Harding Park's 'Half-Par' Holes Should Provide Plenty of President's Cup Drama

By: Jay Flemma

"Are you for the President's Cup or against it?" my friend asked.

I couldn't help but look scandalized as I Iowered my copy of Hank Gola's column and scowled at my friend.

"What is this? Health care or term limits or something? Of course I'm 'for' the President's Cup," I fumed. "What the hell kind of question is that?" I shot back.

"Well, I just thought you might think it was too much golf, or a poor sister to the Ryder Cup or something," he murmured sheepishly.

I occasionally get arguments like this from my "casual golf fan" friends. Well let me tell all you naysayers out there that we all should support the President's Cup and that golf needs more events like this because they showcase team golf, something we need to see more of at both the professional and amateur level and on television. Indeed, team golf was once called "the savior of the tour," by no less a personage as Jack Nicklaus. Promoting team golf - as opposed to individual medal play - grows the game, both at home and abroad. What golfer - professional or amateur - wouldn't want to play for team and civic pride? Indeed other team events have spring up to grow the concept, bringing it to amateurs

Moreover, this year the Cup will be contested on a truly public-access facility, Harding Park Golf Course, owned by the city of San Francisco and run by their local department for parks and recreation. Anything that can bring golf at its highest level to the general golf populous, the lifeblood of the sport, is a good thing. Moreover, with all its "half-par" holes - holes which play much harder or easier than their assigned par - it should be a great match-play venue.

To some, Harding Park, named for former president Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer, was an odd choice for this year's event. Built in 1925 by Willie Watson and surrounded on three sides by Lake Merced, the course is pretty; it's carved through the native pines, cypress and eucalyptus, and the closing four holes play along the scenic lake.

But therein lay a problem. As Ron Whitten noted in his preview piece for Golf Digest, President's Cup matches average 16.3 holes, so many matches would end before the most telegenic part of the course. As Whitten also noted, those holes would be great sites for lucrative hospitality tents. So Mike Bodney, senior VP of the President's Cup, rerouted the golf course so that nearly every match would at least arrive at the lakeside, if not play almost the entire stretch.

I won't reprint the exact re-routing of the holes; you'd get more lost than the kids in "The Blair Witch Project." But, briefly, the last five holes in the normal routing, all lakeside holes, will play as holes 10 and 12-15. Number 11 will be the normal par-3 8th hole. For the last three holes, the course will play the loop formed by hole Nos. 1, 7, and 9.

Personally, I detest cutting courses into composites or otherwise "bastardizing" - putting in artificial order - any golf course, especially for television or pecuniary ends, but it may work at Harding Park because the lakeside holes will be in play much more than otherwise and, more importantly, the finishing holes offer eagle opportunities. No. 13 is a drivable 336-yard par-4. Fifteen tempts the player into cutting off as much of Lake Merced as they dare, meaning some might turn this 468-yard brute into a drive and a wedge. Seventeen is another drivable par-4 at merely 344 yards. Finally, the short par-5 closer will be easily reachable at a paltry 525 yards. Some major championship par-4s have been longer. Moreover, a player could be 1-down at the 17th tee and conceivable go eagle-eagle to win.

Such a rerouting works for a team event based on match play. Momentum swings are the essence of a team competition. Stroke play events, such as those conducted by the NCAA, can't replicate the excitement on a shot-by-shot, match-by-match basis as a head-to-head team competition.

While it's disappointing that future visitors will not be able to play the course as it is routed for this competition - there are several long walks between tees as a result of the change, at least the venue is public access, costing $178 in the high season, and the public will be able to enjoy the venue of an event played previously contested only at the highly private clubs like the Robert Trent Jones Club in Virginia, far-flung destinations like Royal Melbourne in the Australia's fabled sand belt, or the savannas of South Africa. Indeed, with the golf industry, hit hard in the economic downturn - few new courses are opening, some projects that broke ground have stalled, and many courses, private and public, have closed or temporarily suspended operations for a season to ride out the recession - any time the general public can play a major championship venue or Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup venue, it brings them closer to the game, allowing them to experience it much more viscerally than just watching it on TV.

Happily, while the course's conditioning was suspect just a few short weeks ago the problems have been resolved. A ghastly maintenance mistake, over-fertilizing, burned out a number of greens just weeks before opening ceremonies. But re-sodding and other remedial measures were successful, and the course is ready for the competition.

This year, the 12 members of the International squad will represent eight different countries and all five continents from which its members can hail. (For those of you scoring at home, that's everything except Europe and Antarctica, including North America, represented by Canadian Mike Weir). The team is deep; seven former major champions have claimed 13 titles: Angel Cabrera (two), Mike Weir, Ernie Els (three), Retief Goosen (two), Vijay Singh (three), and Y.E. Yang, and Geoff Ogilvy (one each). (The U.S. also has seven former major winners: Woods (14), Mickelson (three), and one each for Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink, Justin Leonard, and Lucas Glover.) The rest of the team features heartthrob Camilo Villegas, phlegmatic Tim Clark, and the mercurial Robert Allenby. Captain's pick Ryo Ishikawa may is the most inscrutable to handicap, while lovesick Adam Scott was last seen plummeting down the world rankings while raging madly with Kate Hudson, who quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 to every single female golfer on the planet for the unforgivable crime of distracting one of the game's most eligible bachelors.

Still, Scott has teamed with fellow countryman Geoff Ogilvy before at the 2007 Cup. Scott has also played doubles as Ernie Els's partner, so his selection may not have been a nod to either his Australian descent or star power with casual fans. The U.S. squad also features Kenny Perry, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Sean O'Hair, and Anthony Kim. The teams will be captained by two of the most recognizable names in golf: fan favorite and former Masters champion Fred Couples for the U.S. and two-time British Open champion Greg Norman, probably the most dominant player of his era for the Internationals.

The President's Cup differs from the Ryder Cup in one important way: the matches are not determined by luck of the draw, but can be engineered by the captains. Instead of listing the matches in numerical order and matching that list with the opposing captain, captains in the President's Cup alternately put up a name, and the opposing captain lists the opponent for that player. So, for example, Norman would put up Y.E. Yang, then Couples would list Tiger Woods as his opponent, and then would propose, for example, Kenny Perry, and Norman would respond with Angel Cabrera, and so on. Indeed, look for a possible singles rematch of the final round of this year's major championship battles.

As for doubles matches, last year's Ryder Cup heralded the emergence of several great options for the U.S. Furyk-Woods is a lock, as should be Mickelson-Kim. Cink and Johnson teamed at the 2007 Cup as did Stricker and Mahan.

So what's not to like? Team golf is growing by leaps and bounds in the U.S. The Potomac Cup, a team event matching the best amateurs in Maryland vs. those in Virginia, has quickly risen to the top of all team events as it offers amateur players a chancedto live the Ryder Cup/President's Cup experience and play for state pride. Back in the '80s, Nicklaus proposed that silly-season events instead pit Boston vs. New York vs. LA vs. Florida, etc. He has long said that it offers a great alternative to the over-saturation of medal-play events and skins games that feature too few players.

Moreover, the beacon of public access to major events also burns like a propriety torch over this year's Presidents Cup. So with all this egalitarianism, national pride, and world-class golf, it's easy to support the event. Gone are the days of malcontent millionaires grumbling, "Why did we travel 3,000 to play guys from Orlando?" Now if we could just get the European Team to play the Internationals every other year…

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.