Sharply Divided

What's best for Sharp Park, a dandy Pacifica, Calif., muny designed by Alister Mackenzie? Conservation advocates, pro-golf locals have very different answers

Golf: Links, Lancelle, Harris

STAY THE COURSE: Links and self-described environmentalists Lancelle and Harris are working to keep Sharp Park a course (the par-3 12th, shown above).

July 20, 2009

Bo Links calls Alister MacKenzie's Sharp Park the golf architectural equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge. The lawyer and San Francisco Public Golf Alliance co-founder has played the oceanside muny since 1966 and makes the analogy based on the layout's arduous two-year construction window, the combination of complex engineering issues and an architectural lineage noteworthy even in a region that relishes its ties to esteemed architects.

"If the city of San Francisco owned a studio where Leonardo da Vinci worked, they wouldn't touch it," says Links. Yet in the accelerating dispute over Sharp Park's future pitting golfers, politicians, cities, counties, Sierra Club chapters, neighbors, soccer advocates and other constituents, even long-dead master golf architect Mackenzie has been slammed for architectural "hubris."

"The original McKenzie [sic] design was fundamentally flawed to begin with, and built in an inappropriate location to boot," writes Brent Plater, a San Francisco State environmental studies lecturer who wants to see Sharp Park shut down "for the good of the game." Plater told Golf World by e-mail how Sharp Park "is losing money, killing two endangered species, and puts the surrounding community at risk every year when it floods."

That community is Pacifica, a 40,000-strong beachside enclave known for progressive environmentalism and a bold open-space agenda. Yet the city has had little say in the 79-year-old course's future.

That responsibility rests with San Francisco and its Board of Supervisors, overseers of Sharp Park since 1917 when the land was bequeathed to the city for "recreational purposes." Though Pacifica has been shut out of the process, a last-minute move by pro-golf San Francisco supervisor Sean Elsbernd allows for transfer or joint management with Pacifica depending on the board's handling of a pending Park and Recreation study, which has a July 31 deadline. The report must offer solutions to restore habitat for the endangered California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake.

One option is Plater's vision for a golf-free Sharp Park—an idea supported by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a Tucson-based group that has litigated and won nearly 90 percent of the 500 suits over endangered species. Plater and the CBD hope to see the course converted into a biological preserve for "place based" nature education and then bequeathed to the neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).

One glitch: The federally controlled GGNRA issued a statement that it's "not likely" to accept the golf course and would only do so as a "gift," meaning San Francisco must spend millions converting the property into a preserve before giving it away. Prior to that scenario playing out, state law gives the city of Pacifica land-use jurisdiction, meaning San Francisco must receive a Coastal Development Permit from Pacifica for any change in "land use."

Pacifica mayor Julie Lancelle is a self-described progressive, environmental advocate and golfer who appreciates the "value of the sport as an activity for people of any age."

"It's been an interesting experience being on the other side of the discussion," says Lancelle, who, along with several environmentalists interviewed, is discouraged by the "hubris" of Plater and the Center for Biological Diversity.

"There could be serious impacts to the species if a wholesale re-structuring of the land use and forms takes place as they propose," Lancelle contends. "Species have histories. They adapt themselves to their surroundings. So while human beings may think they know what's best for species, I don't think that's always the case. The species have done well at this location under the current use, which limits human impact."

The CBD counters that while frogs and snakes are found at Sharp Park, their numbers are only a fraction of "historic [pre-golf course] levels."

A key target of Plater and the Center has been the architect of some of the world's greatest golf courses.


Sierra Club member Ferreira says opponents of preserving the course have exaggerated Sharp Park's financial state.

Fresh off Cypress Point and in the process of building Augusta National, Mackenzie was a Bay Area resident when hired to design Sharp Park by transplanted Scot John McLaren, San Francisco's answer to Central Park visionary Frederick Law Olmsted. McLaren devoted his storied life to public-park creation in the otherwise cramped city. His legacy of political savvy and landscape ingenuity produced the 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park, annually the most visited in the United States with 13 million visitors. McLaren planted more than two million trees during his reign, including at least 100,000 in and around Sharp Park where, according to Mackenzie, "we had the greatest assistance" from McLaren who helped "not only in the artistic planting of trees but in creating other delightful features."

As Sharp Park's project supervisor, McLaren worked with golf's most legendary course architect and the firm's legendary associates. Robert Hunter, author of The Links and co-designer of Cypress Point, came out of retirement to assist, while H. Chandler Egan, the former U.S. Amateur champion and Olympic golf gold medalist-turned- architect visited regularly just two years after his transformation of Pebble Beach. Even shaper-turned-architect Jack Fleming would become the first Sharp Park superintendent and eventual creator of four beautiful forest holes after damaged seaside holes were abandoned.

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