San Francisco golf courses: He said, she said

Image of golden gate bridge

Courtesy of Wikipedia

HE: Hey guys, my wife and golf editor wanted me to tell you about what my experience was like playing all three San Francisco city-owned 18-hole golf courses. I’m from Colorado’s altitude and I was eager to play in the Bay Area, and particularly in the ego-crushing marine layer of air I’ve heard so much about.

Having been here the better part of the year, I can report that my handicap has ballooned from 6 to 10. While that has something to do with not playing as much, it has more to do with the lack of practice facilities, wet winter or desiccated summer drought conditions and the dreaded marine layer effect that makes you play two or three clubs longer.

SHE: Ladies, of course I get the last word here and everywhere. I’ve traveled a lot but didn’t really notice the Bay Area’s marine layer effect until I lived in Colorado for half of 2015 and my index started to plunge. I did not, at 57 and without practice, suddenly get better at golf. Yet I went from 23 to 18 over my summer at altitude.

So Colorado has that going for it. But a city as wondrous and as progressive as San Francisco must surely have great golf for women, must it not? The mayor even has a commission on women’s golf. But something is wrong here, and when I put the three 18-hole courses side by side by side, I can see exactly what it is.


Image of Sharp Park

Sharp Park, home to frog and snake, wind and fog.

HE: Having enjoyed my first date with my future wife during a round of golf at Sharp, the old place and its historic – in every way, including the bathrooms – convivial clubhouse and grounds, it’s hard to criticize the orphan stepchild of San Francisco city golf. If the city had spent half of the money it did defending itself from wrongheaded so-called environmentalists in court to fend off their efforts to turn it back to a swamp, the only seaside public course designed by Alister MacKenzie would benefit greatly. Renovation plans are in the making but as of now are just plans.

For now, the course has to deal with drought-induced dirt-filled fairways that are rock hard in the summer and a mud ball in the winter. The Pacific Ocean decided to do away with four holes closer to the shoreline, and the course struggles to keep the replacements in an adjoining donated tract of land alive. But other than those four forgettable holes, some of the original MacKenzie design still exists, and the hand of the old master is evident as they work their way through epic Cypress pines that have been shaped by the sea wind. Think dogleg holes challenged by tall trees at the corner, with smallish greens, and you get the picture. Its 6,000 yards play more like 7,000. Watch your step amid all the gopher holes.

Holes 10, 11 and 12 are absolute beasts. Given the marine layer and constant afternoon winds, the two long par 4s and long par 3 into the ocean breeze will exact a toll on your score. The 18th hole winds back through the Cypresses to the clubhouse, with subtle turns and narrow causeways ending in a classic green framed by more majestic pines. It’s always winter rules at Sharp, but you’re not here for good turf; rather the friendly, boisterous bar and restaurant and incredible views. If there’s a soul of golf, it lives on at Sharp.

SHE: As a member of the Sharp Park Business Women’s Golf Course, my home for several years has been Sharp Park. We have fought off the environmentalists (hey, look, the frog and the snake wouldn’t even be here if not for the golf course, studies have shown) and we have fought for groundskeepers, the former much more successful than the latter because TPC Harding gets all of the mowers and grounds crew. We truly love the beauty and the character of Sharp Park, which is in foggy Pacifica but is San Francisco-owned.

Our club fixed up our restroom; for some reason the men are not so inclined and I hear it is pathetic. We have one Porta Potty on the front nine and one on the back, and the 10th hole does come back to the clubhouse so that we can refill our water bottles in the cozy, quaint bar. (Just ask Geno, he will take care of you.)

But Sharp Park measures 5,700 yards from the forward tees. As HE has already found, 5,700 yards at sea level feels like 6,200 yards a mile high, and that is just too long for the average woman golfer to hope to reach a green in regulation. Note to mayor and council: An additional set of tees at 5,000 yards would solve this problem without much cost, provided there’s a working mower to maintain it.


Image of fog shrouding Golden Gate Bridge

The “view” from the famous 17th hole.

HE: After experiencing the rugged conditions at Sharp, I warily agreed to the “once in a lifetime” experience of playing what people call “Stinkin’ Lincoln.” It’s a little shorty goat track in the heart of the city, right by the Golden Gate Bridge. Its par of 68 plays out over 5,146 yards from the back tees with 12 par 4s, five par 3s and one par 5.

Lincoln didn’t stink to me. Sure the clubhouse needs to be bulldozed, but I was charmed by its hilly track, small greens and dramatic tree-lined bends. The course certainly didn’t play easy and our round was magical because we played through the fog. It has a lot of short par 4s but the tee shots require exact fairway placements or trees will block the approach shot. Thanks to recent winter rains, the turf was even good. The greens were on the slow side but not bad. We had a great day, and the bridge even poked its head through the fog as we took our tourist pictures on the 17th tee box overlooking the Bay. Watch out for a couple of 240-yard par 3s on 16 and 17. They are all you can eat.

SHE: Let’s talk about the restrooms. First, arrive early so you have time to get the key, figure out which lock it fits in the ladies room door, and then return it. You’ll come across the only on-course restroom after the fifth hole; any trip back to the clubhouse after that will probably put your group out of position. This course actually could use some Porta Potties, ugly as they are.

We locals think Lincoln is the real gem here, if only the city would polish it up. Just imagine playing a pristine, manicured golf course alongside the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! The views are spectacular, and even when the fog obscures those it feels magical and serene. Situated over hills next to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, with a signature 17th hole that sometimes requires golfers’ tee shots to carry tourists picnicking out in the fairway, it is a tough track to walk and so rivals your elliptical machine for today’s workout. All around are little neighborhood pubs and restaurants to stretch out the 19th hole.

Short as it is at 4,732 yards from the forward tees, you’d think you could reach many of the usually bumpy greens in regulation. Not so, even with the scorecard kindly rating Nos. 16 and 17 as par 4s for the ladies. But the course is better kept these days, and I wouldn’t call it stinkin’. Someday maybe I will say, if you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to play Lincoln but I can’t say it now.


Image of San Francisco golf course Harding Park

Just across the lake from Harding Park is the Olympic Club. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

HE: Given that Harding Park is a TPC now, underwent the big renovation and hosts pro tournaments, this round was to be the highlight of the city tour. Many of you guys have played there and reported mixed reactions. “No big deal” sums them up. I did not have that reaction. I deeply appreciated the grace of the design, the old feel of the walkable, almost flat course that touches up against Lake Merced. It’s like settling into a soft old leather chair. Harding doesn’t jar the senses with Pete Dye angles and geometric patterns.

I have to get one thing off my chest about these courses. Apparently the city has decided that if you don’t supply drinking water on the courses, then by gosh you don’t need to give golfers on-course bathrooms either. Heck, Sharp Park doesn’t even have a drinking fountain in its clubhouse! I figured if you are going to plunk down $150 for Harding, then surely it would have water on the course. No water, no bathrooms. Only putrid Porta Potties. How can this lure new golfers, especially women, to the game?

Harding plays longer for regular folk like us, guys, at 6,390 yards from the white tees in marine layer conditions. That’s OK, because turf conditions are Harding are predictably outstanding with rye bluegrass fairways that give you some roll and bent grass greens, just a couple years old we were told. The tee shots are to essentially huge fairways, with intelligent bunkering that challenges but does not look out of place. The greens are gentle and fast, a good place to roll in a long one. The finishing holes are every bit as dramatic and fun as they are on television. It’s definitely worth playing one time, but probably not again as the city hoses us out-of-towners for $156 on weekdays while the city resident we played with only paid $38.

SHE: I had my best round of the winter at Harding Park, and that’s because the course is so long that instead of chipping my third shot onto the par 4s – a recent weakness in my game – I had a full-swing wedge shot or more into most. Harding Park measures 5,875 yards from the most forward tees and has a rating of 73.4! Obviously when renovating a course for PGA Tour events, the last thing architects consider is the female paying customer. Harding even tossed out its women’s club with the re-do. Far from women-friendly, Harding is downright hostile. The only women I saw on our Thursday afternoon were waitresses.

Ah, but it is so beautiful, a walker’s delight that winds to and fro alongside Lake Merced, in the flatlands below the up-and-down Olympic Club. The just-so fairways, greens and even bunkers give us common folk a glimpse at the royal treatment given the world’s best players – yes, that’s how they make it look so easy. Happily, a new more forward set of tees on 18 eliminate a carry and shorten the 400-yard finisher by nearly 100 yards; perhaps there are more to come.

This is the city course with all of the amenities – range, nine-hole course, practice area, gorgeous clubhouse, snack bar. But, not a water fountain or cooler to be found on the golf course. A pro shop attendant said, “But you can get water at the shop.” Yes, you can BUY one of those nasty plastic bottles of water, but only at the turn, so bring your provisions. Or play parched, thus avoiding the Porta Potty experience.


HE: To sum it up, San Francisco has some near ocean gems on its hands. One has been brought to its potential – except for the bathroom issue – and the other two need to be renovated. They are worth it.


SHE: It is a shame that San Francisco has devoted all of its resources on the least woman-friendly of its three courses, Harding Park. Both Harding and Sharp play too long for the average woman and need an additional set of tee options at no more than 5,000 yards. All three courses need drinking fountains and restrooms for the paying customers. The clubhouses, fairways and greens at Sharp and Lincoln warrant – and deserve – more TLC. For now, the best news for women golfers visiting San Francisco: No need to lug your clubs along.

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