July 13, 2009

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

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).

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).

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.

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.

"Mackenzie did things at Sharp he didn't do anywhere else," says Links, who has won the last two Golf World Lido Design contests, named after the famed Country Life magazine contest that launched Mackenzie's career in 1914.

The original Sharp Park layout included two stunning multi-option fairway holes incorporating the now-controversial Laguna Salada, which has shrunk due to silt build- up. The fascinating par-4 fifth (current 17th) teed off from an island tee while the two-shot 10th (current 14th) paid homage to the original contest-winning Lido hole. More than $400,000 was spent to fill areas around the Laguna with beach sand and top soil, including, by Mackenzie's estimate, $200,000 for one hole.

While Sharp did suffer highly publicized early flooding and turf issues due to salty irrigation water, Plater's assertion that a coastal storm destroyed "all seven oceanfront holes six years after the course opened" is in question. Several aerial photographs from 1941 show all 18 still in play along with the trademark Mackenzie details that defined masterworks such as Cypress Point, Augusta National and Pasatiempo: quirky green shapes, approximately 50 carefully sculpted bunkers giving the impression of erosion and the trademark use of camouflage-inspired mounding. Six holes brought the Laguna into play.

Sharp Park fell into the same resource-deprived disrepair that plagued many Golden Age courses during World War II. It was tweaked by Robert Muir Graves in 1972 and suffered more damage in a 1982 flood, which led to a seawall that kept brackish water out while guaranteeing the fresh water required for garter snakes and red-legged frogs to survive.

Newspaper reports compared the April 16, 1932, opening-day yardage of 6,123 yards to the Old Course's 6,189 tally. Egan even pronounced Sharp Park a "worthy imitation of the classic course" at St. Andrews. Perhaps only H.S. Colt's Timber Point or C.B. Macdonald's Lido designs trumped Sharp Park for sheer creativity and audacity. Certainly no municipal-course design has ever come close to matching the overall package of beauty and affordable links-style golf. (The initial $1 weekend green fee works out to about $15 in modern dollars. Residents currently pay $26 on weekends.)

Sharp Park achieved Mackenzie's dream of using cheap municipal golf to "help enormously in increasing the health, the virility and the prosperity of nations." While today's design features 12 of the original green complexes in deteriorated form, Mackenzie would surely embrace Sharp Park's continued affordability, accessibility and friendly atmosphere.

Even the look produced by an outdated irrigation system and minimal maintenance resources—a six-man union crew mowing greens daily and fairways once a week—might delight Mackenzie, who wrote in The Spirit of St. Andrews that there was "great charm in the varying shades of color on a golf course" and a layout consisting "of one shade of green would be merely ugly."

Much of Sharp's multicolored look stems from its move to organic practices, dating to 1998 as part of a city-mandated program to wean parks from pesticides. As of June 1 this year, the course moved to an entirely organic program, believed to make it one of only a handful of such courses in the world.

Since 2005 the Laguna and rain-drenched fairways have not been pumped to protect the red-legged frog's annual egg-laying. As for the garter snake, Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity's San Francisco's office says the colorful serpent has been negatively impacted by a combination of mowing accidents and herbicide applications. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, there has been one documented case of a mower killing a garter snake; Miller cites a consultant's report which concluded mowing is an ongoing threat.

Miller and the Center suggest the use of herbicides with the active ingredient Dicamba continue to constitute the "activities" killing the species, prompting the center's September 2008 press release (which also cited pumping and mowing practices) threatening a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco. But Parks and Recreation golf division manager Sean Sweeney notes the city last used a newer weed-control formula July 9, 2008, and it contained just 00.70 percent Dicamba. Subsequently, natural products have been used. Miller says it was "news" to him that Sharp Park had gone organic.

Former Sharp Park superintendent Dan Briesach, who still plays the course once a week and sits on Pacifica's Open Space Committee, is not surprised. "They're making a lot of assumptions," Briesach says of the Center. "I understand the need for habitat restoration; I don't understand the need to be belligerent about it."

Club president and retired school principal Dave Diller says Sharp Park golfers cover the spectrum of age, race and ability, enjoying the stunning surroundings, mature Monterey Cypress and sea breezes. That prompts his outrage at the "injustice" of the battle against his home course, where he has watched in frustration as neglect of the course's main water feature has heightened drainage problems.

The course still logs between 50,000 and 60,000 rounds a year. Thanks to month-to-month operator Mark Duane's efforts, it takes in an impressive $1 million in food and beverage gross revenue at the charming Angus McSweeney-designed clubhouse. (McSweeney was a disciple of Bay Area master architect, Willis Polk.)

Opponents of Sharp Park's existence as a golf course insist it is a huge financial drain on the city, but according to a Dec. 17, 2008, report from city controller Ben Rosenfeld, the course has been profitable twice since 2004 when course-by-course income and expenses began to be detailed. Sharp Park is annually charged with "overhead" figures that include "inter-departmental transfers" and "general fund support." Such mysterious figures prompted former supervisor Jake McGoldrick to say, "We have an accounting problem here; we don't necessarily have a golfer problem."

Loma Prieta Sierra Club member Mike Ferreira says Sharp Park provides a "hell of an opportunity" to show that golf and endangered species can co-exist and contends the economic argument is unfair in light of the city's massive deficits and the course's relatively minor losses. "Some of the folks are trying to use the financial side of this to leverage their other agenda," Ferreira says. "I find that hugely irritating. It's amazing how many alleged 'enviros' are suddenly sounding like Howard Jarvis."

Recently retired San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council head Isabel Wade has also been lobbying for Sharp Park's closure, telling radio station KQED that golf is "predominantly a white sport" and not "a family-oriented sport that you do with other folks." She has been lobbying to use Sharp Park to make up for the city's shortage of soccer fields, skate parks and hiking trails, even though the property is outside of San Francisco city limits. Miller confirms that city-adoption of the Parks Council solutions—if they involve environmentally sensitive areas—could invite the same legal threats. Wade did not return repeated calls for comment from Golf World.

Ultimately the debate transcends soccer fields, critters and city limits. Despite Sharp Park's egalitarian atmosphere, the course appears to be a victim of a long-festering disdain for what golf represents.

As co-founder of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, attorney Richard Harris has slowly allied golfers into a united front after early friction. In 2000 he thwarted his alma mater Stanford University's plan to convert holes at its course into faculty housing. A self-described "enviro" who got his start in politics fighting an Army Corps of Engineer dam project on California's Mad River, Harris finds himself defending the sport he loves.

"Golf has historically been attacked by people who have seen golfers as subversive of socially useful activities, such as church-going and military service," Harris says. "We face the same kind of opposition today. Something like religious intolerance is at work in the most zealous opposition to golf. Dedicated golfers—like dedicated surfers, or rock-climbers or fly-fishermen—are nature worshipers. And our most zealous opponents are those who think they have the one true religion."