting it straight all the time."

Harding Park has held top PGA Tour events before, including the 2009 Presidents Cup, but this will be its first Major tournament.

Compared to the few other American municipal courses in its elite class, like Bethpage Black on Long Island and Torrey Pines in San Diego, Harding Park feels comfortably unspectacular, like a familiar bar. That is its charm.

That reputation owes as much to its location as it does the course's lack of meant-to-impress flourishes like those at cloaked country clubs elsewhere.

Harding Park is an urban playground that sits next to San Francisco State University.

There is no chateaux-style clubhouse, and amid the cart-pulling, bag-carrying golfers are joggers and dog walkers and you can take the Muni, San Francisco's transit system, to get there.

But the course is blessed with a classic layout - tight fairways lined by majestic cypress trees, its front nine folded inside a back nine that unwinds alongside Lake Merced.

It is all made unpredictable by San Francisco's famous cool summer wind and fog. Temperatures until this weekend are expected to be between 10 and 15 deg C.

"If you're a little persnickety about your golf climate, Harding's not for you," said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the city's Recreation and Park Department.

Harding Park will play longer this week at 7,251 yards, extended about 800 yards from the white tees familiar to locals. But lengthening a course is the easy part.

Haigh said he spent most of his time calculating angles, trying to force golfers this weekend to use their mental protractors to conquer the course.

Fairways were narrowed between thick rough and some were moved to one side or the other to put more trees and bunkers in play.

"I'm a great believer that if you can make any golfer think and have to sort of strategise, then they enjoy - and we enjoy - the game a lot more," Haigh said.

Locals might also notice that the longer grass that slowed stray shots from rolling into many fairway bunkers is gone.

"With the overhang of these cypress trees, there may be a couple lost balls here," Tiger Woods said of the course he played as an amateur and where he won the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship.

"Cut a corner and the ball hangs up there."

Haigh said he does not alter courses with projected scores in mind.

But the changes to the course - the length, the angles, the rough, the faster greens - probably add 10 strokes to Harding Park's difficulty usually faced by locals. Scoring will be tighter, too, with the par set at 70 instead of the usual 72.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2020, with the headline 'PGA Championship no walk in Harding Park'. Print Edition | Subscribe