The maintenance team at San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park is led by (from left) Kevin Teahan, Geoff Plovanich and Almar Valenzuela. Photos by Brittany Hosea-Small
You gotta love it.
A breathtaking renaissance continues at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, and Frank Zamazal can’t wait for the world to see. He is convinced it took a whole lot of tender loving care by the maintenance team of golf and turf manager Kevin Teahan, superintendent Almar Valenzuela and managing agronomist Geoff Plovanich to fuel a monumental comeback that has been nearly 20 years in the making.
“Let me tell you something about that team: They are so down-to-earth, so together, such an efficient unit,” says Zamazal, an agronomist and 25-year GCSAA member who works for Enhanced Organics. “Those three and their staff love that golf course. Kevin has gotten everyone on track to succeed. He set a foundation for success.”
When it hosts the PGA Championship Aug. 6-9, TPC Harding Park — a municipal golf course run by the city and county of San Francisco — will check off a bunch of firsts: It is the first TPC Network property to host a major; site of the first PGA Championship in San Francisco; and it will be the first major in 2020 thanks to a shuffled schedule precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The PGA Championship was originally slated for May 14-17. Yet it borders on amazing that this day — nearly three months later than first scheduled — would ever come at all for TPC Harding Park.
Named in honor of President Warren G. Harding when it opened 95 years ago, the course hosted a PGA Tour event in the 1960s. In the ensuing years, it lost its tour event status and also lost its way, besieged by budget reductions that hampered course maintenance. Signs of neglect at Harding Park included swarms of earthworms, weeds and a slew of temporary greens.
Valenzuela, a four-year GCSAA member who played Harding Park as a youth with his father, Jose, can testify that it wasn’t a sight to behold. “In summer, the soil was dead,” Valenzuela says.
The low point: When neighboring The Olympic Club hosted the 1998 U.S. Open, Harding Park (it didn’t become a TPC Network property until 2010) was used as a parking lot for spectators.
Eventually, enough was enough. The city of San Francisco appropriated a revenue stream that totaled in the millions to revive Harding Park, and people such as former USGA President Sandy Tatum led a campaign for the makeover. The resurgence was palpable in 2005 when Harding Park landed the World Golf Championship-American Express Championship, which featured Tiger Woods defeating John Daly in a sudden-death playoff.
Other events followed, such as the Presidents Cup in 2009. A year later, the PGA Tour announced it had partnered with the city to oversee golf operations and be an agronomy consultant at the newly named TPC Harding Park. Then, on July 2, 2014, the PGA of America, PGA Tour and city and county of San Francisco revealed that TPC Harding Park would host not only the 2020 PGA Championship, but also the Presidents Cup in 2025 (that event has since been rescheduled for 2026).
Editor’s note: The formidable, buzzed-about rough challenging the world’s best golfers in the 2020 PGA Championship has been two years in the making. Golf and turf manager Kevin Teahan discusses details of the course’s defense in Are you dense? Yes, rough at TPC Harding Park, you are.
A golf course reborn: Scenes from TPC Harding Park.
For Teahan, all of that is nice, but it isn’t the sole motivation for the efforts he and his team put forth. See, he feels a love for the droves (nearly 80,000 rounds annually) who play a course that, at long last, is quite the eye candy as it welcomes the world’s best players for its crowning achievement this August.
“It’s a great privilege. Not many people get to host a major, especially this one,” says Teahan, a seven-year GCSAA member. “It’s a big feather in our cap. We’re hoping the course gets the recognition it deserves. It’s a great facility in a great city. But, at the end of the day, our focus is Joe Q. Public. We want to make it the best it can be for them to play and enjoy.”
A return to prominence
When San Francisco needed someone to build a spectacular maintenance team at TPC Harding Park, it had the perfect candidate in-house.
Teahan was a city employee before being assigned the golf beat. Until then, he had been a carpenter by trade. One of his jobs was to build cabinets for City College of San Francisco. Upon being switched to operations engineer, Teahan participated in preparing the golf course for the Presidents Cup 11 years ago. He drove a tractor, worked the backhoe, aerated and built bunkers. It was quite an indoctrination for somebody with no turfgrass background.
He overcame that by digging into turfgrass textbooks, webinars and leaning on area superintendents. Among those was veteran Lou Tonelli, who oversaw nearby Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif.
“Long before he got there, Harding was undermaintained and overplayed. When Kevin took over (he became superintendent in 2010), he gave it high maintenance,” says Tonelli, a 40-year retired GCSAA member. “He and his people tried to give the public a private kind of golf course. He knew his stuff. Kevin was up to snuff.”
Tonelli says Harding improved so much that it created an issue for him. “You could play it (TPC Harding Park) for a lot less money, and it became just as good (as other top clubs in the area),” he says. “We had to compete with them. Harding was always a great layout and absolutely a championship course. They just had to put some money into it.”
Teahan’s staff has proven to be priceless. Three years ago, Valenzuela arrived to be his superintendent after previously holding that role at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, Calif. Like Teahan, Valenzuela hasn’t followed a straight and narrow career path. He entered the PGA Golf Club Professional program in 2003. Six years later, he went to work for the city of San Francisco and started his career in turfgrass. He was named superintendent at Sharp Park in 2014.
“Until then, I used to be part of the team that got instruction. Now, I had to give instructions,” Valenzuela says. “It gave me a window to get used to that before I got here.”
Carlos Pineda (front) and other crew members prepare TPC Harding Park. For the 2020 PGA Championship, the maintenance team will be supplemented with local volunteers from other golf facilities.
Valenzuela credits Teahan for a solid transition. “Having Kevin on the property helped. Having him as a reference and support mechanism allowed me to try to pick up the ball and run with it,” Valenzuela says.
The addition of Plovanich in 2017 provided the staff with someone who had major tournament experience. Plovanich had been stationed at The Olympic Club — which held the 2012 U.S. Open — for nine years.
“We hosted quite a few tournaments, and not just on the pro level,” says Plovanich, a 12-year GCSAA member who was the Ocean Course superintendent at The Olympic Club. “We were always under the gun for the next one.”
One outsider got an inside look at the culture at TPC Harding Park well in advance of this year’s spotlight. Carlos Arraya, CGCS, assistant general manager/director of agronomy at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, oversaw the 2018 PGA Championship. Teahan, Valenzuela and Plovanich visited him that week (they also attended last year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y.) to get a firsthand look at the details of hosting a major.
“A few positive items that stood out to me was their passion for representing Harding Park and the San Francisco area on the national golf stage,” says Arraya, a 21-year GCSAA member. “All of them were excited to be hosting the event and looking forward to their chance. I believe by watching our team, they gained additional energy. Kevin is a very focused individual with an intensity to match. He asked questions in detail and, more importantly, asked the right questions regarding operations, PGA (of America) officials and the process when things are not going as planned. I look forward to watching them on TV and cheering from afar.”
Bay Area GCSAA Class A superintendent Bob Klinesteker has been a big fan of Teahan and his crew for a while. “Look at what Kevin has done. I don’t know how many people could have walked in and done what he’s done from where he came from,” says Klinesteker, a 38-year association member who oversees San Francisco Golf Club. “He’s an old-fashioned boy who did it the old-fashioned way. He has to deal with about five different unions. He’s savvy. He put in the time and has been smart about it.”
Teahan (who also oversees TPC Fleming, Sharp Park and Lincoln Park golf courses) insists a culture transformation didn’t simply happen overnight. “When we took over, the mentality had to change. If you want to have the best tournament, you’ve got to be the best. We changed it from a ‘just good enough’ mentality to a ‘being the best’ mentality,” Teahan says.
Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, fully endorses the team’s performance. “All of Kevin’s group is fantastic — very committed and dedicated,” Ginsburg says. “That’s what’s so special about Harding. This isn’t public in name only. It’s a public course, union-represented, with hardworking civil servants who are very closely supervised. There’s no BS. They take pride in taking care of the nation’s finest courses.”
Those dark days when TPC Harding Park was a parking lot are in the rearview. Former GCSAA President Pat Finlen, CGCS, was among those who followed the signs to park there back in 1998. Before he became a pillar at The Olympic Club as its director of golf maintenance operations and later as director of golf and general manager, Finlen was in the area for a job interview 22 years ago and arrived to watch the U.S. Open.
“I thought it was strange parking on somebody else’s golf course. Nobody will ever park on Harding Park again, because it’s such a great golf course,” says Finlen, a 36-year association member who is now general manager at Winchester Country Club in Meadow Vista, Calif.
The CBS studio is one of the rare structures that has been built for this year’s PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. Hospitality tents and other such buildings typically present at majors aren’t necessary given that no fans will be in attendance because of coronavirus concerns.
TPC Harding Park possesses a stellar event background that goes back to the 1937 U.S. Amateur Public Links. Legend Byron Nelson won an event there in 1944. From 1961 to 1969, it hosted the PGA Tour. Tom Watson played there in the city championship during his Stanford University days, and more recently during the PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Championship.
“I always thought it was a good golf course. It’s demanding and has a lot of character to it. I thought it definitely could be a major championship course,” Watson says.
You gotta love it that he was right — even though it took a while to get there. And those who spend much of their lives at TPC Harding Park proved that the power of love is real.
“It’s been a culmination over a lot of years to put this on. A lot of people have invested in this place, even before our team got here,” Valenzuela says. “It’s an opportunity for us to shine. People who may not regularly watch golf might tune in, kind of like they would for the Super Bowl or Wimbledon. Once people find out they can come play here, that touches a whole different demographic. We had our growing pains. Now look at it — it’s beautiful.”
A COVID change of plans? Not so much at TPC Harding Park
Kevin Teahan began to formulate a strategy six years ago. But the one thing he didn’t consider — how could he? — was how a worldwide pandemic might affect his objectives.
Teahan, golf and turf manager at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, started devising a game plan in 2014 when the announcement was made that the course would host this year’s PGA Championship. “We had a good plan — up until March 16,” Teahan says. That’s the day he learned the PGA of America had postponed the PGA Championship that had been scheduled May 14-17. It wasn’t until April that the major was rescheduled for Aug. 6-9.
Collier Miller, director of agronomy for the TPC Network, says Teahan, superintendent Almar Valenzuela and managing agronomist Geoff Plovanich developed an original plan that was on target. He never worried that all of their effort would be wasted or need major alterations.
“In March, everything already was in great shape, along the lines of being ready for the tournament,” Miller says. “Even though the date changed, it doesn’t change much for us. The rough is in place. It’s just a matter of keeping the grass healthy.”
Crew member Alvaro Mendoza handles bunker duties at TPC Harding Park, where golf greats Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller competed in their junior years.
TPC Harding Park features Poa annua/bentgrass greens (greens were renovated in 2013); Poa/rye fairways overseeded with bentgrass; and Poa/bermudagrass/ryegrass rough. Before the pandemic, aerification had been scheduled for June. Instead, it was done in April, and a normal topdressing program was instituted. Fairway contour lines and mowing patterns were established before winter.
In August, San Francisco can be foggy and rain-free, with the possibility of warm weather and minimal sunshine. “We’ll do more hand watering leading up to and during the tournament,” Teahan says.
The 7,100-plus-yard course will play as a par 70 (it is a par 72 otherwise) and looks much different than it did 30 years ago. It was once overgrown with cypress trees, but nowadays it isn’t an issue to glance across the property. Bunkers were rebuilt, and Poa in the greens has been drastically minimized.
“Greens will be faster and firmer in August,” Miller says. “They should play as good in August as they would have in May.”
Given that fans won’t be allowed and structures such as hospitality tents won’t be present, the maintenance team has gained an additional 85 acres to maintain.
TPC Harding Park is the fourth municipal golf course to host a PGA Championship. The others were Keller Golf Course in St. Paul, Minn.; Tanglewood Golf Course in Clemmons, N.C.; and Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.