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Sand Trap 

The deal may die if Willie Brown doesn't raise a big chunk of change in a few months

Wednesday, Feb 11 2004
My best friend in junior high, Mark Grendahl, was not a dependable weekend playmate. I'd call on a Saturday morning to suggest crawdad hunting or some such fun, and, as often as not, he wouldn't join me; instead he'd stay home and watch golf. Sometimes Mark would only watch a single tournament lasting a couple of hours, allowing us to get together later in the day. But some weekends, if he'd done something really bad like get in a fight with his brothers, Mark would have to watch televised golf all weekend long. I could have watched with him, I suppose. But the dark, resentful tone Mark's voice assumed whenever Mark mentioned his father's chosen form of punishment scared me away.

Over the years, this golf-linked fear and loathing faded from memory. Four years ago I even felt I'd healed sufficiently to fly to Phoenix and watch a golf tournament with a friend; it was fun. Following Tiger Woods through the fairways and greens, I imagined myself recovered from my childhood golf trauma.

It wasn't to be. Last week, I learned about a possible fiscal train wreck involving S.F. city government, retired Mayor Willie Brown, millions of dollars in public funds, and golf. Those terrible old feelings crept back. I learned how a multimillion-dollar deal negotiated between the city and the PGA for a golf tournament next year at Harding Park near Lake Merced may hinge on whether Brown can raise a couple of million dollars during the next three months. I learned that the tournament deal is key to a publicly funded $23 million renovation of the Harding Park Golf Course. The more I learned about this apparently well-intentioned yet poorly planned fiasco, the more clearly I imagined the look of resigned disappointment on my old friend Mark's face whenever he told me he had to spend the day watching golf.

When I began asking questions last week about the 2005 American Express World Golf Championships at Harding Park, it was as my reconstructed, golf-tolerant self. A few months ago I'd heard Supervisor Tony Hall, the politician behind the tournament and the Harding restoration, describe his vision of turning San Francisco into golf mecca, a city where business executives would site their conventions and relocate their corporate headquarters just so they could play at a first-class golf course. Hall had already taken the first step toward this goal, bringing to fruition a project two years ago to renovate Harding Park, a first-rate, 1925 course that had fallen into disrepair. Hall and Sandy Tatum, a local lawyer and former U.S. Golf Association president, worked out a deal to bring a PGA tournament here to help offset the cost of the renovation.

"The fact is, we have some of the finest private and public golf courses in the country," says Hall. "Because of this proximity of all these courses to the Bay Area, and especially San Francisco, we have the opportunity to become a golf mecca, a golf destination. We have to look at things that bump up our No. 1 industry, which is tourism, in a way that the locals benefit. It's just such a boost to the local economy. There are no negatives about it."

Sadly, it's rare that one finds San Francisco public-private partnerships without negatives. I quickly learned that the courtship between the city and the PGA is no exception. The tournament deal suffers a perilous present of budget overruns, and a multimillion-dollar contract that may soon fall apart. Fittingly, it also has a tortured past.

In 2001, after years of agitating from golf fanatics such as Tatum, Hall put together a plan by which the city would use money from a 2000 state bond issue aimed at providing open space to bring Harding Park up to PGA standards. The plan was to repay the bonds by increasing greens fees for local golfers and by attracting a PGA tour event that boosters said would bring in $1 million per tournament. The city hired a PGA course architect and set about spending $16 million stretching fairways to PGA length, improving drainage, and planting new grass.

The city made a deal to bring the PGA Tour Championship to Harding Park every three years starting in 2006. And thanks to the insistence of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the City Attorney's Office worked out a contract to that effect.

"I said, 'I don't want to do this deal until there is a hard deal in hand,'" Peskin recalls.

Six weeks after the deal was signed in 2002, the PGA got an offer from Coca-Cola to sponsor the Tour Championship in Atlanta. San Francisco was left without a tournament, but with a signed contract that gave it the right to either sue or negotiate a better deal.

So Deputy City Attorney Michael Cohen negotiated a deal whereby the PGA would bring its World Golf Championship to Harding Park every three years for the next 15 years, starting in October 2005. The city would get $500,000, plus 6 percent of the gate for all tourney earnings over $10 million.

"It is as close to a win-win as you can get," says Cohen. "We really leveraged the fact that because we had the commitment from the Tour Championship, we were able to get something better. You have to hand it to Supervisor Peskin. He insisted we don't spend money on this until it's signed. We had it, showed them a draft. He said in committee to put something in writing."

Last month S.F. Recreation and Park Department General Manager Elizabeth Goldstein, along with two park staffers, attended a golf tournament at Pebble Beach.

"They went down to look at how it was set up; they got to meet people at the PGA and that sort of thing, to get a feel for how it will work at Harding," says Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Becky Ballinger. "They were going, you know, fact-finding."

So San Francisco's in the golf tournament business?

Not quite yet.

It seems that while lengthening and resculpting Harding Park Golf Course, the city-hired PGA architect helped spend all the allotted money before a clubhouse could be built. And it seems that you can't hold a PGA golf tournament unless Tiger Woods has a fancy place to change his clothes.

So on Feb. 10 the Board of Supervisors considered a measure to spend $3.5 million of state parks grant money on the first phase of a $7 million clubhouse project, bringing the total cost of the touted $16 million Harding renovation to $23 million.

"There were project cost overruns," notes Ballinger.

The Park Department is in an awful hurry to get this thing under way, as our multimillion-dollar tournament deal depends on it. Park officials finalized bidding instructions on the initial clubhouse work late last week, and bids were due Feb. 11. Supervisor Hall has prepared a resolution for the Board of Supervisors to authorize the renegotiated PGA deal. But there is no PGA deal. When asked about the S.F. tournament last month in Phoenix by a Chronicle sports reporter, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said, "It may be a couple of more months before we definitively announce what we're going to do."

The clubhouse is a sticking point. And if the Board of Supervisors approved diverting the $3.5 million in state money on Feb. 10 -- my deadline was too early to know if it did so -- the city's still an additional $3.5 million short. Yet I'm told that in order for the PGA deal to come through, the city has to be able to guarantee by June 1 that a clubhouse will be built.

The nonprofit group Friends of Parks and Recreation has put itself to work trying to raise some of the money, but it's not the type of outfit that can conjure up a few million dollars on a moment's notice. Enter Willie Brown.

According to Sean Elsbernd, who had been helping baby-sit the golf deal as an aide to Supervisor Hall, the heavy-lifting portion of the fund-raising is in the hands of the ex-mayor, who evidently wasn't too burdened by the task of also raising money for his Willie Brown Public Policy Institute. I wanted to ask Brown about that, but he didn't answer my call by deadline.

"Mayor Brown is not a golfer at all, but he really got into the project to restore Harding Park. It's a project close to his heart," said Elsbernd, who last week became Mayor Gavin Newsom's liaison to the Board of Supervisors. "The money must be raised by approximately June 1st."

And if it isn't?

"That's not an option," Elsbernd explained.

So to reprise: In order to consummate a deal with the PGA -- something boosters were touting as near-done three years ago -- the city must spend an extra $3.5 million in state grants that could have gone to other local park facilities. Our retired mayor must come up with a couple of million bucks in three months. Or the $23 million tournament/golf course renovation scheme gets whacked.

"That's a very well thought out, risk-free position," notes Peskin, facetiously.

Actually, it's a scary, seat-of-the-pants position that doesn't bode well for the 15 years of our proposed contract with the PGA -- if there ever is a contract. It's a position typical in San Francisco, where pols and boosters cook up half-baked, get-the-city-rich-quick schemes, then leave taxpayers to pick up the pieces.

It's a position that reminds me of the sound of Mark Grendahl's flat, lifeless, defeated voice when I'd call him on a day he had to watch golf.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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