City's links on par thanks to Sandy Tatum

The technology that will beam The Presidents Cup from Harding Park Golf Course into bars and homes in  231 countries starting Tuesday hadn’t even been imagined when Sandy Tatum was born in the Roaring ’20s.

In the early 1920s, the Spring Valley Water Co. built world-class links at Lake Merced as golf’s popularity grew wildly. During that era, President Warren Harding would die while staying downtown at the Palace Hotel and Tatum — the man who would later be credited with successfully restoring the course — would be born in Los Angeles.

By the late 1920s, Harding Park had been named after the golf-enthused late president, San Francisco had purchased Spring Valley Water Co. and its assets — including the golf course — and Tatum had kick-started a lifelong love affair with golf at the newly opened Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles using sawed-off clubs provided by his father.

“Golf is a game you can play all your life,” said Tatum, appearing dapper in a button-down dress shirt and slacks on a recent afternoon at Harding Park. “I’m 89 years old and I play three or four times every two weeks, and the statistics will tell you that it’s a life extender. It’s obviously a life enhancer, but its also a life extender.”

Tatum grew up playing golf and brought his passion north as a late teen to Palo Alto, where he attended Stanford University and helped its golf team win the NCAA men’s golf championships in 1941 and 1942. 

After graduating, Tatum spent time in Los Angeles and served in the Navy before returning to Stanford to study law in 1946. He moved with his wife in 1950 to practice law in San Francisco, a city that he would call home for more than 50 years.

Tatum, a member of the Stanford Sports Hall of Fame, has never played golf professionally, but he has worked in the game’s highest professional echelons.

After serving for six years as an executive committee member with the United States Golf Association, which oversees national championships, Tatum was appointed president in 1978. He held the post for two years, forging relationships that he would lean on more than two decades later to support his bid to revive Harding Park.

By the 1990s, the course had become neglected and overgrown with weeds as interest in golf waned locally and nationally. To secure political support for a loan from The City’s open-space fund that was needed to help resuscitate the greens, Tatum convinced the PGA Tour to play professional championships at Harding Park — if it could be renovated.

The revived course hosted its first professional event in 2005, the same year that the octogenarian moved into a Palo Alto retirement home. Tatum, however, remained a regular fixture at Harding Park, a familiar face to golfers and employees and at the clubhouse that bears his name.

Since 2005, the course has regained its former popularity with amateur golfers, while interest in other city courses has remained low.

The City’s loan to Harding Park is being repaid largely through increased green fees paid by non-San Francisco residents, for whom a weekend round of golf costs up to $155 — almost three times what locals pay.

In keeping with Tatum’s goal of providing public access to municipal golf, San Francisco players younger than 18 can shoot a round on a weekday for as little as $15.

“I’m educated personally with regards to how much it means to be able to play a premium golf course,” he said. “Access to [Harding Park] that had been enjoyed by people from San Mateo and across the Bay suddenly got more expensive, but I couldn’t find a way around that. My focus was on San Francisco.”

Tatum said golf is a physically and emotionally therapeutic pastime, particularly when played on premium courses. But he also emphasizes the economic benefits that The Presidents Cup will bring to San Francisco.

The 15-year-old event, which will be played in The City for the first time starting Tuesday, is unusual because it pits U.S. players as a team against their best non-European counterparts. There’s no prize money, with proceeds going to charity. It’s so named because the U.S. president is the team’s honorary captain.

The match-play event is based on the Ryder Cup, a team competition created in the 1920s in which the finest players in the U.S. compete against Europe’s best pro golfers.

To hold the event at Harding Park, the PGA Tour will pay $500,000 to The City and $500,000 to the local First Tee program, which teaches golf and life skills to kids — particularly those from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Hotels and local businesses will also benefit from the extra visitors, including executives dispatched to the event to network and seal deals.

The Presidents Cup was booked at Harding Park after the PGA Tour dumped plans to play other tournaments in San Francisco due to issues with sponsorship.

Tatum said events at Harding Park are proving so successful that he expects the PGA Tour to commit to continue playing more of them at the revived course.

“This will be as big as any that we could possibly have in terms of media exposure, public interest and enthusiasm,” he said. “You can’t possibly buy the exposure that this tournament brings to San Francisco.”


Kids take a shot at better life through golf program

When Kevin Kirksey was 9, he had a problem with his temper, his math grades were below par and he had no interest in golf.

But after four years in the San Francisco chapter of the First Tee program, the Westborough Middle School student said he spends summers playing golf, he performs better at mathematics and he calls on the principle of “persistence” to help keep calm.

“I like the game — it’s just fun,” Kirksey said. “I like using the clubs and seeing how far I can hit.”

Kirksey said he spent nearly every day during summer break taking part in First Tee at Harding Park Golf Course.

Persistence is one of nine principles taught in San Francisco’s First Tee program, which Sandy Tatum helped found. He also continues to serve as its president. The chapter will enjoy a $500,000 boost from the PGA Tour after The Presidents Cup is held at Harding Park, where the program is based.

More than 1,000 local kids take part in the program, which teaches golf and other skills.

“We teach them how to shake someone’s hand with a firm handshake, look them in the eye, tell them their name and then ask them a question,” said Tony Anderson, a retired teacher and principal who serves as coordinator of a First Tee facility in Visitacion Valley.

“It’s amazing to watch the response of the adults on the golf course.”

Many of the participants live in disadvantaged communities in San Francisco’s southeast areas, and transportation assistance to programs at Harding Park is provided, according to Anderson.

“Sandy really had a vision in terms of how to get more kids involved,” Anderson said. “We wanted to get kids to the point where, as opposed to them hearing gunshots, they could practice their golf shots.”

— John Upton

Sandy Tatum

Age: 89
Birthplace: Los Angeles
First job: Stress analyst at aircraft factory for $1 an hour
Favorite decade: 1932-1942
Favorite golf course: The old course at St. Andrews
Favorite hole: 16th at Cypress Point
Favorite all-time athlete: Golfer Bobby Jones
Favorite current athlete: Golfer Tom Watson
Most admired U.S. president: Abraham Lincoln
Most admired world leader: Winston Churchill
Favorite TV show: “The Lehrer News Hour”
Favorite movie: “Going My Way”
Favorite book: “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville
Advice for young people: “Go for it.”


History of The Presidents Cup

The biennial match-play event is entering its 15th year of existence.

2009: Harding Park Golf Course, San Francisco
2007: The Royal Montreal Golf Course, Lle Bizard, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
2005: Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Prince William County, Va.
2003: The Links Course at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate, George, Western Cape Province, South Africa
2000: Robert Trent Jones Golf Course, Prince William County, Va.
1998: Royal Melbourne Golf Course, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
1996: Robert Trent Jones Golf Course, Prince William County, Va.
1994: Robert Trent Jones Golf Course, Prince William County, Va.

Source: PGA Tour


The Presidents Cup

When: Tuesday to Oct. 11

Where: Harding Park Golf Course, Harding Road off Skyline Boulevard, San Francisco

U.S. captain: Fred Couples
International captain: Greg Norman

Cost: Daily general admission tickets from
– Tuesday, Wednesday: $35
– Thursday, Friday: $55
– Saturday, Sunday: $75

Sources: PGA Tour,

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