In Harding Park, a reborn golf course honors a forgotten president

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SAN FRANCISCO – If President Warren G. Harding had not been bedridden in those midsummer days of 1923, he might have left his eighth floor in the Palace Hotel and went to the southwestern outskirts of town, where a new golf course called Lake Merced Golf Links was under construction.

After all, Harding was a golfer and he had traveled thousands of miles by train and ship on his summer long 'Voyage of Understanding'. It was supposed to be three months and 15,000 miles of publicity stops. He had played golf in Vancouver, British Columbia a few days earlier.

But Harding never left the Palace Hotel alive.

Whatever good will he hoped to receive on his journey, whatever he hopes he had won reelection the following year and ended two and a half years after his largely forgotten presidency.

"Most historians consider Harding to be the worst of all US presidents," said University of Virginia & # 39; s Miller. Center, a non-partisan think tank that deals with presidential history.

But Harding was in the right place at the right time to be, unlikely, connected to something as far away as a major professional golf tournament in 2020.

The first major golf championship for men of the coronavirus era have arrived too late in the form of this week's PGA Championship – a fan-free, made-for-television event starting Thursday, starring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and the No. 1 Justin Thomas, among about 150 others.

But the name that promises to be most pronounced in global ether this week is Harding.

The golf course built 97 kilometers ago from the President's deathbed was quickly christened Harding Park 97 years ago, during a bygone era. era when naming things for presidents was done with little debate or consideration.

Harding Park became one of the great, durable layouts of golf, curiously named after the most revered American presidents.

That this most gloomy summers should even be stubbornly linked to Harding and the strange feeling of 1923 feels good.

Harding, a former Republican Senator from Ohio, had little in the way of a platform when he ran to the White House in 1920 other than a "return to normal." He was seen as a tax-reducing, anti-immigrant nationalist who did not want the United States to be part of the post-war League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I. It was rumored that he had affairs (and at least one illegitimate child) and was quickly surrounded by scandal throughout his administration. (Curious? Start googling "Teapot Dome.") He wasn't considered a deep thinker and was prone to crawling. He liked to play golf.

Yet he and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, won 60.3 percent of the vote. Democratic candidate James M. Cox (with Franklin D. Roosevelt as vice presidential candidate) earned just 34.1 percent.

The Harding government coincided with a boom in American golf and golf course construction. The game's popularity hit hard in San Francisco, which the small peninsula found too valuable to contain burial sites (it had thrown out the dead for years), but perfect for golf, especially amid the coastal dunes near the more of Merced.

Alister MacKenzie, the famous Scottish track architect, called it & # 39; the most beautiful golf area I have seen in America & # 39 ;.

The Olympic Club, which opened five times in the United States and is the planned site of the 2028 PGA Championship and the 2032 Ryder Cup, opened two lanes in 1924.

About Lake Merced of what is arguably the best property of all, a design by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting was nearly two years from its opening when President Harding's train entered 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 is more appropriate as a tribute to President Harding, since he was a great lover of outdoor recreation," Herbert Fleishhacker, a prominent businessman and the head of the city parks, said at the time.

The course gained a better reputation. It quickly hosted national amateur championships and became a home course for the San Francisco City Championship, including 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 60's. 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 more for its history than its condition. During the US Open 1998 at the Olympic Club, the fairways of Harding Park served as parking lots.

Realized and reopened in 2003, and still a municipal trail (September start times for city residents can be obtained for just $ 64), Harding Park again attracted major events. That included the W.G.C.-American Express Championship in 2005 (won by Tiger Woods in a playoff over John Daly) and the Presidents Cup in 2009 (won by the United States).

The P.G.A. This Week's Championship is the first major of Harding Park. Among all the well-known names pronounced worldwide during the four rounds is that of a long-time president, probably without explanation or context. Fortunately, the course is much better than Harding.

He had left Washington in June on a 10-car train full of cabinet members, dignitaries, staffers, reporters and the first lady, Florence Harding.

It was partly a campaign trip, partly a summer vacation. Harding's speech in St. Louis was one of the first presidential speeches broadcast live on the radio. The train then passed through Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City, among others, as it transported the President west. Newspapers did everything about it.

Harding, 57, was a tireless tourist, a master of the photo opportunity. He visited the national parks of Yellowstone and Zion, where hemorrhoids suffered on a horseback ride. He visited a mine, drove a wheat binder, attended a commemoration of the Oregon Trail, and eventually boarded a U.S. Navy transport vessel in Seattle to explore Alaska's territory.

He watched cheerfully as the ship's gunners fired grenades. into the Taku Glacier to create giant splashes from chunks of falling ice.

Then everything turned south.

Curing may have become ill due to bad crab in Sitka. He complained privately of abdominal pain and may have contracted pneumonia. His golf outing in Vancouver was limited to a few holes. (His visit had a lasting impact; there is still a Harding memorial in the city's Stanley Park.)

Ominously, the Navy ship accidentally rammed an American destroyer into the fog of Puget Sound. Harding gathered the energy to deliver a speech in Seattle, but a weekend in Portland, Oregon was dropped, so the entourage could rush to San Francisco to seek medical attention and rest for the president.

Harding was taken to the Palace Hotel and placed in the Presidential Suite.

"He was weak and ill, but his condition had improved encouragingly," The New York Times reported when Harding arrived on July 29.

The nation was waiting for news. Harding's doctor, a homeopath named Charles Sawyer, has provided updates. For a few days, Harding was in & # 39; serious & # 39; status. Other doctors, including Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur, were called in.

"President Harding appears to have survived the crisis," The Times reported at the top of the front page on August 1. "His doctors will not say that he is out of danger, but even their cautious remark makes it clear that they believe that there is little chance of recurrence of the dangerous symptoms that threatened the life of the President last night."

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

"HARDING DEAD" was in big letters.

Florence Harding had read her husband aloud an article from The Saturday Evening Post about him entitled "A Calm Image of a Calm Man."

"Oh, that's good," said the President about one passage. "Continue."

Those were apparently his last words.

"Suddenly and without warning, a shudder passed over the President's body," the Chronicle reported. & # 39; He raised an arm, but not a word came from his lips. The arm dropped back and the President stopped. & # 39;

Florence Harding shouted. Officials entered, led by Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover. Vice President Coolidge, at home in Vermont, was sworn in overnight.

The cause of Harding's death was initially referred to as & # 39; apoplexy & # 39; ruled, but there were rumors – of poor care from his doctors, of his many other conditions. Some still believe that the first lady poisoned her husband, perhaps as revenge for his infidelity. She refused to allow an autopsy.

Most historians today think he has had a heart attack. Herring's body was taken from the Palace Hotel, boarded a train back to Washington, DC, and buried in his hometown, Marion, Ohio.

There aren't many things named after Harding today – schools, most of the time, and Harding Township, NJ, among them – although there is a Harding golf course in Los Angeles that opened in 1923. (It is next to the Wilson Golf Course, opened in 1927 and named after Harding's presidential pastor, who died about six). months after Harding.)

In San Francisco, the greatest recognition of Harding's place in city history is the well-known golf course he never played or visited. But it does help keep his name alive, rarely more than this week.

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