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the City Game
Jaime Diaz
June 15, 1998
Not so long ago, San Francisco was the center of the golf universe
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June 15, 1998

The City Game

Not so long ago, San Francisco was the center of the golf universe

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Although Miller, too, began at Harding, playing his first rounds at seven, he soon was working with instructor John Geertsen at the San Francisco Golf Club and honing what he learned by hitting practice balls into a tarpaulin his father had hung in the basement of their house. Like Venturi, Miller attended Lincoln High (the only high school with two grads who won the U.S. Open) and, like Archer, caddied for Ward. After receiving his membership at Olympic, Miller won the 1964 U.S. Junior when he was 17. "Because of the San Francisco players who came before me, I grew up with a standard I knew I had to reach," Miller says.

One title eluded Little, Miller and Rosburg, as well as Tom Watson while he was at Stanford. None of them won the City. The winner of the championship flight must survive six rounds of match play over four weekends in usually sodden February. Since 1917, but especially during its golden era, the City gave San Francisco a unique tie to the game's origins. "There is no event like it in golf," says Tatum, who has rarely missed a City over the last 50 years. "The fact that it's held on municipal courses in lousy shape only adds to the mystique."

Ward won the City once, in 1955. "When I moved to San Francisco, I was defending British Amateur champ, but that didn't impress the local sportswriters," he says. "They wrote that I wouldn't prove myself until I won the City." Ward finally proved himself the same year he won the first of his two consecutive U.S. Amateurs and tied for the 36-hole lead in the Open at Olympic. In '56 Venturi was back from military service, and his game was nearing a peak (in April he would lead the Masters by four after 54 holes only to finish with an 80 and lose by one). He met Ward in the final of the City, and the match between the national champion and the favorite son brought more than 10,000 fans to Harding, most of them Venturi rooters.

"When I saw Harvie on the 1st tee, I said, 'Harvie, you've stolen my city. Now it's you and me, and I'm going to get it back,' " says Venturi. "He was three under for 33 holes, but I was 10 under." Venturi won 4 and 3.

That night, Venturi's first son, Matthew, was born. Sitting in the hospital waiting room with him was Ward. "We were rivals, but all the golf we had played together had made us close," says Venturi. "We were amateurs, and it was a gentleman's game. What a wonderful night that was."

The future looked bright. For a brief moment San Francisco had become the center of the golf universe. Hogan's loss at the Open had been one of the most dramatic in history. Venturi would nearly win the Masters, and Ward would win his second straight Amateur. That was the peak of San Francisco golf. Soon after Ward's win, an investigation by the city attorney into possible tax evasion by Lowery produced information that he had been covering Ward's expenses. The USGA found the arrangement a violation of the rules and suspended Ward for a year. He was never the same player, and in 1956 Venturi turned pro. "The effect was significant," says Tatum. "It took Lowery away from the scene, and it ended the rivalry between Venturi and Ward, which was irreplaceable. It was a blow to amateur golf, but a bigger blow to San Francisco golf."

A slow decline began, brought on by the same problems that plagued urban golf all over the country. As late as 1964, San Francisco was still home to three national champions—Miller in the U.S. Junior, Venturi in the U.S. Open and William Higgins, an Olympic member, in the U.S. Senior Amateur. But that was the last hurrah. In 1966, two years after he had won the British Open at St. Andrews, Lema, a San Leandro, Calif., native who had worked at the San Francisco Golf Club, was killed when his small plane crashed on a golf course. In '66 Venturi won for the last time on Tour, fittingly at Harding Park, in the Lucky International. Within two years severe circulation problems in his hands would end his playing career.

Miller kept San Francisco's heritage alive with great years in the 1970s, but no San Franciscan since has played the Tour regularly. "Today the city golf courses treat the kids like crap," says Venturi. "Nobody's helping them. When I grew up, people in San Francisco wanted to help you."

Says Gary Vanier, a former Stanford player who won the City six times between 1971 and '94, "If you grow up in San Francisco today and don't belong to a club, it's virtually impossible to be a good player."

Tatum has a dream. He is trying to broker a $12 million deal to renovate Harding Park and make it a permanent site in the PGA Tour's rotation for the Tour Championship. Tied into the project would be a First Tee program providing equipment and instruction to urban youth as well as access to the course. In Tatum's blue sky, the restoration of Lincoln Park would follow.

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