At Harding Park, a Reborn Golf Course Honors a Forgotten President

SAN FRANCISCO — Had President Warren G. Harding not been bedridden in these midsummer days of 1923, he may need left his eighth-floor suite on the Palace Hotel and headed to the southwestern fringe of the town, the place a new golf course named Lake Merced Golf Links was beneath development.

Harding was a golfer, in spite of everything, and he had traveled hundreds of miles by practice and ship on his summer-long “Voyage of Understanding.” It was meant to be three months and 15,000 miles of publicity stops. He had performed golf solely days earlier than, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But Harding by no means left the Palace Hotel alive once more.

Whatever good will that he hoped to engender on his journey, no matter hopes he had of profitable re-election the following 12 months, ended two and a half years into his largely forgotten presidency.

“Most historians rank Harding as the worst of all American presidents,” in accordance with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a nonpartisan assume tank dedicated to presidential historical past.

But Harding was on the proper place on the proper time to be linked, improbably, to one thing as distant as a main skilled golf match in 2020.

The first main males’s golf championship of the coronavirus period has arrived, belatedly, within the type of this week’s P.G.A. Championship — a fan-free, made-for-television occasion scheduled to start Thursday, starring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, the two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and the world No. 1 Justin Thomas, amongst about 150 others.

Yet the title that guarantees to be uttered most throughout the worldwide airwaves this week is Harding.

The golf course being constructed seven miles from the president’s deathbed 97 years in the past was quickly christened Harding Park, throughout a bygone period when naming issues for presidents was finished with little debate or consideration.

Harding Park turned one in every of golf’s nice, enduring layouts, curiously named for essentially the most disrespected of American presidents.

The Olympic Club, which has held five United States Opens and is the scheduled site of the 2028 P.G.A. Championship and the 2032 Ryder Cup, opened two courses in 1924.

Across Lake Merced from the Olympic Club, on what might be the best property of them all, a design by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting was nearly two years from opening when President Harding’s train rolled into San Francisco in the summer of 1923.

About six weeks after Harding’s death, San Francisco’s Harding Memorial Committee decided that the best way to honor the president was with a half-built golf course. Lake Merced Golf Links became Harding Park.

“Nothing could be more appropriate as a tribute to President Harding, as he was a great lover of outdoor recreation,” Herbert Fleishhacker, a prominent businessman and the head of the city’s parks, said at the time.

The course built a better reputation. It quickly played host to national amateur championships and became a home course for the San Francisco City Championship, whose winners included Ken Venturi, whose parents ran the Harding Park pro shop for years. Harding became a regular stop on the P.G.A. Tour in the 1960s. Winners included Venturi, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Gene Littler and Chi-Chi Rodriguez.

But Harding Park’s prestige was frayed by municipal budgets and neglect. The P.G.A. Tour left, and for most of the next 30 years, the course was loved for its history more than its condition. During the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, Harding Park’s fairways served as parking lots.

“President Harding seems to have passed the crisis,” The Times reported atop its front page on Aug. 1. “His physicians will not say that he is out of danger, but even through their cautious comment it is plainly perceptible that they believe that there is little chance of a recurrence of the dangerous symptoms which threatened the life of the President last night.”

That made the Aug. 3 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle so stunning.

“HARDING DEAD” it read in huge letters.

Florence Harding had been reading aloud to her husband an article from The Saturday Evening Post about him entitled, “A Calm View of a Calm Man.”

“Oh, that’s good,” the president supposedly said about one passage. “Go on.”

Those were his last words, apparently.

“Suddenly and without warning, a shudder passed over the President’s body,” the Chronicle reported. “He raised one arm, but not a word came from his lips. The arm dropped back and the President lay still.”

Florence Harding screamed. Officials rushed in, led by the Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Vice President Coolidge, at home in Vermont, was sworn in overnight.

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