For the West Coast traveling player, San Francisco has too often been merely a gateway to Pebble Beach. You land at SFO, grab a car and head down U.S. 101 south to Monterey and Carmel. Golf in and around San Francisco is usually not given much afterthought, much less serious consideration.
But if you decide to stay in the City By The Bay, you can get smack in the middle of some really superb golf, both public and private. Not to mention that you have one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America to wander around in between rounds of golf.
You can shop ‘til you drop in Union Square and feast on Dungeness crab at Scoma’s or any one of a dozen restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf. You can wind down Lombard Street or hop the cable car through downtown or tour the always lively street vendors in Chinatown. You can take an afternoon trip driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the redwood forest or a day trip an hour north of San Francisco into Wine Country.
But we digress. We’re here for the golf, and there is good golf, indeed.
The young man who serves as the starter at Pasatiempo Golf Club knows his history. “Did you know,” he asks, “that if it weren’t for Pasatiempo, there probably wouldn’t be an Augusta National?”
Turns out, he’s done his homework. Alister Mackenzie designed Pasatiempo and on opening day, September 8, 1929, the great Bobby Jones was in the featured foursome. Jones was so impressed with the layout that he hired Mackenzie – who also designed Cypress Point – to do his course that he would call Augusta National.
At Pasatiempo, Mackenzie created a masterpiece. The holes weave and meander around the rolling hills that surround Santa Cruz. But the real genius of Mackenzie is the way he designed the bunkering and the green surrounds. Not only are the bunkers aesthetically beautiful but they guard the hole locations brilliantly. If you take on a flag with an approach shot you are more than likely to have to deal with the risk of finding a greenside bunker. And recovery from those bunkers are problematic at best.
Once you find the greens, they are fast and difficult to read. They are not as sloping as Augusta National but if you find yourself on the wrong side of the hole, you are always putting defensively. At Pasatiempo, you should do your best to putt from below the hole.
The course only measures 6,521 yards, with a par of 70, but they are the longest 6,521 yards you will ever find. The opening holes begin with a par 4 of 457 yards, a 437-yard par 4 and a par 3 of 235 yards.
The ending begins with the 16th, a hole that Mackenzie called the finest two-shot hole he had ever seen. The hole measures only 387 yards but you drive into a slope and you wind up with a mid-iron to a diabolical green that Tiger Woods once four-putted. The 18th is a par 3 of 169 yards that if you get the ball above the hole, a two-putt is nearly impossible.
In 2007, a major restoration project was completed at Pasatiempo under the loving hand of Tom Doak, a Mackenzie aficionado. The effort was begun in 1996 and took a number of years because club officials wanted to keep the course open during the restoration. The result of the work was stunning.
Mackenzie owned a home at Pasatiempo, where he lived the last years of his life. He did so because Pasatiempo was his favorite course. Many others say the same thing.
In the 1940s through the 1960s, one of the best courses in San Francisco was owned by the city – Harding Park. The San Francisco Open on the PGA Tour – once won by Byron Nelson – was played at Harding. And the Tour came back in the 1960s to play the Lucky International that always drew the best players.
Sam Whiting and Willie Watson were the original designers – they had also designed the Lake Course at the Olympic Club – and the course opened for play in 1925, predating many of the great municipal courses in the U.S.
But like many other city courses, Harding Park had fallen into disrepair from years of neglect. The City of San Francisco did not place golf on its list of priorities and, thus, the great layout was literally falling apart. In fact, the course was used to park cars for the 1998 U.S. Open across Lake Merced at nearby Olympic Club.
An initiative that was spearheaded by San Francisco golf legend Sandy Tatum and then mayor Willie Brown raised enough money in 2001 that returned Harding Park to its original glory.
Chris Gray, a PGA Tour architect, was given the task of restoring Harding Park and he added 500 yards to the original layout to make it more than 7,100 yards and tournament caliber. The course was reopened in 2003 with efforts geared up to bring professional golf back to Harding Park.
The PGA Tour’s American Express Championship came to Harding Park in 2005, won by Tiger Woods in a battle with John Daly. The Presidents Cup was played there in 2009 and the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Championship moved there in 2010. Locally, the most famous tournament at Harding Park is the San Francisco City Amateur Championship, the oldest consecutively played city championship in the country.
Water borders the property on three sides but the course does not play along the lake until the 14th hole and continues to the finish along Lake Merced. At that point, a course that has been striking and challenging becomes downright beautiful.
The redesigned 18th hole became 468 yards and the drive has to carry the lake to a narrow sliver of fairway. From there, the approach to a difficult green makes the finale to Harding Park challenging but eminently fair.
In 2010, the PGA Tour came in as the management company for what is now TPC Harding Park. The Tour waived its management fee so that it could provide input for the course maintenance so that the public can continue to play the same course the pros do.
Half Moon Bay
Set at the base of the rolling hills an hour south of San Francisco and bordered by the Pacific, the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay offers stunning vistas in each half of the layout.
If you didn’t know where you were, you might guess you were on the shores of east Scotland. The course wanders and meanders along rolling land where you rarely have a level lie in the fairway. Native grasses border the fairways to catch stray shots.
But while it resembles a links course in some ways, it is still an American layout. Arthur Hills was the designer and the course opened in 1997. Hills’ greens have much more slope than links courses do. And the slope always seems to run away from the hole locations. Getting the ball close to the hole, especially in the prevailing wind, requires a very precise iron game.
The front nine plays away from the clubhouse and toward the majestic hills that border the course. On the return trip, you play toward the ocean. The par-3 17th is the Ocean Course’s postcard. It was carved out of the land that goes right to the edge of the sea, and standing on the tee, you know for certain you are in a special place. In the background are the high bluffs on which stands the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, one of the prime reasons that Half Moon Bay is such a desirable destination.
A room at the Ritz-Carlton and a round at the Ocean Course: the definition of an excellent day.