California Golf Club of San Francisco
Green Keeper: Thomas Bastis
When is the best a course has ever been?
In the case of many California courses built during the Golden Age, the answer is frequently within its first decade. Some of the greatest designs ever seen in the United States- Lakeside, Bel-Air, and Los Angeles – were radically changed for the worse prior to World War II. Other designs like Pasatiempo were compromised by the subsequent residential component that was built too close to the playing corridors. Only a few clubs like the Valley Club of Montecito have retained and/or returned the best playing attributes of the course’s original design.
Yet, there is one club that has returned the best Golden Age design features to its course and taken full advantage of the finest aspects of modern golf architecture and agronomy. The result is a startling transformation that makes the California Golf Club of San Francisco arguably one of the golf-rich state’s five finest courses for the first time in its history.
Originally incorporated in 1918, the California Golf Club moved from its Ingleside location to its present site in 1924.Referred to as the Baden property after Baden Farms, the new site was well removed from what then constituted the city of San Francisco. The California Golf Club hired the Scot Willie Locke to do the original routing and the opportunity presented to him was excellent as the Baden property measured over 550 acres. The final site that Locke chose was full of interesting land forms and possessed views of Mount Diablo (the tee shots and/or approaches at the sixth, eleventh, fourteenth, and seventeenth line up on it), Mount Tamalpais, San Bruno Mountain, and the San Francisco Bay to the east.
Though Locke is not a familiar name today, he is credited with designing nearby Lake Merced as well as Rosedale Golf Club in one of Toronto, Canada’s poshest suburbs. Sean Tully, the well respected historian and devoted chronicler of Alister MacKenzie’s work, believes that Locke’s visit to Pine Valley was directly responsible for the 200 plus bunkers with which Lake Merced originally opened. Tully also hypothesizes that Locke’s fallout with the California Golf Club stemmed from his unflinching desire to build small greens.
Whatever the reason, the California Golf Club elected to replace Locke with A. (Arthur) Vernon Macan, an Irishman who lost part of his leg in World War I, when construction started in 1924. Macan eventually made quite a name for himself throughout the pacific northwest but his disdain for travel meant he never achieved the same standing of his more famous Golden Age contemporaries. Though it is unclear if Macan made any routing changes here, he deserves full credit for the original greens, tees, and bunkering and was thus credited as the architect of the course when it opened. Uniformly favorable reviews followed, in part because it was fully mature when play commenced as grow-in occurred in both 1925 and 1926 as the California Golf Club mandated zero play until the clubhouse was completed in 1926.
Macan’s greenside bunkering and green contours were appealingly bold. However, his fairway bunkering lacked the same inspiration and popular conjecture is that Macan planned to add fairway bunkers after play had commenced. Indeed, this concept of studying play and then adding bunkers based on where divots were was not uncommon back in the 1920s. It truly makes sense, which is to say why not put bunkers directly where they influence play (i.e. where divots are) as opposed to on the sides of holes where they frequently only snare already bad shots. However, in 1927 when it came time to address the fairway bunkers, the California Golf Club elected to go with a different architect, again for reasons unknown.
Happily though,it was Alister MacKenzie, from the design firm of MacKenzie & Hunter. We all know the fame that MacKenzie later achieved by virtue of such world class designs as the West Course at Royal Melbourne, Augusta National, Crystal Downs, and Cypress Point. Timing-wise though, this was only his second project in North America (the Meadow Club one hour’s drive to the north was his first), so he was yet to become the name in golf course architecture. As an aside,it is worth noting that the American Golf Course Construction Company that MacKenzie formed and used here was the same group that worked on Cypress Point the following year.
His assignment at the California Golf Club was to redesign all the bunkering and rebuild at least two of the greens (the tenth and eighteenth). However, to be perfectly clear, he did not change any of the playing corridors and the photographs prior to his arrival show the course was already a very good one.
Having said that, MacKenzie’s flair for building bunkers was immense and after his work was complete, the California Golf Club‘s reputation was cemented as one ofthe best in the state and it began to host important events like the California State Open. Unfortunately, world events can always push sports to the side and such of course was the case with the Great Depression and World War II.
Eventually, better times returned and by the mid-1960s, the California Golf Club once again wanted to make sure that they offered the best course possible and the day’s biggest name in golf architecture, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was brought in. His work is discussed below though little of it remains today, and the California Golf Club proudly hosted the United States Senior Amateur in 1970.
In 2005, the California Golf Club board decided to address the nematode problem that was afflicting the greens just as it was at other leading clubs in northern California. Given that the greens needed to be rebuilt and thus the course would be closed, the California Golf Club board mulled over what else needed attention. Certainly, the course didn’t drain particularly well in the winter. Also, the bunkers in general had become tired and there were several competing styles as no one would ever confuse a Jones bunker for a MacKenzie one.
Sensing this was a one-time unique opportunity to make major improvements to the course, the California Golf Club solicited proposals and fourteen different architects responded. One of the fourteen, Phillips Design, didn’t even submit a plan but rather gave them a sense of the opportunity that it saw by looking at the land where the new seventh hole now sits. This bold vision of Kyle Phillips impressed the board and ultimately it led to his being hired.
As we will see below, his proposal differed in substantial ways from the other proposals/architects that the California Golf Club considered. In particular, the front nine had seen several events conspire against it since the days of MacKenzie and Macan. To bring the front nine up to a similar quality as the back, Kyle Phillips‘s plan needed to be dramatic and indeed it was. Its two key elements were for the practice area to be relocated as well as for five (!) entirely new holes to be created. To Kyle Phillips‘s everlasting credit, three of the new holes (the third, seventh and eighth) are among the best on the course and as a result, the members now have an active debate as to which of the nines is better.
Just as important, Kyle Phillips knew when to leave well enough alone. No outside events had materially impaired the back nine as they had the front. Thus, there was a sense that the California Golf Club possessed a relatively untouched nine that featured MacKenzie’s own indelible stamp. Armed with a 1938 aerial, Kyle Phillips focused on realizing as much of MacKenzie’s playing spirit as possible on the back. In doing so, two small man-made ponds that had been added by the California Golf Club in the early 1990s were mercifully removed and the fifteenth green was slid to the right by thirty-five yards.
When Kyle Phillips was done, the two nines seamlessly melded together under one design style consistent with the Golden Age. However, just as crucial to the project’s overwhelming visual success was what went on underground. Without doubt, the foundation of this project commenced six feet under whenall the drainage was replaced. In addition, there was an amendment of sand brought in with four to six inches spread across all the playing surfaces. The poa anna grasses were replaced by bent with a fescue mix in the fairways and native fescues were allowed to grow in the rough.
The result of the above and below ground work is a sequence of holes that now play better than at any point in their history, as we see below.
Holes to Note
Please note: The hole yardages below are from markers that measure slightly over 6,800 yards. There is another set farther back that stretch the course to over 7,200 yards, from where a professional tournament could be played. The name of the back tees is Venturi, in homage to the United States Open champion who joined the California Golf Club in 1949 through the help of his patron Eddie Lowery. Lowery was the California Golf Club president in 1947, and despite a very rich life, he will always best be known for being Francis Ouimet’s ‘little caddie’ in the famous play off with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray for the 1913 United States Open Championship at The Country Club. In 2006, Venturi kindly assisted the board by speaking in favor of Kyle Phillips‘s plan and he told the members at a dinner meeting with Kyle Phillips, ‘You get one chance in a lifetime to do this and you don’t get a mulligan.’
First hole, 510 yards; Though there was plenty of gnashing of the teeth in regard to moving the practice are aaway from the clubhouse/first tee, the playing characteristics of this hole help to soften the blow. Namely, this is a reachable par five, which allows the California Golf Club golfer to ease into the round without immediate severe shotmaking requirements. Consistent with a Golden Age design, there is a feeling of spaciousness off the tee with the challenge stiffening at the green.
Second hole & third holes, 410 & 415 yards, respectively; The surest way to improve a course through either a restoration or renovation is by improvingits worst hole(s). Good to great holes have a way of taking care of themselves but outright poor holes lower how a course/club is perceived in a more drastic manner than good holes do in elevating it. Here, time had been cruel to these two holes with the now busy Westborough Avenue having replaced the San Bruno Creek as the north boundary to the California Golf Club‘s property. Trent Jones did the course no favors when he crammed the second hole between a hillside and this busy road in 1963 for the sake of keeping the existing practice area in tact. Phillips displayed his big picture prowess when he envisaged moving the range further into the interior of the California Golf Club‘s property and creating a new second and third holes. Asking for the range to be moved away from the clubhouse was a divisive request and it could have cost him the project. To his credit, Kyle Phillips stuck to his belief and was unwavering that the range be moved as it was truly in the course’s best interest. To the California Golf Club board’s credit, they weathered the criticism from some members and eventually agreed to relocate the range six hundred yards away. This created the room for the new second with its excellent green and the striking new downhill third. Previously, the third hole was a Trent Jones par three that played over a man-made lake that reeked of something out of the 1960s. Kyle Phillips‘s third with its Golden Age overtones is a remarkable improvement.
Fifth hole, 325 yards; Short par fours have always been used by skilled architects as a means of transporting a golfer uphill without allowing him to become bored or discouraged. Examples include Macdonald’s second hole at Sleepy Hollow as well as his fourth at Mid-Ocean, Donald Ross’s seventeenth at Essex County, and Coore & Crenshaw’s eighth at Colorado Golf Club. Modern equipment leaves the golfer with many options on how to play this hole. A driver can leave a mere flip but as can be expected to an uphill green on a Golden Age course, the green features a ferocious amount of back to front slope. The wise golfer may opt for a shorter club off the tee for the sake of being able to control a full wedge in.
Sixth hole, 180 yards; The first of a superlative set of one-shot holes, the pushed up sixth green complex takes maximum advantage of its stellar location. Undoubtedly, C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor would have taken this opportunity to build an Eden, given the long views in the background. However, as the last hole just featured a steep back to front fall in the putting surface, Macan went in the other direction, which is to say that a green was built that falls slightly away toward the back left. Especially as this hole plays with the prevailing wind, the challenge is to have one’s tee ball avoid the deep front greenside bunkers while not rolling over and down its tightly mown back slope.
Seventh hole, 405 yards; In trying to find criticism of the course as it is now played, there is little to grasp onto. Perhaps the simplest one is that four of the playing corridors on the back nine roughly parallel each other, which hints at a lack of playing angles (in fact the bunkering schemes and how holes thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and seventeen fall across the land snuff out such concern). Still, it is a welcome addition to the overall variety of the course to find this newly created Cape hole by Kyle Phillips. In fact, the hole seems such a natural today, one wonders why none of the previous architects pursued it. The reason is actually simple: a fair amount of earth moving had to occur to make the fairway suitable for golf and that was beyond what the Golden Age architects could have undertaken given the equipment/budget at their disposal. Though none of the other architects that the California Golf Club interviewed had the vision of creating a hole here,the new seventh and the timeless strategic questions that it poses make it feel like it absolutely belongs on this Golden Age course. Though only Kyle Phillips possessed the mental image required to create it, hindsight shows that not incorporating the deep hollow which the fairway bends aroundwould have been a great pity.
Eighth hole, 215 yards; While the big picture thinking on this project was outstanding, so too was the detail work. With the advent of the seventh hole, the possibility was created for a long one shotter to play from the shoulder of the hillside to a green well below. Everything about the hole is big including the long views out to San Bruno Mountain. The fun though is had in a three foot mound that Kyle Phillips and his talented shapers built ten yards shy of the green that can be used to help propel balls well onto the deep putting surface. His shapers went to painstaking efforts to ensure that the mound plays just right and this is but one example whereby without their in-the-dirt efforts, Kyle Phillips‘s vision for the California Golf Club would not have been fully realized.
Ninth hole, 400 yards; This classic dogleg was made possible only by Locke’s willingness to have the golfer climb a steep hill with his tee ball. Arguably the best two shotter on the course, it is therefore hard to believe that few modern architects would share his same conviction in routing a hole up and over such a steep embankment. Too many modern architects would either not route the hole in such a manner or even if they did, they would make some sort of saddle cut into the hillside to lessen its stern appearance. Either way, course and hole would suffer.