January 26, 2009

Under Attack In San Francisco

Rounds are down, revenue's down and the pressure to convert Lincoln and Sharp to alternative uses is growing. How much of the problem is the economy and how much is opponents opportunity?

Can this view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Lincoln Park survive politics and money?

Can this view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Lincoln Park survive politics and money?

SAN FRANCISCO -- Standing on the tee at the peaceful par three 17th hole at Lincoln Park Golf Course, it actually is a clear day. So you can see forever, an unbroken line of sight that includes a sweeping view of the entire expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering in the sunlight. It looks close enough to touch. But even here on the elevated teeing ground, in this green, leafy, showroom for public golf, there are others who see something quite different.

Like a special events center. Hiking and biking trails. Maybe even a soccer field.

Rounds at the city-owned and managed Lincoln are down about 15 percent, according to some estimates, the result of a virtual rally-killing double-play combination -- bad economy to city politics to real estate potential of one of the most eye-catching locations in the city. Lincoln Park, the city's oldest and most scenic course, is at risk, proof that the effects of an economic recession can be multi-dimensional.

Richard Harris, a leader of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, is trying to keep not only Lincoln Park, but also the Alister MacKenzie-designed and city-owned Sharp Park, from getting lost forever in the shuffle.

"The buzzards are circling," Harris said. "The first golf courses that get lost are on the most valuable property."

Isabel Wade, executive director of the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council, said the city should weigh the merits of using the land occupied by nine holes of Lincoln for activities other than golf. She mentioned bike trails, possibly a site for soccer, and specifically construction of a center for weddings and special events. Wade said she has been told such an events center could command rental fees as high as $10,000 a night.

"At the end of the day, we have to be fair," Wade said. "Golf usage has been going down, and it's not just the recession."

Out on the 13th green, Dave Reed sized up his putt, as part of his six-man regular Wednesday game. It was almost noon, but according to the starter's sheet, there weren't more than three dozen players on the course.

"The economy has taken its toll," Reed said. "We're out here every week and all I know is it's a lot emptier than it used to be. It's eerie. I think people are just nervous. They're thinking 'I feel like I've got to trim back something,' so they play only a couple times a month instead of twice a week."

Richard Thomas showed up by himself, the way he likes to tackle Lincoln, where he caddied as a kid, and sold golf balls he found for 25 cents apiece. Thomas said it's clear that economic hard times have hit Lincoln.

"We tend to try to forget that stuff out here, but it's difficult. I'm 61, it's hard, but the economy has changed everything. I'd hate to see this place go. At times, you call it Stinkin' Lincoln, but we love it."

It wasn't always like this. Stretching only 5,146 yards with a par of 68, the hilly Outer Richmond District course was designed by Jack Neville, the architect who also drew the routing at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller, Bob Rosberg, George Archer and most of the big names in local golf played Lincoln, which was the city's traditional home of high school and junior golf. Archer honed his putting on the practice greens, often at night under the glow of the streetlights, and the green is named after him. The San Francisco Junior, one of the country's oldest junior tournaments, was held here. Seniors and women's clubs remain active at Lincoln.

But as money started to dry up, the extent of the city's funds grew shorter for the Recreation and Park Department, and maintenance at each of the city-owned courses sagged. According to Harris, any decline in rounds played is the direct result of the neglect in maintenance and a lack of management. He said the city's municipal courses have been the subject of a study three times in the last three years.

Sharp Park: 15th hole

"All the studies say, in so many words, that the city of San Francisco does not well manage its golf courses," Harris said.

At Lincoln, there is a maze of gopher mounds on many of the fairways, as well as bogs created by leaky sprinklers and when it's dry, there are areas of browned out grass in places where the water was shut off to stop leaks. Lance Wong, who runs the pro shop, is on a month-to-month lease, hardly the type of arrangement to encourage investment to lead to remodeling and renovation. Meanwhile, playing Lincoln remains a bargain. Monday through Thursday, it's $21 with a city resident card, or $34 without one. Carts cost $26. On the weekends, city residents with a card can play for $26.

And that view at the 17th tee, you get it for free.

Phil Dindia is Reed's father in law and said he's been playing Lincoln for about 25 years by his estimation. He said he's hurt to see Lincoln in such a state, its future so uncertain. He figures there must be other courses in the same state, and he's right. At historic Sharp, one of several public MacKenzie courses in Northern California, the battle is over whether to spend up $11 million for improvements suggested in one of the studies or to forget it and turn the place into a tidal swamp to protect local species of garter snake and red-legged frog.

At Lincoln, the same study said it's only being played to 44.8 percent of its capacity, short of the accepted industry average of about 60 percent.

Dindia has noticed.

"Used to be, you couldn't get on the course, everybody was back-to-back. We haven't seen anyone in front of us since we got here. It's got to be the bad economy. And this place is so special, it's all such a shame. If you had a bad day, you didn't care a bit. That's because everywhere you looked, every scene was terrific. It was like, well, one, big postcard."

The ardent admirers of Lincoln Park like to call the view of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge and the mouth of San Francisco Bay at the 17th tee the 'money shot.' All you have to do is stand there and you can see why. But the way things are going around here these days, that's an apt description in a lot more ways than one.

Thomas Bonk is Golf Digest Digital's Writer-at-Large.