Friday, June 23, 2017

The world of golf loses an icon – “Sandy” Tatum is dead at 96

Stanford men’s golf alumnus, distinguished lawyer, president of the USGA (1978 – 1980), and savior of Harding Park golf course—Frank Donovan “Sandy” Tatum left behind quite a legacy when he died Thursday morning, 2-1/2 weeks short of his 97 birthday.

Tatum, who was born in Los Angeles on July 10, 1920, grew up playing golf at the likes of the Wilshire and Bel Air country clubs. Tatum’s father was a serious golfer, and the son grew up to have a strong passion and reverence for the game.

An outstanding player on the Stanford University men’s golf team, Tatum lettered in golf for three straight years beginning in 1940, was a member of the national championship teams in ’41 and ’42, and won the individual NCAA Championship in 1942. Tatum, Tiger Woods (1996) and Cameron Wilson (2014) are the only Stanford men to have won the individual title—a feat which earned Tatum a spot in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar, Tatum was the first American to play golf for Oxford University.

In the Bay Area, Tatum is perhaps best known and respected for his role in the design of The Links at Spanish Bay, in Pebble Beach, and the renovation of San Francisco’s Harding Park Golf Course (now known as TPC Harding Park).

Harding, now a tree-lined beauty surrounded by Lake Merced in the southwest quadrant of the city, had, by the late 1990s, deteriorated into a weedy eyesore in the wake of years of neglect. The course was in such poor condition that no one batted an eye when the fairways were pressed into duty as parking for the 1998 U.S. Open being held at the nearby Olympic Club.

Though he held memberships at such distinguished, and exclusive, private clubs as Cypress Point and San Francisco Golf Club, Tatum had for many years played in the San Francisco City Championship, the longest-running municipal championship tournament in the United States. Played at Harding Park and other city venues, the SFCC has long been regarded as a bastion of egalitarian amateur golf, a tradition which Tatum had grown to revere.

Throwing himself into the midst of often-labyrinthine San Francisco politics, and allied with then-Mayor Willie Brown, and Michael Cohen, who was San Francisco’s city attorney at the time, Tatum was instrumental in bringing about a near-miraculous turnaround in the venerable course’s fortunes.

Though it ran $7 million over budget, for which Tatum was roundly criticized, the renovation project elevated Harding Park to a world-class venue which has generated millions of dollars worth of income for city coffers, notably from professional events such as the 2005 American Express Championship, the 2009 President’s Cup, the 2013 Charles Schwab Cup Championship, and the 2015 WGC Match Play Championship. The resurrection of Harding Park was one of the achievements that saw Tatum inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

Tatum’s influence in the world of golf extended well beyond the bounds of the Bay Area. He served as president of the USGA in the ’70s, and was a member of the organization’s executive committee from 1972 to 1980.

It was during this time that Tatum achieved a measure of worldwide notoriety (well, at least in the golf world) when he directed the setup of famed Winged Foot Golf Club in New York for the 1974 U.S. Open. The narrowed fairways, deep rough, and greens running at roughly the speed of your kitchen floor that are typical of a U.S. Open added up to a 7-over par winning score for eventual champion Hale Irwin. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson finished at +12, Tom Kite and Gary Player at +13, and Jack Nicklaus at +14.

Players had so much trouble with the course, and scores were so high, that the event was dubbed “The Massacre at Winged Foot”. Some of the players in the field complained that the USGA had made the setup so severe in order to embarrass them. Tatum’s response to the complaint was classic: “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game. We’re trying to identify them.”

No one anecdote can sum up the life of a man like Sandy Tatum, but that one comes close, I think—at least within the scope of the world of golf. He was idealistic, and dedicated to the ideals he held with respect to the game. He was one of golf’s champions, both on and off the course, over a long and successful life, and the game of golf, and the community of people who also love that game, are poorer for his passing.

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