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Frank (Sandy) Tatum and PGA/Harding 2020

Posted by: Pat Sullivan

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 at 3:40 PM

On a Friday morning 17 years ago this past August, a distinguished-looking, silver-haired man -- well-known as an erudite elocutionist – had to search for just the right word for what he wanted to say to a gathering of golfers and San Francisco officials.  He absolutely was elated to be witnessing the grand re-opening of Harding Park after its refurbishing, a project some had said couldn't be done in politically contentious San Francisco.

             “When  I look for one word that best sums up my feelings,'' Frank (Sandy) Tatum said, “Hallelujah!''

            This is the story of how Tatum, then in his mid-70s,  led a six-year effort to save Harding from an ignominious future as “Hardpan Park” – sprouting fields of weeds and daisies – perhaps never again to host top-tier golf as it had in the 1960s.

            Why save Harding, which reached its nadir when used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open Championship at nearby Olympic Club? That was an easy one for Tatum, who knew a good golf course when he saw one. He grew up on well-tended fairways and greens in Los Angeles, son of a 4-handicapper at Bel-Air Country Club. He began playing at 6. At 12 he was caddying for 50 cents a bag. At 18 he was  introduced to Bay Area golf when he enrolled at Stanford, where he would win the 1942 NCAA individual title.

 

 

            Next came a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, where he discovered the joys of links golf and playing in inclement conditions. (The Scots have a phrase for it: “Nae wind, nae golf.'')  A couple of years later, back at Stanford to earn his law degree,  he resumed his  relationship with Harding, site of the often rough and tumble, wet and sloppy San Francisco City Golf Championships, known to locals as “The City.''

            The now 103-year-old match-play extravaganza is open to players from scratch to hack. A Northern California amateur-golf fixture, it has been won by S.F.'s own Ken Venturi and George Archer; not won by Tom Watson, when at Stanford, and Johnny Miller, who grew up a couple of miles away. Women's champions include Shelley Hamlin and Juli (Simpson) Inkster.

            If a butcher, baker or candlestick maker never won The City, a riveter, a soda-pop salesman, a mayonnaise salesman, a cop, a guy with Crohn's Disease, a roofer, a stockbroker, a cabbie, and a U.S. Navy storekeeper on leave during World War II all did. The 1956 City final match between Venturi, back from Army duty, and 1955 champion E. Harvie Ward drew a gallery of 10,000, Venturi prevailing 5 and 4.

            Tatum competed in the event more than 40 times – in February and March, rain or shine. One year the greens were so soaked players putted with 7-irons. He carried his bag or pulled a cart, depending on the weather. Harding Park got into his DNA and stayed there.

            “”Harding Park always grabbed me,'' Tatum said in a 2010 interview. “It was a wonderful layout and the environment was so impressive. The public access to the course really appealed to me and I fell in love with the place. But I saw it was turning into a weed patch and that was intolerable.''

 

 

            Harding's maintenance issues were decades old by the 1990s when Tatum found himself a few years into retirement and looking to stay active, especially in golf. Along with his law career, he also had had immense experience in the upper echelons of the game as a member of the U.S. Golf Association executive committee (1972-1980) and as that body's president (1978-1980).  Now he had the time and inclination to pursue the Harding project in the interests of the city where he lived and had  spent his professional lifetime.

            He envisioned the Harding do-over as having three components: course renovation; establishment of a First Tee program for local youth, and a partnership with the PGA Tour to bring pro golf back to a course that had hosted seven Lucky International tournaments in the 1960s (won by Gary Player, Gene Littler, Jack Burke Jr., Juan (Chi Chi) Rodriguez, George Archer, Ken Venturi and Billy Casper). A lone Senior Tour event, the Eureka Federal Savings Classic (Don January), was played at Harding in 1981. Sixteen years later Tatum would begin his quest for Harding's return to prominence.

            He called upon good friend Charles Schwab (founder of the discount brokerage) for some help. Schwab, in turn, set up a dinner meeting with then-PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. The conversation among the three went well and Finchem was aboard, promising a series of events to bring the tour back to the San Francisco market. Then came the daunting task of navigating the plan through City Hall. The mayor at the time was Willie Brown, who will tell you – as he told the S.F.Chronicle's Sporting Green – that he “didn't know much about golfin'” when the Tatum/Tour proposal was presented to him in 1997.

 

 

            When word of the project got out, some locals reacted as if it were a “grab” and not so politely suggested that Tatum stick to his long-time membership at private San Francisco Golf Club. Harding's regular golfers also were divided, some vocally pro-Tatum and pro-Tour and some wishing the project would self-destruct. And it almost did, amid the crash of San Francisco's dot-com economy in 2000.

            Tatum persevered, “bloody but unbowed,'' as he was wont to say sometimes when asked how he had fared in a round of golf. The phrase is from Victorian poet William Ernest Henley's most famous work “Invictus,'' the same poem that ends: “I am the master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.'') Tatum, Brown, other city officials, the Harding Park men's club and the Tour did not jump ship.

            Then – call it lucky and a rub of  “green power''  – in 2001 the S.F. Recreation and Parks Department secured a $16 million state grant for the city's Open Space fund. A plan was devised so those dollars could be used to “open'' Harding, so to speak. Repayment over the years was to be from Harding operations. The 15-month renovation effort began in mid-2002.

            The 2020 PGA Championship was the seventh professional event in Harding's reincarnation, preceded by the 2005 WGC American Express (won by John Daly); 2009 Presidents Cup (U.S.A.); Schwab Cups in 2010 (John Cook), 2011 (Jay Don Blake) and 2013 (Fred Couples), and 2015 WGC Match Play (Rory McElroy). PGA/Harding was to mark the event's move from August – when it often was played in hot, humid conditions all across the country – to a season in San Francisco that could include overcast skies in the morning, sun in the afternoon. Come August 6-9, 2020,  the pandemic PGA was played  in glorious weather with inspiring San Francisco backdrops telecast for four days. There were no galleries.

 

 

            But back in 2003 it sure was an overcast morning when Harding reopened.  After the speechifying and a blessing and a couple of  topped ceremonial tee shots,  Mayor Brown had a surprise for  all  in attendance. He unveiled a plaque – called Sandy's Rock --at the base of a cypress tree near the No. 1 tee box. The plaque, encased in a boulder, honors Tatum “for his invaluable gift to the city, the renaissance of a treasured jewel, Harding Park Golf Course, August 2003.''

            August 2020's PGA/Harding included  another tribute, the unveiling of a bronze statue of  Tatum (1920-2017) by esteemed sculptor Zenos Frudakis at the entrance to the clubhouse, already named in Tatum's honor.  The statue was commissioned  by Charles and Helen Schwab, major financial supporters of  the very successful First Tee of San Francisco,  mentor to thousands of student-golfers  over the past decade and a half.

            After Tatum's passing in 2017, the Schwabs initiated a $2 million First Tee post-secondary scholarship program in Tatum's name; their $3 million gift will go toward construction of a state-of-the-art First Tee indoor-practice area, the Sandy Tatum Learning Center.

            “Sandy was the ultimate amateur,'' friend Tom Watson said for this story. “He loved the game with a passion I've never seen in anyone else. He tried his best on every shot. He had a great sense of history of the game. He lived it and loved it.''

            And he'll live on at Harding Park.

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