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TPC Harding Park: From bottom to top

By |  April 2, 2020 1 Comments
San Francisco’s Department of Recreation & Parks golf and turf manager; and Almar Valenzuela, superintendent. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

(Left to right), Geoff Plovanich, agronomy manager; Kevin Teahan, San Francisco’s Department of Recreation & Parks golf and turf manager; and Almar Valenzuela, superintendent. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

TPC Harding Park is a city-owned course maintained by city employees working for city golfers. The facility hosts 70,000 rounds annually on the Harding Park course and another 25,000 a year on the Fleming nine. On a typical year, sunup to sundown, 52 weeks, 365 days, the course is packed with golfers.

Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy were scheduled to play in the PGA Championship at the course next month, but that doesn’t do much to impress Kevin Teahan, San Francisco’s Department of Recreation & Parks golf and turf manager.

“It’s great having the PGA Championship here and the rest of the Tour events that they have scheduled for it, but our main focus is on our daily golfer,” Teahan says. “We do take a lot of pride in that, the crew does, myself, Almar (Valenzuela) and Geoff (Plovanich). We’re more concerned about the local guy and how his playing experience is. We know our customer base is the most important. Without them, we don’t have any of this.”

Geoff Plovanich, agronomy manager, a native of Wisconsin who has worked at Pebble Beach and Olympic Club, says the amount of play at the course is one of its unique challenges.

“At the end of the day, golf maintenance is golf maintenance … (but) there’s a lot of play, a lot of rounds,” Plovanich says. “It was the same way at Pebble Beach. You find ways to get work done around play and be as respectful as possible.”

The carpenter and the kid

In its 95-year history, Harding Park Golf Course (the course joined the TPC network in 2010) has seen bad times and good times.

Perhaps its most humbling moment was when Harding Park was used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open, played right across Lake Merced at the Olympic Club. But the good times came back in 2002-2003 when a $16 million investment in renovating the club began.

Around this same time, a gruff local carpenter and a young kid washing carts at the course both got hooked by what would become TPC Harding Park. That gruff carpenter was Teahan, a rookie in golf maintenance but a veteran of 13 years with the city in the department of Getting Stuff Done.

General Manager Tom Smith (right) with longtime crew member Kevin Reavy. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“These guys bust their tail and produce a major championship golf course,” says General Manager Tom Smith (right) with longtime crew member Kevin Reavy. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“I came out here in 2009 as an equipment operator to help get the course ready for the Presidents Cup and did all the overseeding, tree removal, topdressing and all that stuff,” Teahan recalls. “The PGA Tour just saw the way I was organized … I’m very step orientated, and I’ve got a good grasp on how to manage a crew. So, after the event, the city asked me if I would take a chance and take over the golf courses.”

The kid washing carts? That was Almar Valenzuela, who started working at the course the week after it reopened. Now he’s superintendent.

“I started late playing the game, fell in love with it and got into the PGA apprenticeship program and started working toward being the head pro,” Valenzuela says. “I was involved with the 2005 WGC-American Express and had a good time working in the locker room. I spent five or six years getting to know the industry. Then, I just started getting really interested in the agronomy side of things.”

He worked maintenance while the course hosted the 2009 Presidents Cup, and that was “all she wrote,” Valenzuela says. He was promoted to lead assistant under Teahan, then took the superintendent job at nearby Sharp Park, well known (and profiled in the February 2013 issue of Golfdom) for its environmental challenges.

“I got to learn how to take care of a golf course from a purely organic standpoint,” Valenzuela says. “(I) learned a lot about sustainability and turfgrass health in order to combat some of the everyday issues that superintendents face with turfgrass management.”

Keeping things simple

So how did Teahan learn the art of grass growing? Some was by podcast and turf textbook, but most of it was relying on the great network of superintendent know-how local to the San Francisco Bay area. Lending support and advice were Lou Tonelli at Lake Merced GC; Bob Klinesteker at San Francisco GC; Thomas Bastis, now a PGA Tour agronomist; and longtime turf professional Frank Zamazal, who started his own turf fertility business, “Enhanced Organics.”

In the microclimate of San Francisco, and with state and city restrictions on what can be applied to the course, Teahan and his crew try to keep things simple.

“It’s a living organism, so the more consistent you treat anything, the better results you’re going to get,” Teahan says. “We’re very consistent with our aerations, always opening up the soil to breathe so we don’t over-compact it, keeping our fertilizers simple, not putting too many ingredients in, staying away from chemicals. It’s worked for us. It’s not overcomplicated, it’s pretty simple and it’s very cost effective.”

TPC Harding Park’s general manager is Tom Smith, a native of Wyoming who previously was at TPC Scottsdale. He calls the team at TPC Harding Park — both front of house and back of house — a “melting pot” that properly represents San Francisco. Smith has worked alongside Teahan for 10 years and says he can stand toe to toe with the best agronomists out there, even though he sometimes doesn’t — and can’t — take the traditional approach.

Crew member working at TPC Harding Park (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“I’m probably the worst about telling somebody they do a good job,” Teahan says. “But, if we’re down, I’ll be the first guy to hop into a hole and start digging.” (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“(Teahan) is absolutely brilliant. There’s not something he doesn’t know,” Smith says. “I call him the Navy Seal of San Francisco Parks, because when something goes wrong, he’s the guy they call. Whether it’s a broken water pipe, a broken road, a broken piece of equipment, a complex, dangerous situation where maybe a tree has fallen into a building or whatever … he’s the guy they call.”

Unscheduled uncertainty

COVID-19 was the topic of conversation across America while Golfdom was at TPC Harding Park. The crew was taking precautions to be safe while also working diligently to keep the course ready. As of press time, the PGA Championship, which was scheduled for May 11-17, has been postponed.

Despite the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the event itself, the crew at Harding Park is motivated, and even jovial.

“We have good relationships here, and that starts at the top, with Kevin,” Plovanich says. “He sets the tone. He likes to keep it tight, but we also like to keep it loose — we know what works, but we also like to have fun while we’re doing it.”

“(Teahan’s) probably the best boss I’ve ever worked for. I can trust him. He’s super upfront,” Valenzuela says. “He’ll let you know exactly where you stand with him. He goes to bat for his guys, and he’s just very old school. It’s never me and him and 15 other people that I don’t know about that are involved in the decision. It’s just me and him. That’s tough to find these days, especially in a boss.”

Teahan has put in 24 years as an employee of the City of San Francisco. And not just TPC Harding Park falls under his supervision. He also supervises Sharp Park GC, Lincoln Park GC’s 36 holes and the turf conditions at all sports fields in the seven-mile-by-seven-mile city of 883,000.

Leading an operation with so many moving parts, so many people, Teahan shrugs and says he knows how to treat people because he knows how he has been treated.

“Being that both (Valenzuela) and I grew up being at the bottom, starting from the bottom, coming up …” Teahan says. “Treat (people) with the respect that they deserve … Listen to everybody’s ideas. Treat others like you want to be treated yourself, with respect and kindness.

“(Valenzuela) and I learned to play golf here,” Teahan says. “Whoever thought, 20 years ago … we’d be running the place?”

This is posted in Maintenance

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a 18-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.


1 Comment on "TPC Harding Park: From bottom to top"

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  1. Jon Scott says:

    It is really gratifying to know that Kevin Teahan is still getting it done at Harding Park. As head of PGA Tour Agronomy at the time, it was my pleasure to work with the maintenance crew during the course renovation and eventual hosting of the American Express Championship. I have nothing but great memories of that experience. All the best for a great PGA Championship.

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