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Aug 7, 2020 - William Watson’s Classic-Era Design on Showcase at 102nd PGA Championship at Harding Park


William Watson and Sam Whiting routed Harding Park (for the modest sum of $300), which neighbors famed Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, to open in the interior of the property and have the holes wind their way to its exterior borders, with the last five holes overlooking scenic Lake Merced which sits to the west of the course and just across Skyline Blvd. from the Pacific Ocean.

It’s notable that Watson, while well-educated Scot who cherished the sensibilities and subtleties of the Old Course at St. Andrews, was not bound by many of the prevalent design constructs other architects of his era frequently used, like programming specific template holes into his routings. “(Watson) never practiced a cookie-cutter approach to design. All of his courses were different. His bunker style was totally different from course to course. He was terrific in using the land’s natural features, but he was also skilled at creating features when needed,” architect Todd Eckenrode-- who has teamed to restore six courses where Watson was the original designer-- recently told Morning Read’s Joe Passov.

That being said, the closing stretch at Harding Park, while in a different topographical setting and lined by mature cypress trees, does bear some resemblance to Belvedere, at least in its routing. Both courses feature short par 4s with their sixteenth holes. Harding Park’s 16th is a 336-yard risk-reward opportunity that doglegs right a bit with bunkers left and an overhanging cypress that can come into play. A conservative tee shot leaves a wedge approach to one of the course’s most befuddling greens. At Belvedere, the uphill pitch to the 16th hole means the short hole is no pushover while a semi-blind approach to the long, narrow green (over a false front, no less) can be one of the most nerve-wracking shots of the round.

Both courses save pleasing par 3s for their penultimate holes. At Harding Park, the 17th plays 171 yards from the tips and is guarded by sand traps on either side of the green’s front. By contrast, Belvedere’s uphill, one-shot 17th allows for more strategic options- either a full carry or a more driving trajectory that uses the right slope to feed the ball toward the hole on the Redan-like green.

Harding Park and Belvedere both call for exacting tee shots on their finishing holes that avoid the left side and favor, but miss, fairway bunkers on the right. Harding Park’s lengthy 480-yard, par-4 closer is bordered by Lake Merced on the left and its approach plays into an elevated and challenging green. Similarly, the finish at Belvedere’s 456-yard bruiser of an 18th also presents a green complex where missing the green can leave some vexing and thought-provoking situations, depending on the pin placement found on it delightfully uneven surface.

When Harding Park was restored in the early 2000s, more than 400 yards in length was added to help stand up to the distances struck by modern players but one of the great things left intact was the subtlety of the greens and their surrounds. While most players, notably, the American contestants, in the field at the PGA Championship will still opt for high-trajectory approach shots, there are number of opportunities to conceivably use the ground. to one’s advantage. That’s pleasing trademark, that while completely lost in most modern designs, can also be seen and enjoyed on a number of holes at Belvedere.

“Watson understood and took brilliant advantage of surface drainage on the greens. The water has to run off somewhere and you can tell Watson enjoyed putting creativity and challenge into his greens which translates not just to intriguing putts and chips, but the manner in which you can play shots into the green makes Belvedere, one of the truly great classic-era courses I’ve ever player, so much fun and so engaging to play,” says longtime member Rick Meyer. “If you look at all the classic positions on the course where strategy and nuances of the design lend to unusual options, like coming in from the left side on #1 and using the ‘bumpers’ on the right side of the green to feed the ball in. The approach on #13 is another great example where you can stand next to one lie and consider five different shot options with five different clubs. That, to me, is part of the beauty of Watson’s work.”

While Belvedere is one of Watson’s most meticulously restored and true-to-its-era designs left today, the intrepid Scotsman left his legacy with revered courses across the nation. Minikahda Club in Minnesota was his first U.S. design and also his first head golf professional job. He was prolific and success in California A number of his other best-known designs have hosted major USGA and PGA Tour events, including Harding Park, San Diego Country Club, the original Brentwood Country Club, Diablo Country Club, Berkeley Country Club and Orinda Country Club. He created Hillcrest in Los Angeles, site of the 1929 PGA Championship and future U.S. Open venues, Interlachen (1911) in suburban Minneapolis, Chicago’s Olympia Fields Golf Club and the Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club (another collaboration with Whiting) in 1924. The 1924 design of the Olympic Club’s Ocean course mostly disappeared a few years after opening due to storm-induced erosion and landslides. An amazing quartet of seaside holes never was successfully rebuilt.

Eckenrode’s conversation with Passov yields more insight into Watson’s singular approach: “He wasn’t afraid to play along a sweeping hillside or up and over a ridge. He understood how to align a golf hole that would take maximum advantage of the contours and kickslopes and would reward a player who could figure that out. He had a wonderful way of using diagonals, of rewarding the player who recognized the proper angle,” Eckenrode explains. “(Watson) holds the belief that a course is more interesting if every green has a character all its own, giving the player something besides the flag to rest his eye on in approaching the hole.”

In his own words, Watson once wrote on maintaining naturalness in his work: “A good rule is to stress the importance of fitting in all grading work to harmonize with the surrounding territory,” Watson wrote. He further asserted, “Mounds, slopes, grassy hollows, sand pits, all have their values in beautifying the setting of our greens and in giving them distinctive definition — if artificially arranged without appearance of artificiality.”

Watson’s words ring true as one plays Belvedere, where that gentle commune with nature remains a part of every round and the features on the ground reflect the flow and beauty of the land. While the PGA Championship at Harding Park will feature plenty of bombers and modern approaches to this ancient game, it will be fun to see examples of pros using the ground’s contours and the distinct design angles Watson intended to see endure at Harding Park. Nearly a century after Watson’s peak creative period, he still inspires golfers with bold, creative and strategic design elements that can be found in designs as similar- and as disparate- in their DNA as Harding Park and Belvedere.

Happy viewing—and comparing notes—this week!

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