Mark Zeigler: Lovable underdog at PGA Championship not a player, but the course

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Justin Thomas of the United States walks the fifth hole during the first round of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park on Aug. 6, 2020 in San Francisco, California. - Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America/TNS

SAN FRANCISCO — They say the layout at TPC Harding Park is like a cinnamon roll, with the front nine wrapped inside the back. As you circumnavigate the closing nine holes and swirl from 13 at the top to 14 down the right side of the roll, you border Lake Merced.

There, across the water, staring back at you with its undulating fairways and verdant greens and majestic clubhouse, dignified and erudite, is The Olympic Club, capital T. Its Lake Course (there are two 18s and a nine along the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean) has hosted five U.S. Opens and is the state’s fifth-best course according to Golf Digest.

Just across the street is San Francisco Golf Club. It’s ranked sixth.

Just down the freeway is California Golf Club of San Francisco. It’s No. 15.

All pristine, all private, all prestigious, all privileged.

And then you have Harding Park, the red-headed stepchild. The afterthought. The hardscrabble, 95-year-old muni.

The cinnamon roll.

That’s where the 102nd PGA Championship, the year’s first golf major and the world’s first major sporting event in the age of COVID-19, is being held this week. San Francisco residents can play it for 47 bucks.

Harding Park is just the fourth U.S. muni to host a major, joining Bethpage Black in New York, Chambers Bay outside Seattle and Torrey Pines South (which had the U.S. Open in 2008 and gets it again next year). In 1998, when The Olympic Club hosted the U.S. Open, Harding Park was used as a parking lot.

“It’s very refreshing that we do come to places like here, Bethpage, Torrey Pines,” Rory McIlroy said. “It is important to let the public see us on golf courses that they’ve played before, that are accessible for them, that aren’t too expensive to get on.

“Look, it’s a step in the right direction for golf. I think golf has still got a fair bit to go to be as inclusive and as accessible as it needs to be, but look, it’s a step in the right direction.”

And he’s right. So you root for the red-headed stepchild, for the windswept fairways and creaky cypress trees and unpredictable rough, for the course with the checkered past, for the U.S. Open parking lot.

Harding Park opened in 1925, a year after The Olympic Club’s Lake and Ocean courses, and was designed by the same two men. Willie Watson and Sam Whiting charged $300 for the blueprints.

Even its namesake does not evoke excellence: Warren G. Harding, the scandal-ridden president who was an avid golfer and had died of a heart attack two years earlier at the Palace Hotel while visiting San Francisco.

It would become a regular PGA Tour stop in the 1960s. Ken Venturi’s parents ran the pro shop. Another future U.S. Open champion, Johnny Miller, hustled people on the practice green as a youngster, telling the San Francisco Chronicle: “Harding was never going to set any records for course conditioning. But it made me a better player learning how to play out of bunkers that were not always raked, and how to putt on bumpy greens.”

The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were less kind, however, as the city’s golf budget dwindled. The aging clubhouse was falling apart. Greens had bald spots. Fairways, literally and figuratively, were pushing up daisies.

The savior was Frank “Sandy” Tatum, the 1942 NCAA champion at Stanford who would become president of the U.S. Golf Association. A prominent attorney and member of some of Northern California’s most exclusive country clubs, he had a soft spot for the muni that hosted San Francisco’s annual city championship.

“The quality of the place just fixed in my being,” Tatum, who died in 2017, once told Golf Digest. “As the years passed and the conditions got worse, I still saw it — what I thought it should be. Then in early 1997, I simply decided: I’m going to try to do something about it.”

It was a long, contentious battle with various city entities, including the “Friends of Muni Golf” who feared their weekly foursome would be priced out. The goal was to have renovations complete in time to host the 2002 Tour Championship. Didn’t happen.

Tatum didn’t give up, ultimately convincing city supervisors to use $16 million from an Open Space bond issue on a golf course instead of neighborhood parks. Even then, the project went $7 million over budget. The irrigation system failed and had to be replaced for $2 million. Arnold Palmer Golf Management backed out of an agreement to operate the course amid controversy over revenue projections.

Even plans to erect a bronze statue of Tatum this summer in time for the PGA Championship took a detour.

The truck carrying it from the foundry in Philadelphia crashed July 25 in Hannibal, Mo., rolling over and ejecting the statue through the roof into a field. Then the towing company wouldn’t release the statue until it got paid. Then a foundry in Berkeley had to repair it.

Harding finally got its statue and now it would get its major championship … except the coronavirus pandemic moved it from May, when weather is clearer, into “Fogust,” as San Franciscans affectionately call the notoriously socked-in month when warm inland temperatures collide with frigid ocean water to create cold, foggy, windy, nasty conditions.

And there are no spectators, enveloping the course in an eerie silence.

But it’s a muni and it’s a major. Harding will have to make do, hoping that the narrowed fairways and two-club wind and cypress branches guarding doglegs and unpredictable 4-inch rough will humble McIlroy, Tiger Woods, two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and the rest of the planet’s best players.

You root for the cinnamon roll.

During Wednesday’s practice round, Justin Rose arrived at the 17th hole, a par-3 into a swirling wind that requires a mere 8-iron on some days and a 3-iron on others. He was pitching out of thick greenside rough and, unsure how hard to swing, launched the ball over the flag.

Rickie Fowler playfully stuck out his hand as if to catch it, pulling it away as the ball bounced over the green and trundled down the slope toward the ducks in Lake Merced.

As they prepared to tee off at 18, a harrowing, 480-yard dogleg left over water with a tight fairway that was filled with parked cars during the 1998 U.S. Open, a raccoon darted in front of them.

It turned with its dark-circled eyes and, you could almost swear, winked.

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