These past few days, leading into the 102nd PGA Championship, featured a surreal flavor around Harding Park — and not only because the coronavirus pandemic kept spectators away.
Wait, that’s really Tiger Woods crushing a drive around the corner on No. 4? And Rory McIlroy swatting shots on the range? And Brooks Koepka musing about chasing another PGA title? On Harding, our oh-so-public municipal track?
Major championships historically unfold on sacred golf ground: the emerald-green grass of Augusta National, the cliffside magnificence of Pebble Beach or, for next month’s U.S. Open, the private enclave of Winged Foot. Every now and then, majors come to munis such as Harding Park.
They need to come more often.
This isn’t a provincial argument touting the greatness of San Francisco and its vibrant golf scene. This is a wider-angle point about the value of the game’s biggest events prioritizing truly public courses.
“I think it’s incredibly important for the future of our sport and the future of professional competition,” Harding Park general manager Tom Smith said. “It not only defines the history books for the facility, it also validates what everyone knows of these great muni courses: They’re worthy to be in the same breath as private clubs with giant gates out front. …
“This is literally anyone’s and everyone’s course.”
The tournament’s 102nd year
What: PGA Championship (fans not permitted)
TV: Thursday-Friday, 1 p.m. ESPN
Saturday, 10 a.m. ESPN, 1 p.m. Channel: 5Channel: 13Channel: 46
Sunday, 9 a.m. ESPN, noon Channel: 5Channel: 13Channel: 46
Harding Park becomes the fourth municipal golf course to host the PGA Championship. Here are the others:
Keller Golf Course, St. Paul, Minn. (1932 and 1954)
Tanglewood Golf Course, Clemmons, N.C. (1974)
Bethpage State Park (Black), Farmingdale, N.Y. (2019)
Fair or not, golf still drags along an image problem two decades into the 21st century. Too rich. Too white. Too tilted toward exclusivity and privilege.
That attitude is outdated in some ways — especially when players such as Woods and McIlroy, to pick two prominent examples, came from modest roots. Woods grew up playing a Navy course and municipal facilities in Southern California. McIlroy played at Holywood Golf Club in his native Northern Ireland, though his parents both worked extra jobs to pay for his golf training and development.
Even so, golf just feels distant and unwelcoming when the most prestigious events are typically held at power-broker places such as Augusta National and Winged Foot. Or crazy-expensive resort courses such as Pebble Beach and Kiawah Island, site of next year’s PGA Championship.
There’s a completely different vibe when majors unfold at Bethpage Black, the brawny layout that hosted last year’s PGA on Long Island. Or Harding Park, the 95-year-old gem of a muni alongside Lake Merced.
“I think especially in the United States, golf can still become more accessible, and bringing the biggest tournaments in the world to public courses is a step in the right direction,” McIlroy said Wednesday at Harding. “We’re always going to go to private courses, because some private courses are some of the best in the world, and they’re courses that test the top players.
“But at the same time, it’s very refreshing that we do come to places like here, Bethpage, Torrey Pines. It is important to let the public see us on golf courses they’ve played, that are accessible for them and aren’t too expensive.”
The United States Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, launched the modern run of municipal courses as major venues. USGA officials brought the Open to Bethpage in 2002, Torrey Pines (in San Diego) in ’08, Bethpage again in ’09 and Chambers Bay (near Seattle) in 2015. Next year’s Open will return to Torrey.
The PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship, followed suit. But the U.S. Open returns to country clubs and resort courses from 2022 through ’27. And check out the PGA’s future venues: Kiawah Island in 2021 followed by a parade of traditional, private courses (including the Olympic Club in ’28).
No true public tracks through 2031. That’s not a good look.
PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh seemed to agree, based on his sheepish response when asked about this lineup in the decade ahead.
“Not to blame anything, but I inherited a series of events and venues over the next 10 to 15 years,” Waugh said. “But we can certainly find other places to play some of our other events.”
As for the value in staging marquee tournaments on accessible courses, he said, “To advertise municipal golf courses on our biggest stage is a wonderful opportunity, and we’ve had the chance to do so two years in a row.”
Harding Park’s turn comes at a strange time, amid the pandemic. Any financial windfall from the PGA, with out-of-town visitors eager to play the course, probably won’t materialize for a year or two, given the massive drop in tourism.
But this week’s tournament, in a sporting realm, still bubbles with intrigue — the first major in Harding’s 95-year history, the first PGA Championship on the West Coast since 1998, the first major of this strange year.
And the presence of the world’s best players, on a course San Francisco residents can play for $64, remains hard to comprehend. Smith was reminded of this about 7:30 p.m. Monday, as he chatted with a few members of the maintenance crew — regular city employees — on the practice green.
Matt Kuchar, a nine-time PGA Tour winner with nearly $52 million in career earnings, walked past on his way to the parking lot. Kuchar looked at Smith and the crew and said, “You guys should be very proud of the course. It’s major-worthy.”
As Smith put it two days later, “That was pretty cool.”
Ron Kroichick covers golf for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @ronkroichick