San Francisco: Public Golf As Good As It Gets
If Tony Bennett recorded his classic 1960s hit song today, he’d probably be crooning about leaving his bankroll instead of his heart “high on a hill” in San Francisco. With a modern-day bonanza being fueled by techies and millennials, at least a couple of enduring treats that embody the heart and soul of the City by the Bay have survived — cable cars climbing “halfway to the stars” and public golf.
San Francisco has been gifted an exceptionally diverse collection of communal golf courses layered with a rich blanket of history, from the architects who conceived them to some of the greatest wizards of the links who honed their skills on the sidehill, uphill and downhill lies, sometimes playing through three or four seasons during a single round! Native-born talent such as Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, George Archer and Bob Rosburg — a quartet that earned a combined 58 PGA Tour victories, including five major championships — played a major role in solidifying San Francisco as an urban golf city with no rival.
When Miller was asked how San Francisco would match up as a golf destination against others around the world, borrow-ing from the Yogi-ism vernacular, he once claimed, “It’s always windy half the time.”
A TREASURE CHEST OF GOLF
If only Rosburg could be here now, as the city is set to host the lone major “Rossie” won, the PGA Championship (1959). The tournament makes its inaugural San Francisco appearance this year when TPC Harding Park hosts the 102nd edition (Aug. 6-9). And while the world will see a gem in Harding Park, it is but one jewel in the treasure chest that is public golf in the city.
Unveiled in 1895, Presidio Golf Course is San Francisco’s oldest course, but the newest in the city’s public golf lineup. Originally, a group of civilians, who had formed the private San Francisco Golf and CC, were granted permission by the U.S. Army to build a nine-hole course overlooking the gateway to the San Francisco Bay on the military post known as the Presidio. In 1910, the course expanded to 18 holes, although military training occasionally still took precedence over golf along the fairways. With play once restricted to military officers and the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Dwight Eisenhower, the deceivingly long 6,481-yard hilly layout transitioned to a public facility in 1995, after the Presidio was decommissioned as an army base and became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. For locals and out-of-towners alike, it remains a mission worth the undertaking.
On the southwestern edge of San Francisco and surrounded by three marquee private clubs — Olympic Club, Lake Merced CC and San Francisco GC — TPC Harding Park rounds out one of the most preeminent golf hoods in the world. While three of the four are member exclusive, the Sam Whiting/Willie Watson–designed Harding Park serves as the blue-collar complement where countless golfers have cut their teeth and had golf balls swallowed by the dense Cypress-lined fairways since 1925.
Yet, with all its notoriety, Harding Park became dilapidated and neglected by its steward, the City and County of San Francisco. That is until Bay Area golf legend Frank “Sandy” Tatum, a former USGA President and 1942 NCAA Men’s Golf Champion from Stanford, spearheaded a $16 million restoration project in 2002–03 to resuscitate the 18-hole, 6,845-yard gem, upgrade the inside Fleming 9 layout, construct a new clubhouse and establish a First Tee program.
Harding’s resurrection caught the PGA Tour’s attention and was awarded the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship and the 2009 Presidents Cup (which returns in 2025). Fittingly, during this 2020 Presidential election year, the PGA Championship selected Harding Park as its host course.
The opposite (northwest) side of town bestows some of San Francisco’s money views, on land and sea, which are reason enough to challenge the city’s other presidential 18-hole namesake, Lincoln Park Golf Course. A relatively short (5,146 yards) and scruffy layout, it doesn’t quite match the majestic reputation of “Honest Abe,” but the Instagram backdrops of the downtown skyline and Pacific Ocean can create havoc during your swing. Especially the granddaddy scene on any golf course anywhere: a sweeping vista of the Golden Gate Bridge from the downhill par-3, 240-yard, 17th tee box.
The city’s first muni course (1902), initially started with three holes built over a cemetery, is also the beneficiary of some notable architectural heritage from Jack Neville (Pebble Beach), Herbert Fowler (Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s), and Jack Fleming, who designed 21 other courses in Northern California. And if that’s not enough historical juice, these are the greens (albeit not in the same condition) where 1969 Masters champion George Archer would hustle his neighborhood golf cronies.