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Far-out vibes await PGA Championship

Wanamaker Trophy for 2020 PGA at Harding Park
The Wanamaker Trophy will be up for grabs this week at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

San Francisco, a place known for its quirky culture and otherworldly golf phenoms, prepares to display TPC Harding Park to a reeling nation in need of a good comeback story

San Francisco’s golf history, befitting the city’s personality, is a bit quirky.

The Olympic Club, a five-time U.S. Open host, always seems to crown “the other guy” in a pack of big-name contenders. San Francisco produced a stream of major champions from the late 1950s to mid-70s, from Bob Rosburg and Ken Venturi to George Archer and Johnny Miller – but no marquee players in the nearly half-century since then.

Harding Park, the city’s municipal-course jewel, long counted as one of the finest public tracks in the country, until it slid into weed-covered disrepair in the 1980s and ’90s. Then, improbably, Harding leaped back to life early in the 21st century, thanks to a striking (and controversial) renovation spearheaded by former USGA president Sandy Tatum.

All of that brings us to this week’s PGA Championship, which shapes up as the quirkiest major – or, more accurately, utterly strangest major – the game has seen.

This will be the first major championship in Harding’s 95-year history, the first major in San Francisco since the 2012 U.S. Open and the first major, period, of a reshaped 2020 season. Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and the world’s best players will stroll amid the cypress trees, tussling for glory, riches and the Wanamaker Trophy.

And nobody will be there to watch.

They’ll watch on TV, of course, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced this year’s PGA to become the first major without spectators. One of golf’s premier events will unfold in utter silence – no thunderous, spine-tingling roars when Woods or another player makes a big birdie down the stretch.

That’s really weird.

It’s especially odd at a venue such as Harding, selected in part because of its oh-so-public, for-the-people vibe. When Woods outlasted John Daly to win a World Golf Championships event at Harding in October 2005, the course’s return to prominence after its renovation, Bay Area fans offered a memorable soundtrack.

That was the first PGA Tour event at Harding in 36 years, and people turned out in huge numbers. Boisterous spectators pressed against the ropes for the Woods-Daly duel, 10 deep in places. As a cart took Woods to the No. 18 tee for the first playoff hole, he later joked that his left ear felt half-deaf from all the noise.

Then, after he and Daly smacked towering drives, they walked down the same fairway heading in the other direction – and Woods' right ear felt half-deaf.

“It was electric,” he said that day. “People were really into it.”

They were into it because San Francisco is a great golf city, teeming with tradition. Byron Nelson once won a tournament at Harding Park. Venturi beat decorated amateur Harvie Ward to win the 1956 City Championship in front of 10,000 fans. The Lucky International, an annual tour event at Harding in the ’60s, churned out an impressive list of winners, including Gary Player, Gene Littler, Billy Casper and native sons Archer and Venturi.

Or consider those Opens across the lake at Olympic: Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan in 1955, Casper over Arnold Palmer in ’66, Scott Simpson over Tom Watson in ’87, Lee Janzen over Payne Stewart in ’98 and Webb Simpson over Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell in ’12.

San Francisco also boasts of a quartet of prestigious courses at its southwestern edge: Olympic Club, Harding Park, San Francisco Golf Club and Lake Merced (in adjacent Daly City), with California Club a short drive down the road in South San Francisco.

Harding didn’t belong in this lofty company for many years, until Tatum orchestrated its rebirth. Now, three years after he died at age 96, the course becomes the latest truly public facility to hold a major championship, joining New York’s Bethpage Black, San Diego’s Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash.

This PGA figures to offer an uncommon test, with a premium on precision more than power – thanks to thin fairways and thick rough. Bryson DeChambeau and his Herculean friends might need to think twice before blasting tee shots halfway to the moon.

And they will enjoy the perfect environment to contemplate strategy, amid the strange silence of a fan-less, pandemic-altered major. As Harding Park general manager Tom Smith said, “It’s going to be historic, one way or another.”

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