News & Opinion

Major tours rediscover Bay Area gems

Tiger Woods learned all about the San Francisco Bay Area’s strength as a golf market in October 2005, during his memorable playoff tussle with John Daly.

The gallery at Harding Park pressed against the ropes, 10-deep in spots, as Woods and Daly rode in carts back to the 18th tee. Woods later joked that his left ear felt half-deaf from the avalanche of noise. Then, after he and Daly traded towering tee shots over the corner of Lake Merced, they walked down the same fairway in the other direction – and Woods’ right ear felt half-deaf.

“It was electric,” he said at the time. “People were really into it.”

They’re still into it, all these years later. The crowds for this week’s LPGA Mediheal Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club will not rival those at Harding in ’05, but the presence of the world’s finest women’s players highlights Northern California’s return to relevance in golf circles.

Consider the lineup of marquee events on tap: The U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach in August, the U.S. Open at Pebble in June 2019, the PGA Championship at Harding Park in May 2020 and the U.S. Women’s Open at the Olympic Club in June 2021. And this doesn’t include “regular” tournaments: the LPGA event at Lake Merced, the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open at Silverado Resort in October and AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.

“I’m biased, obviously, being from NorCal,” said 10-time LPGA winner Paula Creamer, who grew up in Pleasanton, “but I think we have some of the greatest courses around. And I think the fans there appreciate golf and appreciate sports.”

The Crosby-turned-AT&T is a mainstay of the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing, of course, well-known for its lively mix of Tour pros and celebrities. But the other tournaments illustrate how the major tours and organizations sort of rediscovered the Bay Area in the past 10-plus years.

Harding Park’s rebirth was a major factor. San Francisco’s municipal-course jewel is tucked into the city’s southwest corner, one of the most prestigious golf neighborhoods in the country. Three world-class private courses sit nearby: Olympic Club (a five-time U.S. Open host), Lake Merced and San Francisco Golf Club.

But Harding, which hosted an annual PGA Tour stop in the 1960s (the Lucky International), had slid into disrepair in the 1980s and ’90s. Sandy Tatum, the late San Francisco lawyer and former USGA president, spearheaded its renovation in 2002-03, then struck a deal with PGA Tour officials to periodically bring high-profile events to town.

That started with the WGC-American Express Championship, when Woods outlasted Daly, and continued with the Presidents Cup in 2009 and Match Play Championship in ’15.

Now, less than a year after Tatum’s death at age 96, the Bay Area is teeming with notable tournaments. This seems fitting for a region with a rich history in the game, including a parade of accomplished players and a distinctive architecture.

Major champions Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, George Archer and Bob Rosburg grew up in San Francisco. Another major winner, Tony Lema, hailed from Oakland, just across the bay. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, who will play in the LPGA event starting Thursday, was raised in Santa Cruz, a 90-minute drive south.

Inkster and the leading women’s players – this week’s field includes seven of the top 10 in the world ranking – will compete on a quintessentially San Francisco-style course. Lake Merced, much like Harding and Olympic, features tight, tree-lined fairways and small greens. The ball doesn’t carry well in the thick, coastal air. Players need accuracy off the tee and sharp short games.

If they’re wise, they will savor the distinctive Bay Area golf experience.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine.; Twitter: @ronkroichick