Prospecting for the best public golf in San Francisco
The sense of discovery. It's what I appreciate most about life as a travel editor. So imagine my surprise when I recently excavated impressive and affordable golf in my back yard. Born and raised in the Bay Area, I grew up reading about San Francisco's legends of the game: Ken Venturi, Sandy Tatum, Harvie Ward and Johnny Miller, to name a few. But I honed my mediocrity an hour north, on the links of Sonoma County, not Harding, Presidio, Lincoln or Sharp -- "city" courses located within 30 minutes of each other. After 16 years in New York, I came back to San Francisco in March and discovered those four. "They all serve different purposes," says Glen Yang, a 10-handicapper with a scratch short game who has been playing in the city for seven years. "It depends on the kind of day you want to have, and it depends on how much you're willing to spend."
If Yang wants a serious round with avid golfers, he goes to Harding or Presidio. If he wants a more casual round with his wife, who doesn't like to spend a lot of money on golf and likes to play fast, he goes to Lincoln or Sharp.
Personally, I left my heart at Harding Park. If you have time for only one round, play here. It has a bigger maintenance budget than the other two city-owned courses (Lincoln and Sharp), so it tends to be in the best shape. Carts are limited to paths, but the terrain is fairly flat, and there's little distance between greens and tees, so I suggest you walk. It's what most of the locals do. They also tune out the sounds from the nearby gun club, the high school marching band and the barking coxswains from the crew teams rowing on neighboring Lake Merced. "You definitely get used to playing with noise," says Ian Levine, who has been playing Harding for three years. Levine and other locals have learned to share the course with the track teams running through, or the jamboree of juniors prancing to The First Tee driving range, which is near the Fleming 9, a par-30 course ($26 during the week, $31 on weekends). At the end of the day, which is a nice time to play, Harding might sound and seem chaotic, but it's actually poetry in the form of pure public golf. It's also where Tiger Woods beat John Daly in a playoff at the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, where the U.S. beat the Internationals in the '09 Presidents Cup, and where the Champions Tour's Charles Schwab Cup has been played the past two years. Not unlike the business model of golf in Europe, green fees favor the loyal locals ($47 during the week, $61 on weekends) and ding out-of-towners ($150 during the week, $170 on weekends), but by the time you get to the last six holes, you won't be thinking about the cost, you'll be wishing you brought a camera.
TPC Harding Park is the pride of public golf in the Bay Area.
If Harding is the best of the bunch, then Presidio is next in line. With all of the elevation changes and various views of the city, it's picturesque. What it's not? Easy. From the back tees it says 6,414 yards. Unless you're a legitimate single-digit handicapper, move up to the white tees. And unless you're in great shape, take a cart ($125 during the week, $145 on weekends). As the starter will tell you, 13 of the 18 holes have elevated greens, and the course, especially in the heavy Bay Area air, plays 500 yards longer than listed.
After Presidio, and especially after Harding, there's a big drop-off in maintenance budgets, but Lincoln Park and Sharp Park are just as rich in history.
Lincoln would be my choice if I had to pick between the two. The price is the same for both (nonresident fee is $37 during the week, $41 on weekends), but Lincoln offers the 17th hole. It's a 240-yard par 3 with an elevated tee and a prevailing wind at your back. The ensuing shot becomes an afterthought as you cross the road and navigate the steep cartpath from the 16th green. Assuming you have a clear day, behold what is one of the best views of arguably the greatest bridge on earth, the Golden Gate. While locals and tourists might be picnicking along the edges of the fairway, you might be inclined to hit a few old balls into the Pacific Ocean. Just don't top one: There's a footpath below the tee box, which is often occupied by the innocent. If you're hungry, stop at the snack shack that time forgot. If you're pressed for time, Lincoln offers a back-nine rate ($12 during the week, $17 on weekends).
Which brings us to Sharp Park. Entangled in a legal battle with environmentalists over red-legged frogs and garter snakes, the course has its next trial date in July. Sharp Park, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, was designed by the same icon of architecture who's responsible for Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. Granted, much of Alister Mackenzie's design has been lost to land erosion and a lack of proper attention, but if you're after a unique experience with authentic avid golfers, and you're willing to look the other way when it comes to the condition of the greens, Sharp could benefit from your business. "The bar here is like 'Cheers,' " says Allan Eisenberg, who plays the course twice a week. And on the subject of the environmental controversy, he shares a common sentiment: "I've yet to see a frog, and the only snake I've ever seen was in a hawk's mouth, and that was 20 years ago."