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Lincoln Park Golf Course in San Francisco

Matt Cohn

February 2013

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I’ve heard some good ones about the conditions at Lincoln Park. One joke is that, “At Lincoln Park, there are certain fairways that simply must be avoided.” Another line claims, “Lincoln Park is so wet in the winter that when they turn on the sprinklers, it actually gets drier.” The reality is that this is what most serious golfers think of when asked their opinion of Lincoln Park. Yet there is so much more to the golf course and its history.

Golf has been played since 1902 in the far northwest corner of San Francisco, where the Pacific Ocean makes its way into the Golden Gate. The golf course is situated in quite an incredible spot, high on a hill overlooking the City, the Pacific, and a series dramatic cliffs and bluffs that plunge their way down to the rocky shore.

Lincoln Park's Enviable location.

Lincoln Park’s Enviable location.

Like its cousin Sharp Park, Lincoln Park’s future is not entirely assured. Recently Lincoln Park was the subject of a proposal to replace the current eighteen hole course with soccer fields, an event center, and an amphitheater, along with a weirdly sited driving range and a nine-hole par-3 course. That threat, like the threat to Sharp Park, appears to have passed for now thanks particularly to the hard work of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance. Still, continuing vigilance will be required.

The Golden Gate Bridge from behind the 5th green.

The Golden Gate Bridge from behind the 5th green.

For the purposes of this website, I hardly need to make the case for why it’s worth saving public golf in big cities. What I hope to focus on here is how good of a golf course Lincoln Park…well, how good it could be. Much of what’s architecturally great about Lincoln Park is hidden behind overgrown trees, covered up by daisies and long grass in the fairways – hell, daisies and long grass on the greens if you catch it on the right day! – and bunkers that you’d swear were from a long-abandoned course. One of the most maddening elements of the Lincoln Park situation is that the course wouldn’t be underutilized and underprofitable if only it were maintained. Instead the course is allowed to sink further and further into disrepair – potentially sealing its fate as a “bad use of land”.

My favorite story of maintenance at Lincoln Park is from the day when I saw a neatly mown footpath leading off the 6th tee, only to stop after 70 yards because there was no fairway.

Yes, it’s a mess, and no, it wasn’t always that way. But under that mess is the structure of a wonderful and unique golf course – one that, at only 5,146 yards and par 68, still provides a wonderfully varied and strategic challenge. The combination of the terrain, setting, quirk, conditions, and unusual yardages – ten par-4’s under 350 yards? Seven holes in the 200’s on the back nine? – produces a golf course that is both exceptional and totally unusual. Beyond all that Lincoln represents to the city, its architecture alone makes it worth the fight to save it.

Perhaps two themes emerge in a tour of the course: first, how many holes use the terrain (rather than sand or water) to create interesting strategy; and second, how much of that interest and strategy is compromised by the soft and slow conditions. By the way, don’t be fooled by the brown throughout the course – although it looks dry, the course plays soft and slow year-round. I’ve tried to select photos below that show not only the architecture of the course, but also the beauty of the setting and the sad state of the current maintenance practices.

Hole 1, 314 yards, par-4: A neat strategic hole; a draw played near the OB line leaves a clear shot to the green, while a shot hit weakly to the right leaves an uphill approach over a series of tall trees. The crowned green is not too scary, as the surrounds are too soft and slow for the ball to be repelled a significant distance from the surface.

The uphill first hole, with the tee just to the right of the cart path in the distance. The ideal tee shot finishes closer to the right edge of this picture rather than on a straight line from tee to hole.

The uphill first hole, with the tee just to the right of the cart path in the distance. The ideal tee shot finishes closer to the right edge of this picture rather than on a straight line from tee to hole.

Hole 2, 257 yards, par-4: The first of the tricky, drivable par-4’s. Trees block a direct route to the green, necessitating a left-to-right shot. However, a driver that doesn’t fade might end up lost or unplayable in the bush or high grass left of the green.

The drivable second hole, with the flag barely visible under the branches of the first tree on the right.

The drivable second hole, with the flag barely visible under the branches of the first tree on the right.

Hole 3, 156 yards, par-3: The dogleg left, par-3 third hole features a forest left and OB a few paces right of the green. Good hole? Bad hole? Depends how you view dogleg par-3’s, but it won’t remind you of many holes you’ve played before.

From behind the 3rd green, it's apparent that trees nearly block a straight shot to the green.

From behind the 3rd green, it’s apparent that trees nearly block a straight shot to the green.

Hole 4, 321 yards, par-4: The hole plays into the wind, and a deep swale cuts through the fairway in the driving zone. A layup from the tee leaves an 8- or 9-iron; a bolder shot finishes in the swale, leaving an impeded view of the flagstick; and a driver has to deal with trees left and the ground sloping right towards a hazard.

The downhill tee shot on the 4th hole.

The downhill tee shot on the 4th hole.

The 4th hole's rolling fairway has trouble on both sides, necessitating a decision from the tee.

The 4th hole’s rolling fairway has trouble on both sides, necessitating a decision from the tee.

 

The green on the 4th hole, with the 5th tee up the hill in the background.

The green on the 4th hole, with the 5th tee up the hill in the background.

Hole 5, 359 yards, par-4: An appealing tee shot, played downwind to a huge, rumpling fairway whose right side is 15 feet higher than its left. A pedestrian tee shot down the left side leaves a steeply uphill approach shot over sand to a shallow green. A thoughtful tee shot near the bushes and trees on the higher right side leaves a better angle and potentially a view of the green surface. Again, soft conditions have moderated the value of such strategic play.

The tee shot on the 5th hole is appealingly open.

The tee shot on the 5th hole is appealingly open.

From behind the green, the cant of the 5th fairway is apparent. One can imagine how a downwind shot from the low left side of the fairway would be a great challenge - if the green were firm.

From behind the green, the cant of the 5th fairway is apparent. One can imagine how a downwind shot from the low left side of the fairway would be a great challenge – if the green were firm.

Hole 6, 283 yards, par-4: The hole tees off against the back wall of the Palace of Fine Arts, the spectacular museum in the center of Lincoln Park Golf Course. In its current form the hole is slightly silly because trees near the tee force any shot longer than 200 yards to be played significantly left-to-right. Again though, there is an interesting strategic decision: a layup from the tee often leaves a partial view of the green and an awkward lie on a large mound, while a driver or 3-wood must be shaped into an uncomfortable landing area that is blind from the tee.

The 6th tee has a unique backdrop...

The 6th tee has a unique backdrop…

...but the tee shot itself is a bit strange. The green is in line with the big tree trunk on the right. No joke!

…but the tee shot itself is a bit strange. The green is in line with the big tree trunk on the right. No joke!

 

Large fairway mounds define shotmaking on the 6th hole.

Large fairway mounds define shotmaking on the 6th hole.

Hole 7, 334 yards, par-4: A blind tee shot up and over a saddle, then down a steep hill (and downwind) to the green. With fast and firm conditions, almost any tee shot would reach the front of the green, and the hole might benefit from an addition bunker or other form of defense. As it is now, the second shot – often 40-70 yards from a slight downhill lie – is difficult.

The blind tee shot on number 7.

The blind tee shot on number 7.

Hole 8, 170 yards, par-3: Probably the most tired-looking hole on the course, with a small round green and gigantic built up lips on the bunkers. Nice view, though.

The downhill tee shot on the 8th hole.

The downhill tee shot on the 8th hole.

Hole 9, 309 yards, par-4: Straight uphill, this hole necessitates an accurate tee shot and presents another layup-vs.-driver decision. A layup often finishes on the steepest part of the uphill slope; a driver missed left or right could find trouble.

The 8th green in the foreground, 7th fairway upper-middle, and 9th fairway going uphill towards the trees top-right.

The 8th green in the foreground, 7th fairway upper-middle, and 9th fairway going uphill towards the trees top-right.

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