With any luck, long shafts of sunlight will shimmer through the trees at the start of the Presidents Cup at Harding Park Golf Course this morning. If so, an international television audience will see the greatest golfers in the world playing San Francisco's superstar public golf course in all its lush, green, breathtaking beauty.
And it will be easy to think that the city has pulled it off. Sure the 2002 renovation of Harding was expensive, and yes, there were cost overruns. But at the end of the day, as Tiger Woods stalks the fairways this weekend, it all seems to have worked out as planned.
Except that it hasn't.
Golf in San Francisco is in dire straits, and Harding Park is just the most visible example.
Eight years ago Economic Research Associates, a consulting firm, calculated that the "new" Harding Park would generate some $6.5 million in the first six years of operation - enough to maintain Harding and other public golf courses that the city owns. There was even talk of extra funds that could be used to fix up city parks.
That all turned out to be a bad joke.
"I think it was totally misrepresented," said Isabel Wade, founder of Neighborhood Parks Council. "The promise was not only that this would keep Harding as a great public golf course, it was going to be a kind of cash cow, a mechanism to fund neighborhood parks."
Instead, not only does the city's Golf Fund need money from the city's primary spending account to stay afloat - an estimated $800,000 this year - but San Francisco is still on the hook for over $16 million borrowed (on an unanimous Board of Supervisors vote in 2002) to spruce up Harding.
The financial picture is so grim that Katie Petrucione, director of administration and finance for the Recreation and Park Department, said the city opted not to pay anything on the debt service for the $16 million loan in the 2008-09 budget year. The idea is to put off the payments until some day when things turn around.
"It will eventually be paid back," Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said. "But I would just say to those armchair quarterbacks who say we never should have done it, what would you have done?"
Now there's a question that is bound to be asked many times as the loan's 25-year due date approaches. Some of the problems have a logical explanation.
While the original estimate for Harding's renovation was $16 million, cost overruns pushed the total to $23.6 million. That coincided with a national downturn in the number of rounds golfers played, according to Leon Younger, president of a golf consulting company called Pros Consulting in Indiana.
And it should be stated that an event like the Presidents Cup provides a huge benefit to the city in terms of exposure, tourist dollars and branding.
But Younger, who produced a golf study for the city in September 2008, said he has found a deep problem in the city's management of its golf courses.
"Except for something like the Presidents Cup," Younger said, "I don't think golf is looked at as a priority. The city sees it more as a hassle. They just don't like managing golf."
Unlike virtually every other major city in the country, San Francisco is attempting to run its golf courses through its Rec and Park Department. Most cities, Elsbernd said, turn golf management over to experienced, independent operators.
It is an idea that is wildly unpopular in the city because of fears that union employees would lose jobs and greens fees would skyrocket.
But honestly, how could things be much worse? Harding is saddled with that loan, and the city's other golf courses will never be mistaken for Pebble Beach. Nor for well-maintained golf courses. The plan was that extra money from Harding was supposed to generate was going to fix up the city's other public courses. That hasn't happened and the courses reflect that neglect.
"They're fine if you don't mind playing a dog track," Elsbernd said. "If the city wants to generate money it is going to have to put in capital improvements. And I know that added $5 million or $10 million to the budget to fix golf courses is a nonstarter. The only way to do it is with a private partner."
It is time to make that move. Elsbernd is convinced that if golf in the city was put out to bid, course operators would line up to take on the challenge. I'm betting they could run the courses well and actually make money.
If that was the case, we could look at Harding Park the way it was supposed to be - a stunning cathedral of golf.
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