Soaking up San Francisco scenes

Features - Spotlight

The relationship between TPC Harding Park and its community runs much deeper than one major tournament.

July 2, 2020

Views of Lake Merced are part of the appeal at TPC Harding Park, a valued greenspace in San Francisco.
© san francisco recreation and parks

Surfers know where to catch waves. Archaeologists know where to find artifacts. Kevin Teahan and Almar Valenzuela know where to escape the chaos of city life within one of America’s busiest golf sites.

Lifelong Bay Area residents, Teahan and Valenzuela are dedicated San Francisco Recreation and Parks department employees. Teahan, the department’s golf and turf manager, oversees the maintenance of five golf courses and dozens of athletic fields. Valenzuela tends to the turf at TPC Harding Park, where 125,000 annual rounds are played on the 163-acre site. A little knowledge from the locals before proceeding: the Fleming 9 rests inside the 18-hole TPC Harding Park layout.

Here’s more local knowledge: the views from TPC Harding Park make the hustle worth it. With Lake Merced and a tricky fairway to hit in the foreground, Teahan achieves clarity by stepping on the back tee of the 467-yard 14th hole. Valenzuela momentarily wanders from the morning mayhem whenever he steps on the 11th or 16th tees. “You don’t get play to rapid around to 11, especially in the mornings, that quickly,” says Valenzuela, the course superintendent. “You get a quiet moment looking at the lake. And 16 is a nice, unobstructed view of the lake where you can look at the still waters and watch the sun.”

TPC Harding Park receives 75,000 rounds per year. The municipal course hosts the PGA Championship next month.
© san francisco recreation and parks

Everything else at TPC Harding Park seemingly happens fast and loud. The championship course receives 75,000 annual rounds, with another 50,000 players relishing the coziness of the Fleming 9. Parkgoers range from children clutching a club for the first time to world-ranked players. The City of San Francisco established a relationship with the PGA Tour and TPC Network in 2010. A recent televised tournament bonanza is scheduled to continue when TPC Harding Park hosts the 2020 PGA Championship, marking the event’s first appearance inside city limits, next month. The tournament had originally been scheduled for May.

But Teahan stresses that TPC Harding Park exists to provide quality recreation for his neighbors. Teahan learned the game at TPC Harding Park and Fleming 9 and jokes, “Whoever thought one day I would be running the place?” Teahan doesn’t spend as much time on the site as Valenzuela and managing agronomist Geoff Planovich, because he oversees a team of more than 50 employees responsible for maintaining recreational spaces scattered throughout the city. The department’s other golf courses include 108-year-old Lincoln Park, Alister Mackenzie-designed Sharp Park and beginner-friendly Golden Gate Park. “They are all hidden gems,” Teahan says.

Continual activity and recent big events suggest there’s nothing hidden about TPC Harding Park. The course, after all, has hosted two World Golf Championship events, a Presidents Cup and a trio of Charles Schwab Cup Championship tournaments since 2005. Designed by the Golden Age duo of Willie Watson and Sam Whiting and opened in 1925, the region’s best amateurs and nation’s leading professionals visited TPC Harding Park for competitions throughout its first 40 years.

City-mandated budget cuts beginning in the late 1960s caused conditions to deteriorate throughout the following three decades. When The Olympic Club hosted the 1998 U.S. Open, TPC Harding Park served as a spectator parking lot. The courses — one private, the other open to all — shared Lake Merced views and heady histories but little else by that time. In an inspiring reversal of golf fortunes, the courses now share places on the same championship calendar. The PGA of America announced TPC Harding Park as the 2020 PGA Championship site in 2014. The Olympic Club hosts the event in 2028.

Former USGA President and Bay Area resident Sandy Tatum led a spirited effort to revitalize TPC Harding Park. The course reopened Aug. 22, 2003 after a 15-month renovation. The glitz of a renovation and the glamour of hosting televised events never eliminated the communal vibe. San Francisco residents can play TPC Harding for $64 and $78, respectively, at peak weekday and weekend times. Seniors living within the city play the course for under $50 on weekdays and all resident junior rates are under $30. The incomparable value resonates with TPC Harding Park loyalists.

“We’re extremely busy,” Teahan says. “It’s go, go, go. A lot of the locals who play here constantly really take ownership of the golf course. You’ll see them out there on a green and they’ll fix four or five ballmarks so the standard stays up. It’s their course. We’re more concerned with our daily play. It’s nice to host a tournament, but we care a great deal about our average golfer.”

Preparing TPC Harding Park for San Franciscans requires daily hustle. Mechanics arrive at 4 a.m. to stage equipment. The crew reports an hour later. Valenzuela and Planovich lead a brief meeting before scurrying to the course. The sun rises as early as 5:47 a.m. in June and as late as 7:34 a.m. before the clocks change in the fall. The month, though, rarely affects the volume of play. TPC Harding Park is open all 365 days, a testament to its popularity, financial importance to the city and drainage prowess.

© san francisco recreation and parks

“We’re down to the minute with every task,” Valenzuela says. “We don’t have a minute to spare and we try to manage our program according to the sunlight. There’s a ton that goes into making sure everything gets ready for golfers. We don’t have a day off (from play) like a lot of other courses, so the grass starts to show that and we sometimes have to baby it throughout the year.”

Planovich, a Wisconsin native, joined the TPC Harding Park team in 2017 following a tenure “across the street” at The Olympic Club. The address change is most noticeable on Mondays.

“The biggest difference is not having that maintenance day,” he says. “That maintenance day is very important, but we find ways to get stuff done. We still have to maintain the course at a very high level.”

Whenever Planovich needs perspective on how conditions compare to previous years, he turns to Valenzuela, whose relationship with San Francisco’s municipal courses extends to his childhood. Valenzuela grew up in Pacifica, home of Sharp Park. He played both courses as a teenager before shifting his focus to a golf career. A former PGA apprentice turned turf aficionado, Valenzuela has held operational and agronomic positions at both courses.

“Sometimes you get little flashbacks,” he says. “When I was at Sharp Park, I was able to maintain the golf course for my old baseball and soccer coaches and my old teammates who play out there. It’s just nostalgic. That’s the best way I can describe it.” Valenzuela started working at TPC Harding Park in 2003. Only 15 miles separate the courses and Valenzuela still encounters old coaches, teammates, friends and co-workers. “Seeing them day in and day out makes you feel at home,” he adds.

Narrower fairways, thicker rough and tournament infrastructure on the Fleming 9 — such is major championship life — have altered TPC Harding Park this year. But the best views of TPC Harding Park, where major champions Ken Venturi, George Archer, Bob Rosburg, Tony Lema, Lawson Little and Johnny Miller competed as juniors, and everything municipal golf in San Francisco represents remain unimpeded.

“It was always a gem,” Valenzuela says. “But just the visual aspect of what you get now, … it’s worth taking pictures and soaking it all in sometimes.”

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.