Ran Morrissett’s opening comments: The lifelines of every club are new members. With them, you are fine. Without them, little good ensues.
That said, suppose the credentials of a private club could be distilled as follows: ‘Eighteen hole course situated on great land. Thirteen holes built during the Golden Age of architecture. The other five holes don’t belong and were built during a different era. Too many trees exist, which means the course plays slow and wet most of the year.’
Who would join?
Perhaps those who play golf occasionally. They aren’t attuned to golf (good or bad) and certainly not the nuances of golf course architecture. If they can drink, play cards, and have fun with friends, their needs are satiated.
However, golfers that cherish the most time honored virtues of the game would be underwhelmed by such an offering. Life has taught them that places that celebrate the great game – that put golf on a pedestal – attract very fine people and that an atmosphere is created that draws them in. Essentially, they want to spend their precise spare time at such places.
Many grand clubs with proud golfing heritages have faded over time, diminished by the soft demands placed on them by social or occasional golfers. The character and special design features of Golden Age courses tragically disappear under lax stewardship. Reversing the culture at such clubs is a rare occurrence.
Now consider the following:
‘Eighteen hole course situated on great land. Superlative golf holes laced throughout, many built during the Golden Age of architecture. Wide playing corridors, lots of short grass. Conditions: Firm. Trees are well back from play and cypresses provide handsome backdrops. Walking is highly encouraged.’
Who would join? Golfers, of course, the very people who become the life blood of a GOLF club!
This month’s Feature Interview with Allan Jamieson tells such a story. It’s about a noble course that had disappeared from most people’s radar and fell outside of a thousand courses that you would like to play. It has been ingeniously resuscitated and emerges in a form that may make it the best in the greater San Francisco area. All the Golden Age design tenets are in full force: width, playing angles, well-placed hazards, acres and acres of short grass, fast running surfaces, all capped off by first rate and varied green complexes.
Was it expensive? Yes. How daunting was it to bring in five thousand truckloads of sand (!) so that the course would not only look right but play right? Very! Closed for only 15 months (and not one employee was laid off during that time), the course – which is any golf club’s primary calling card – went from mundane to a type of firm, bouncy, thought provoking playing experience rarely found (especially on the west coast).
It was worth it because golfers are smart and quality eventually wins out. Here is a course that is now fortified for the foreseeable future. It is attracting young golfing members (25 last year) who are enthralled by the playing conditions. Some say that nearby SFGC is its equal for short grass and sprawling bunkers but to get comparable kick and run, you may have to travel to Melbourne, Australia! No wonder that Ian Baker-Finch loved the California Golf Club when he played there last September.
Al Jamieson was the chair of the committee to renovate in 2005 and club president in 2006 when the debate was held and it was voted to proceed. The course shut in April 2007 for Kyle Phillips’s broad reaching plan to be implemented. Rarely has there been a more fortuitous circumstance than Al on the board at the Cal Club at that very time. While there were sharp differences of opinion within the club, everyone will tell you that Al and the board acted in the club’s best long term interests. His commentary is always genuine and heartfelt. Words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ are mercifully absent from his vocabulary. Among our correspondence over the past four years, Al once wrote (and I reprint it with his permission): “The game is bigger and better than all of us. The integrity of the club is more important than the parochial interests of any member or group of members. Like all great clubs, it will endure and continue to enrich the lives of all who respect the game and nurture her.”
Wow! If leadership promotes those sentiments, sign me up! Along with Sleepy Hollow (I haven’t seen LA North and Pinehurst No.2 always had its greens) this is the greatest course transformation of which I am familiar. See if you agree. In any event, this is an insightful story of accomplishing something special within the framework of a private club, related by a standup guy.
Hope you enjoy this month’s Feature Interview.
Born in New York City in 1946, Allan Jamieson gained his education on the east coast before enlisting in United States Marine Corps. He served from December 1967 to January 1969 as a forward observer in a Marine rifle company in South Vietnam. Upon discharge, he worked briefly in the golf business and attempted tour school in 1971. Shortly after, he commenced a career in banking and real estate and was accepted to the California Golf Club of San Francisco as a junior member. He has long considered joining here as the best break in a young man’s life. He was first elected to board of directors 1992-95 and again in 2003-2007 and served as club president in 2006. He has two sons, Tyler and Blair. Tyler works for San Francisco Giants baseball club. Blair recently completed a year on Golden State Tour and in September 2011 went to the Canadian Tour qualifying. According to Allan, ‘The Cal Club has been the touch stone of my life for 38 years. I could never give back what it has given to me.’
Please give us a brief design history of the The California Golf Club of San Francisco.
The California Golf Club of San Francisco was incorporated in the City and County of SF in 1918, thus the name even though the club is located in South San Francisco, San Mateo County. Its original location was slightly north of the San Francisco GC (1915) on land leased from the Spring Valley water company. In 1922 the members wisely purchased approximately 400 acres of rolling land in San Mateo county to build their permanent home. Arthur Vernon Macan gets credit as the original architect of record, although some have opined that Willie Locke was also involved. Macan immigrated from Ireland to Canada in the early 20th century and must have been an interesting character. He was trained as a lawyer and was an accomplished player. He returned to Europe under the Canadian flag to fight in WW I and lost the lower portion of his left leg, yet returned to play competitive golf! He did not venture far from British Colombia and our north west where he worked in Oregon and Washington. Historian Jeff Mingay is of the opinion that Macan might be mentioned in the same league with MacKenzie, Ross and Tillinghast had he been willing to travel. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in 1924 and the course and new club house opened in 1926.
In 1928, Alistair MacKenzie and Robert Hunter of the American Golf Company were retained by the club. Unfortunately, there is no historical record as to why the club would hire a different architect just two years after opening. In a 1933 essay, Dr. MacKenzie briefly mentions that he “reconstructed” both Lake Merced and California Golf Club. He claims to have enhanced their operating efficiency, but does not elaborate further. He did take out an ad for his company in American Golfer magazine with a picture of our tenth hole as well as advertising the fact that he was working at Claremont CC and Cypress Point. The reasons for his hiring are only speculation, but one opinion is that Macan did not initially put in a lot of bunkers until patterns of play could be established. A quote attributed to Macan is, “I design courses for the man who pays the bills.” Perhaps members thought the course needed to be more challenging. Remember too that it was the roaring twenties and golf was in its ascendency in America, so no expense was spared ( which sounds like the late 90’s).
In any event, we’ll never know why MacKenzie was hired but the aerial photos from which Kyle Phillips worked certainly showed bunkering typical of MacKenzie. The club thrived albeit in the shadow of its more famous cousins, San Francisco GC and the Olympic Club. One of well known (in golf circles) members was Eddie Lowery, the “little caddie” on Francis Ouimet’s bag in that famous 1913 U.S. Open playoff against Vardon and Ray. Lowery would become a successful San Francisco businessman and patron of golf. He served on the USGA executive committee and was also the president of our club in 1947. He was also a member at SFGC and Cypress Point where he spent his last years until 1981. In his auto dealership he employed two of the great amateurs of the day, E. Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. Mr. Venturi has regaled us with great stories of the games at both Cal and SFGC in those days. Mr. Venturi remains a member and was very helpful to us with this project, which I will explain in greater detail later.
In the 1960’s the club appeared on a list of 200 “toughest” golf courses in Golf Digest. Around 1965 however, the State of California came calling with an eminent domain action that would impact the club dramatically. The plan was to create a new street, Westborough Blvd., off of the new 280 Freeway being built immediately west of the course. This street would obliterate the highly regarded second hole and portions of the third and first holes. Once again we can find no written record of the internal process, but the club hired the Robert Trent Jones firm to reconfigure the first five holes. The verbal history I have comes from Mr. Venturi told directly to me and my committee. Bear in mind that this was 1965-66 and Ken was the 1964 Open champion and winner of the Hickcock belt from sports Illustrated as athlete of the year as well as being a club member since 1949. He was aghast at the changes effected by Jones in that his holes bore little resemblance to the architecture of the rest of the course. He tells a story about confronting the renowned architect on the property and asking him if he had bothered to look at the rest of the course! Ken’s feelings were echoed almost 40 years later when every architect we interviewed commented on the incongruity between the first five holes and the other 13. I don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that the Cal Club ceased to be a very fine golf course. Quite the contrary, we hosted the 1971 USGA Senior Amateur and numerous USGA and NCGA qualifying events where the course always stood up well to the best players. The club also was on the Golfweek Classic 100 list at #92, but subsequently fell off.
Years of deferred maintenance, cost cutting, and amateur tinkering began to erode the grandeur of the original design.
Apart from Jones’s work, how else did the course move away from its Golden Age roots?
All clubs have been subject to the vagaries of the economy over the years and people with the best of intentions can make some awful decisions, especially in a committee. I can recall a movement in the 1970’s to remove bunkers after there was a paper outlining the annual cost of maintaining each bunker. In our case, many of MacKenzie’s bunkers were eliminated by asphalt cart paths. We have six contiguous fairways on our back nine and an aerial photo showed these ribbons of asphalt impacting the flow of the course as more and more people got away from walking. The remaining bunkers lost much of their original shape over time as well. Around 1991, it was decided that our water storage facility on the high ground of our property was insufficient, and some lakes were proposed to remedy this situation. This issue was hotly debated and a vote ensued. By a narrow margin, the lake proponents prevailed and installed two lakes near our 11th and 18th greens. It is unclear how much architectural input was solicited, but the lakes were out of character with the course and were quite unattractive and unnatural looking with asphalt edges. So much for the amateur tinkering.
Nature had also taken its toll on the course. The original site was farmland. Many Cypress and pine were planted and soon the course was very heavily wooded and penal. The trees were so thick that it was difficult to see the group on an adjacent fairway. Tree trimming is perhaps the most expensive maintenance on a golf course, so thus you have the deferred maintenance I mentioned. As we all have learned, these beautiful trees also deprive the fairways of needed sunlight and render the course extremely wet through the winter months even in an area that typically receives less than 20 inches of rainfall annually. In 1997-98 we removed approximately 1,800 trees which had a salutary effect on the fairways going forward.
What drove the push for change in the first decade of twenty-first century?
The impetus for grand change at our club may be credited to a microscopic worm like creature, the nematode! More accurately, it is a specific nematode, Anguina pacificae, which is distributed along a narrow strip on the Pacific coast of Northern California. This pest is a problem wherever there are poa annua greens. Their attacks are more prevalent in winter, but they can strike throughout the year, especially when the greens are stressed by maintenance procedures or weather. The preferred method of dealing with nematode infestation was a chemical known as Nemacure. In 2007, this chemical was no longer approved for use in California. This situation created a deadline by which to convert the greens to bent grass. This allowed us to start the conversation.
Moreover, the other clubs in the area with which we compete for members had engaged in improvement plans of varying degrees during the heady economic times of the late 1990’s. Lake Merced Golf Club (1922) engaged Rees Jones for extensive remodeling of their greens complexes, tees, some fairway regrading and irrigation system. The Peninsula Golf & CC, a Donald Ross gem, retained Ron Forse for a complete restoration including a sand cap on all fairways. San Francisco GC replaced their greens and Olympic Club makes constant improvements to their courses. It was time for Cal Club to act and a committee was formed to consider the scope of work and interview architects.
What happened next?
In 2005 our committee interviewed 9 architects in a first round and 5 in a second round as we grappled with the question of how much work we wanted to accomplish and how much we could afford. Walking our course and talking to these accomplished men about golf history and architecture was an experience we all treasured. They were all such nice people that our regret was that only one would get the job. It soon became apparent that while replacing greens started the conversation, the course needed much more modernization to its infrastructure to be viable, even without changes to the routing. Mr. Venturi attended several meetings and cautioned about doing too little and then requiring serial fixes for years to come. At an evening meeting with the general membership prior to a vote, Ken stood shoulder to shoulder with Kyle Phillips and told us, “You get one chance to do this, and you don’t get a mulligan.” But that is getting way ahead of the story as Ken’s words of wisdom were the culmination of a passionate debate about the project over a period of approximately 12 months.
The committee had asked each candidate to address what many felt was the congested feeling of the 1966 work, and almost all complied. All but Phillips! Instead, he had a more global approach to the entire property and challenged us to think about a much more expansive plan that made use of a 17 acre hill which was mostly a site for organic refuse. After his second meeting with the committee, a member (and former tour player) turned to the group and said, ‘Is there any doubt this is our guy?” It was apparent to us that Kyle not only had the experience ( 50 courses in the UK & Europe including Kingsbarns) to do a great job, but also possessed the maturity and presence to deal with the membership in what would become some very emotional meetings. There were 14 holes remaining from the original design.
The boldness (and controversy) of the Phillips plan was to abandon the original eighth hole and make it our driving range and use the 17 acre hill for a new seventh hole. This allowed him to design an opening four holes on the same amount of real estate that previously held five holes plus a driving range, thus giving the front nine the same grand scale of the holes on the back nine and the playing characteristics lost in 1966. As all institutions are resistant to change, Cal Club was no exception. Moving the range from a location just a few convenient yards from the first tee to 400 yards away was quite contentious even though our range was sandwiched between holes one and two with a slice wind and a danger to golfers on both holes.
I learned through this process that people like Kyle (as well as the other professionals) can see things with one walk around the property that even long time members cannot envision. I believe that the quality of the finished project is due not only to a great architect, but also the fact that there was no attempt to micromanage his efforts by any committee or officers. Additionally, Kyle’s design associate, Mark Thawley, had written his master’s thesis on the restoration of classic golf courses. These two gentlemen gave us a golf course that not only put us back on the Classic 100 list (currently #35), but now finds us in the U.S. top 100 list from GOLF Magazine.
Was this a restoration or renovation?
As to whether it was a restoration or renovation, there are 13 original holes restored as per a 1938 aerial photo, and 5 holes designed by Phillips that look like they’ve been there 100 years. Further, Kyle’s vision was to enhance the experience from the moment one drives on the property, which he accomplished, in spades. Our pro shop, previously surrounded by asphalt drives, is now all green, reminiscent of Cypress Point with a putting green at the front door and the first tee just steps away.
I mentioned that our course, and many others, had suffered what I call “amateur tinkering” over the years. There is no shortage of golf architects at any club, public or private. Immediately upon opening, one could hear conversations in our grill about how this member or that would modify Kyle’s work. We did something that I would suggest other clubs consider. Kyle Phillips is an honorary member. Further, we maintain a log book to record any work done on the course such as tree trimming, planting, path routing, etc. Kyle signs off on all of these activities as he continues to advise us with ongoing issues such as the eventual placement of a new maintenance facility. It is my hope that his continued involvement will assure that the integrity of his work will endure.
In addition to the design controversy, some members had reservations about the scope of the project being too ambitious and costly. The year was 2006, and while the economy had not collapsed, the golf boom was on the decline. Many of these members were friends of many years and thoughtful people who were opposed to incurring debt. Friends can agree to disagree and it was our side’s position that only a bold plan would attract new members in a competitive environment and that, long term, a waiting list is the most valuable asset any club can have.
When the Phillips plan was endorsed by a strong majority, we then hired Oliphant Golf Construction. Mike Oliphant and his project manager Jason Nau were terrific and I couldn’t recommend any firm more highly. The fact that Oliphant has been on retainer to the Pebble Beach corporation for over a dozen years speaks for itself. The plan called for completely blowing up a course in the middle of an urban environment. Some five thousand truck loads of sand were imported to the property. When the property that had been our beautiful course was all brown dirt, it seemed impossible that the task could be accomplished in that space hemmed in by streets and houses. It should be noted that our neighbors were impacted by dust and noise for the duration but were very patient and supportive, for which they deserve our gratitude.
Another challenge for Oliphant was our insistence that our regular maintenance crew assume a part of his contract. We have a regular crew of 16. One fellow has been with us since 1966 and more than eight others have 20+ years tenure. We did not want to lay off these loyal employees and also felt that they deserved to have ownership in the finished product. I am grateful to Mike and Jason for going along with this plan. In looking back, I am continually amazed that the project was completed in 15 months from April 2007 to July of 2008, and it might have been quicker if not for a front end delay of a grading permit and a freak October storm that wiped out several newly seeded fairways.
A friend who had been the president of Peninsula Club during their restoration told me that I’d never look at a golf course quite the same way again after this experience. Boy, was he right! We started with a huge drainage sub-structure (in some cases six feet deep), then a fine network of herringbone drainage 20 ft. on center on every fairway covered with 4 inches of new sand blended to a depth of 8-10 inches to create a sand gradient versus a pure sand cap. This unique approach was done with the able counsel of Dave Wilber, our agronomist who was with us at every crucial step. Almost 70% of the total costs are under the ground where no golfer can see. This includes those five thousand truckloads of sand tilled into our existing soils, millions of feet of drain line tied into the deep trenches and a state of the art Toro irrigation system. Having seen the effort underground that has produced our unique playing surfaces, I realize that it would have been folly to just attempt the above ground work of rebuilding greens and bunkers for the sake of an inexpensive facelift.
Going with more heirloom types of turf, namely fine fescue grasses, was certainly a bold decision. What do the new fescue fairways mean to the overall playability of the course? Hopefully the members appreciate the greater ground game options afforded them?
In addition to the design and fine construction work, the agronomic decisions by Kyle and our agronomist, Dave Wilber, have created a golf course that it unique to this geographic area. While most of our neighbors have converted to bent grass greens, they have continued with perennial rye in the fairways. Kyle specified a blend of three fine fescues (Chewings, Creeping red fescue and slender red fescue) mixed with Colonial bent grass. The roughs have straight fine fescue blend, with the borders utilizing more regional and non manicured varieties of fine fescue.
Our superintendent (of the year!) Thomas Bastis keeps the course as lean and dry as possible, appreciating that a golf course is a living organism constantly in flux as grasses are maintained to stressful tolerances. We knew it would be a challenge to encourage fescues over poa annua and to keep the poa out of the greens. In 2009 Thomas availed himself of the agronomic expertise of Marc Logan and his firm, Greenway Golf. Marc is a native of Australia having worked extensively in the Sand Belt. Those of you who saw the recent President’s Cup may have noticed the dark hues of their greens. Our greens are similar due to the proprietary protocols employed by Greenway to change the PH of the soil to a state that favors bent over poa. With Marc’s input we also continue to improve those areas where we can enhance drainage and soil profile to once again make the fecues more competitive. It would be the kiss of death for any of us in Northern California to say we’ve conquered or eradicated poa. However, under Marc Logan’s guidance the grasses we desire are getting stronger with each season.
For much of the year we have links golf in San Francisco, which is truly remarkable. Just as people marvel at the links of Scotland and now Bandon Dunes, golf is infinitely more interesting to a greater number of golfers when there is a ground game. I believe our members have enjoyed learning the many options they have approaching the greens. If there is one aspect we all find challenging it is 144 bunkers that seem to swallow any ball rolling within a few yards. During a tour of the course one week prior to opening, Ron Whitten of Golf Digest told me that Kyle had produced the most authentic MacKenzie bunker recreations he had seen. More recently in September, Ian Baker-Finch pronounced Cal Club the “best re-do” he had seen, reminding him of his favorite, Kingston Heath. These accolades from people who know the game convince me that we did the right thing.
The course re-opened back for play in 2008. The economy shortly soured and has lurched about ever since. Any regrets in spending the sum of money that you did?
It is unfortunate that the economy tanked just months after opening, but in spite of this current environment we continue to attract fine new members who appreciate a truly great golf course. The club was founded after WW I and moved to this location during the roaring twenties, which, I imagine, was not too dissimilar from our tech boom of the 1990’s. The club has survived the Great Depression, WWII and subsequent economic ups and downs. We are in an area that although small in population, has several courses in close proximity considered to be among the best in the world. I can think of eight courses from the golden age, and that’s before you get to Pasatiempo, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach. It is also fortunate that this is an area of resurgent economic activity, thanks again to the tech sector. I am confident that we will reach our goal of a waiting list in the not too distant future.
What are you most proud of as you tour the course now?
Apart from the end result and how well the course both looks and plays, I am also extremely proud of the fact that we did not lay off any of our loyal employees despite a closed golf course for 15 months and no other country club amenities, save lunch and a chipping area. Our inside people were cross trained by our engineer to prepare our club house for paint once the new grass was established.
My Scots father taught me the game at an early age. His simple tenet, play the course as you find it, play the ball as you find it, leave the course better than you found it. We have to respect the game and the fields on which it is played. To have had some influence over the restoration of Cal Club after 37 years of enjoyment, is leaving the course better then you found it writ large and perhaps my proudest accomplishment.
What advice would you offer to other Green Committees and Club Boards that are considering embarking on work on their Golden Age course?
You may need a flak jacket! If the results promise anything like ours, it will be worth the work and strain on relationships that are unavoidable in a proprietary club environment. The committee process is valuable, but can be tedious for the strong personalities found in clubs. If you have sufficient time to build consensus (we didn’t), then cast a wide net for members of disparate views to interact with the architect and then carry the message to their individual circles of influence. You should take a very long term view regarding the financial aspect of these costly projects. Golf, and especially private golf, is a luxury that does not stand up to a short term cost benefit analysis. There are golfers who will pay the premium for quality. Building a course that your grandchildren will enjoy should be the paradigm.