California Golf Club of San Francisco

Tenth hole, 390 yards; When one thinks of the (new) California Golf Club, the lasting image is likely to be of short grass and sprawling bunkers. Thus, Locke is unlikely to ever get proper credit for how well he laid the holes across the land in all sorts of different manners. The tenth is a sterling example of Locke’s keen sense of the land as this switchback hole features a fairway that slopes from right to left and a green complex that was built into the hillside at a left to right angle. Yes, MacKenzie’s bunkers dress it up and make it the striking hole that it is today but it is the underlying use of the land that gives the hole its lasting playing qualities.

The ideal tee ball flirts with the high bunker on the right in order to gain the optimal spot in the fairway (i.e. left center) from which to play one’s approach.

As opposed to the high right to low left landforms off the tee, the green surrounds are from high left to low right.

Eleventh hole, 400 yards; Another great use of the land occurs here, namely up at the green. Both downhill and downwind, the first time golfer might scratch his head when he sees a bunker thirty yards removed from the green, high up a hillside to the left. In fact, this bunker hides the slope ofa hill that can easily beused as a friend to the golfer in feeding his approach shots close. This clever touch comes in the midst of a stretch of big holes from the eighth through the fourteenth.

The eleventh fairway bends left around the base of a hill. The eighteenth green complex which MacKenzie rebuilt is in the background.

Approach shots that just clear the bunker on the left take the downslope and are fed onto the putting surface. On the day this photograph was taken, one player did just that and saw his ball finish within ten feet of this day’s hole location. His playing opponent took the conventional, direct route and his wedge landed just by the hole. Unfortunately – or fortunately as the case may be! – the ball took a big first bounce into the back bunker, from where an up and down proved elusive.

Twelfth hole, 200 yards; Some members note with a wry smile that MacKenzie did his most lavish bunkering on the holes most visible from the clubhouse, namely the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and eighteenth holes. Indeed, these four holes have twenty-seven bunkers which is nearly the same amount that Augusta National had on its entire course when it opened in 1933. In effect, the members wanted more bunkers and MacKenzie delivered, especially where they were in plain sight! Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is found here with this par three that plays away from the clubhouse to a green located across a gully. MacKenzie’s artistry is such that even if not playing, one is content to soak up the view.

As the wind typically comes off the ocean, this hole is generally played in a right to left wind. Thus, the sight above of the flag blowing to the left is a commonplace one. MacKenzie clearly embraced this fact in creating the above bunkering scheme.

Tee balls can ride the right to left wind and bounce onto the green from its open right side. As part of MacKenzie’s visual trickery, the bunker in line with the hole location above is actually ten paces shy of the green’s front edge, meaning there is more room to run a ball on than first appears.

Thirteenth hole, 395 yards; When golf architect Mike DeVries (a MacKenzie devotee, member of Crystal Downs and who is presently restoring the aforementioned Meadow Club) stood on this tee for the first time, he took in the view and remarked as to what a genius MacKenzie was with the spacing of his bunkers. Like the eleventh hole one hour south at Pasatiempo Golf Club, MacKenzie had the rare ability to make hard, uphill holes a pleasure to play. The fact that this hole plays directly into the westerly wind exacerbates its challenge.

The spacing of the bunkers adds such visual appeal that the golfer in no way minds playing this uphill hole. Indeed, for some, it is one of the most attractive holes on the course.

Fourteenth hole, 445 yards; With the last of the big holes, Locke turned the fairway to the left enough to where a draw is clearly called for. As the golfer plays cautiously to the right, the dramatic greenside bunkers come more into play on one’s approach. Though the four gigantic bunkers right of the green claim the eye on the approach, architecture students will perhaps be even more impressed by the green itself, which is the high point of its surrounds.

This elevated view down the long fourteenth captures much of the course’s appeal with its short grass galore, lack of rough, huge bunkers, and cypress trees.

Though the fairway is wide, this view from the right center shows why an approach played from the left portion is preferable as otherwise, this nest of bunkers must be carried. Given their scale and how far the greenside bunkers protrude into the fairway, judging one’s approach shot is difficult.

Fifteenth hole, 495 yards; Working off the 1938 aerial, two central bunkers were recaptured by Phillips 150 yards short of the green. Depending on where the day’s hole location is, the golfer goes either right or left of them, which can be problematic given that the hole plays both uphill and into the prevailing wind. Nonetheless, the central bunkers pose a fine dilemma, one that the golfer hasn’t faced to date.

After restoring the central hazards in the foreground, Phillips moved the fifteenth green thirty-five yards to the right to its location above. It now sits nicely tucked in against the hillside whereas before it was more in the open with the white house serving as an unfortunate backdrop.

Sixteenth hole, 125 yards; Though the shortest one shotter byover fifty yards, it may also be the one thatelicits the most double-bogeys as the long narrow angled greenis a difficult target. Similar to the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon, there is no safe play or ideal place to miss the green, which is fair enough given the hole’s short length. Though deeper, the front bunkers may actually leave an easier recovery than the back bunkers from where the green racesaway.

Don’t be fooled by its modest length – the heavily defended sixteenth green complex leaves numerous difficult/awkward recovery shots. A par should be gratefully accepted.

Seventeenth hole, 560 yards; Unlike many of the other course North American courses at which he worked, MacKenzie would be mighty pleased if he saw the California Golf Club today as it embodies so many of his favorite playing tenets: it is wide off the tee with the challenge coming at the green, short grass dominates throughout, thick rough that makes golfers bow with their heads as they beat through it in search of their golf balls is nearly absent, the placement of the bunkers lends strategic flair,and the greens are widely varied in shape and size. Nonetheless, all this goes for naught if the playing surfaces don’t function properly. Without fast and firm playing conditions, the ground game options that we have seen simply wouldn’t work. What a pity it would be if it was soft in front of the eighth green, thus rendering the mound there of little value or if one couldn’t land his approach twenty yards short of the eleventh and still have it nestle close. Another example of using the ground to gain an advantage occurs on the lay-up shot here, where the golfer hopes to rub past a high right MacKenzie bunker as described below.

Given the angle of the green and its bunker pattern, the golfer wishes to approach it from the left. That much is clear. What isn’t as evident is that the best way to achieve the left center of the fairway is by feeding one’s second shot near the high right bunker and letting the topography carry the ball left to the proper position, which will certainly happen given the newfound firmness of the turf.

Eighteenth hole, 395 yards; The Home hole provides a fitting finish to a heavily bunkered green benched into the hillside beneath the sprawling white clubhouse. Appropriately, the hillside that leads up to the clubhouse is maintained as short grass, just one more reminder that one has just enjoyed a round of golf over a course where rough plays next to no role in the strategy of the course.

How successful was Phillips in returning MacKenzie’s sense of flair to the course? You be the judge. Above is a photograph taken in 1927 after MacKenzie had completed his work and below …

… is the same hole in 2008. As is evident, the attention to detail and the in-the-dirt work by Phillips and his gifted shapers was of exception.

One other fascinating element to this project is that California Golf Club’s owngreen keepingcrew assumed almost 50% of the construction work. Following the meticulous standard set by Phillips’s own shapers, Green Keeper Thomas Bastis did a marvelous job in making sure that Olliphant Construction (non-union) and his staff (union) worked in conjunction with one another and that the club’s interests – both from a timing and financial perspective – were met. Many of core group of employees at California Golf Club havetwenty years tenure with the club. As they were employed throughout the project, not only did they have uninterrupted job security, but they now enjoy ownership and immense pride in ‘their’ golf course, a true winning situation for all parties concerned.

Credit abounds to be shared. The boldness of Phillips’s plan and the courage of the club board to proceed with it provided the underpinning for the employees of the club and Olliphant Construction to create something truly special. A course that has been blessed with the hand of MacKenzie is rarely, if ever, improved upon but that is exactly what transpired here. The members of the California Golf Club are left to enjoy the benefits for decades to come.

As seen from behind the sixth green, this view down the long fourteenth of short grass and interestingly placed hazards highlights why The California Golf Club is such a delight to play.

The End