Harding Park Golf Course has a long history that dates back to 1925 when the course was laid out by William Watson and Sam Whiting. The names of Watson and Whiting are not naturally associated with the Golden Age of golf course architecture but their Lake course at the nearby Olympic Club is testament to their design ability.
Set to the southwest of downtown San Francisco, adjacent to the State University, Harding Park is framed on three sides by Lake Merced and the course itself is routed on ideal sandy ground. Named after the keen golfer and US President, Warren G. Harding, the city-owned municipal course hosted a number of high profile tournaments before and after the Second World War and became a regular PGA Tour venue during the 1960s.
Sadly, Harding Park fell into near terminal decline and 1998 it was unceremoniously used as a car park when the US Open was hosted at the Olympic Club. Sandy Tatum, a San Francisco attorney, led a contentious mission to return Harding Park to its former glory. A public-funded $16m restoration project began in spring 2002 and the course re-opened in the summer of 2003 to cautious but steady applause.
Tall Monterey Cypress trees frame most holes making the fairways feel extremely narrow. Small, tricky greens make scoring tough and if you have a decent card going you’ll need to focus hard towards the end of the round because Harding Park has a cracking finishing stretch that starts at the short par four 16th and continues on a high bluff before reaching the signature 18th.
The home hole is a spectacular par four with Lake Merced as the backdrop. The hole doglegs hard left on its way back to the final elevated and multi-tiered green which slopes sharply back to the fairway.
The future of Harding Park was cemented after a thrilling finish to the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, which culminated in Tiger Woods beating John Daly in a sudden-death playoff. Top-flight golf returned to Harding Park in 2009 with the Presidents Cup, which the US team convincingly retained.
In 2010 the City and County of San Francisco passed the management of Harding Park to the Tournament Players Club of California, so the facility is now known as TPC Harding Park. The World Golf Championships - Cadillac Match Play was hosted at TPC Harding Park in 2015. Rory McIlroy claimed the WGC title, beating Gary Woodland 4&2 in the final.
The 2020 PGA Championship was due to be staged at TPC Harding Park in May, but due to the coronavirus outbreak the event was postponed until August when Collin Morikawa's flawless final round of 64 was good enough to win the Wanamaker Trophy.
TPC Harding Park is a fine course that will undoubtedly satisfy your golfing appetite, but it fails to deliver anything close to pulse racing like so many of its big brothers in the Bay area. The first time I played it, was a year removed from the PGA championship and I thought it would prove difficult to host a major championship there -- that said, it proved a stern enough test for the pros and by most counts was a successful event. The course itself is straightforward, with very few forced carries, elevation changes, or penalty areas; the greens roll well, and the conditioning is great. Unfairly, Harding Park is adjacent to Olympic's famed Lake Course (separated by a small body of water), and your mind can't help but wander to a day spent on its far superior layout.
A course that has hosted a major championship always engenders an additional level of anticipation and intrigue for me. Remembering the shots seen on TV and recalling the memorable moments makes the visit more special, and encourages an instant connection with the golf course. I very much enjoyed the 2020 USPGA Championship at TPC Harding Park (won by Collin Morikawa), and couldn’t wait to test myself across one of the most iconic public golf courses on the West coast.
There is no doubt this is a brilliant piece of golfing land. The turf is lush and springy, the grounds expansive and undulating and the views of Lake Merced and beyond toward the infamous Olympic Club on the far side of the water, certainly set the major championship tone. The course conditions didn’t always fit the grand surroundings however, and great credit should be given to the visionaries who saw enough in this golf course to bring about its remarkable regeneration.
The course routing is a very distinct in that the front nine acts as the filling to the back nine’s sandwich. I found the first nine holes slight disorientating as they zigzag back and forth through the centre of the layout. The back nine then encircles the front in a loop around the perimeter of the property. The position of the course, proximate to the Pacific, means that wind is often a factor and can become a maddening foe on the closing run.
A real standout design feature of the course is the strength of the par 4’s. Off the blue tees (the Championship tees are much further back), 6 of the 10 par 4’s measure over 400 yards, with holes 2 and 6 representing that group on the front nine. The other three standout holes on the front side are the sweeping right to left par 5 SI1 4th, the perfectly tempting risk reward par 4 7th and the seemingly gargantuan greened par 3 8th. It’s a strong opening nine but the best is yet to come.
The back nine is barn storming rollercoaster with 10-12 offering some mild relief before the barrage coming in. I thought the back 6 here was a special run of golf, displaying an increased level of difficulty while at the same time, asking a wonderful variety of shot making questions and strategical conundrums. There are 4 par 4’s over 400 yards in this stretch, (including the brilliant 18th), the iconic short par 4 16th (of Morikawa eagle fame) and an attractive mid length par 3 at the north west perimeter of the course. 14-18 play along the shores of Lake Merced and it has a real feeling of the round bursting to a crescendo as you enter this final stretch.
Undoubtedly, 14 is very strong par 4 and would be the toughest hole on many golf courses. But here, it isn’t even the toughest par 4 on the back nine. That accolade goes to the 18th, which is quite simply, a brilliant golf hole. The drive is not for the faint hearted, requiring a well positioned and long tee shot shaped from right to left to find the fairway, with Lake Merced left and short of the fairway and expansive bunkers right, framing the vista. How attacking your are from the tee determines the level of duress you will feel playing your approach to this long and raised three tiered green. Deep bunkers and Lake Merced still loom large to the left so it takes a sure and well struck shot to make it all the way to the putting surface. It is a hole that has everything and is a fitting host to a major championship finale.
The course is a good test but you can see how the lush rough grown to major lengths would add tonnes to the difficulty. When we played in February, the course conditions were good for the time of year. The greens had been lightly hollow tined but this didn’t affect the roll of the ball at all. The fairways deserve special mention and were in very good condition for a well trodden public course. My only point for development would be that the bunkers were rather absent of sand on our visit with a real hard bottom to the surface. I believe a lot of work has been ongoing with the bunkers so I think you could file this comment under work in progress. I do believe that while the bunkers are aesthetically pleasing, they are not the best to play out of and could do with a touch more (coarse) sand to make them more fair and playable. Aside from the bunker point, I’ve played a number of the public courses that have hosted major championships in the USA and TPC Harding Park displays more than enough character and interest to compete with its peers.
Curious about your comment regarding the "zig-zagging" front nine and what you found disorienting about it? Is there a better routing you can envision? Perhaps it wasn't intended to come across as a negative...the inner-nine and outer loop is a rather classic method for architects of that age.
Hi Ryan. Oh the comment of being disorientated was by no means a negative point. It was actually more a point of contrast between the two nines rather than anything. It’s the nature of being in the centre of the layout that there are less features to anchor on and as I say, it’s by no means a negative comment.
Played here eons ago. As I reflect on the course I can't remember anything spectacular. Greens where okay and fairways where fine. The highlight of the round was the taco truck next to the clubhouse. But If I had the chance would I play here again? Yes, if the rates haven't matched the San-Fransisco property prices then I would. Would I travel from elsewhere to play here? No.
I loved Harding Park. The front nine feels like a parkland style muni and the back offered some gorgeous views of Lake Merced and even the Olympic Club which is right across the way. The conditioning was great. We played it right after they installed some new greens a couple years back, but they rolled great and were receptive. While most desire to play San Francisco and Olympic, this is a great golf course that has to be included as part of your trip to the bay area. It is one of those golf courses that I could play everyday and be happy. Its not overly tough but does require some shotmaking. Enjoy your trip to this old gem. We sure did.
I played Harding in May 2015 only a few days after the WGC Match Play that Rory McIlroy won. The course is in good tournament condition and the track that will challenge you on distance and shot making. I did play well that day, so it left a positive vibe. Walking up 18 was fun as the grandstands were still up.
I loved playing through the mature landscape. I admit I am sort of 'old school' when it comes to golf course architecture and Harding fit my eye nicely. It has been a couple of years since I played it and on reflection there are no memorable holes. It is also a little pricey too. But I am glad I played it at least once.