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Protecting A California Treasure

The fight over Sharp Park isn't just about saving one golf course, but muny golf overall

March 18, 2017

Playing a lot of golf at a muny will stay with a golfer. All that grittiness gets under the skin. Munys are more formative, more flawed, more fun, more real. If a sit-com ever uses golf as a backdrop, it’s main set should be a muny-course pro shop.

So when a muny, especially one with history in a big city, gets threatened, even the most escapist golfers can be roused. Instead of complaining about the greens and the drainage and range mats, they realize how much they’d miss the $30 green fee and all the camaraderie if it disappeared. They become attuned to how munys are about affordability and accessibility and diversity and being the best entry point for beginners and especially kids. Basically the spirit of St. Andrews. It’s a good exercise, especially if it translates to the kind of activism a beset muny needs to stay alive.

Last month, the golfers of Sharp Park G.C. in Pacifica, Calif.—along with all the muny devotees following the battle for the survival of the worn but beautiful Alistair MacKenzie creation against environmentalists—were able to celebrate. By a 9 to 1 vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors certified an environmental impact report favorable to the continuing operation of the linksy 85-year-old layout set next to the Pacific Ocean by the city of San Francisco. The plan approved the modification of three holes for the purpose of enhancing the habitat for the endangered San Francisco garter snake and the protected California red-legged frog. Most important, the document formally validated long-overlooked Sharp Park as a historic resource in a city full of them.

Brad Knipstein

The 17th green at Sharp Park, outside San Francisco, with famed Mori Point in the distance.

“Now the wind is at our back,” proclaimed San Francisco attorney Bo Links, who, along with fellow attorney and golf aficionado Richard Harris, have shouldered the legal defense of Sharp Park, pro bono, since 2007. Links then added soberly, “We’ve made the turn. Now we start on the back nine.”

Does this mean another 10 years before the dream of Sharp Park as a restored MacKenzie gem is realized? Well, trying to preserve municipal golf courses against the forces of commerce, culture and ideological agendas is hard work. The enemy is everywhere. Realtors, recreation minded community leaders and adherents of open space all covet the land. And the special interests know there is blood in the water as golf continues yearly to lose more courses than it is building.

RELATED: What's best for Sharp Park?

San Francisco has long been a center of the environmental movement, those zealots have focused on Sharp in hopes of establishing a precedent that will lead to more golf-course closures. Alleging that golf-maintenance practices at Sharp are killing frogs and snakes (Sharp’s proponents counter that the course ecosystem has helped the species thrive), litigious heavyweights like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have employed the playbook of repeated lawsuits and appeals to engage the slow machinery of government and the court system, and outlast the course’s defenders. To date, three environmentalist lawsuits and an appeal have been dismissed, thanks in part to legal help from the San Francisco litigation firm of Morrison & Foerster.

Munys are vulnerable targets. City coffers are still recovering from the Great Recession, making the upkeep of golf courses seem less viable, especially when rounds are down. But because the golf lovers who are defending the munys know that if one falls, it could start a domino effect, they are fighting back with every asset at their disposal.

At Lions Municipal G.C. in Austin, where the University of Texas regents have contemplated not renewing in 2019 the city’s lease for the 141-acre course, which has served golfers including Harvey Penick and Tom Kite since 1934. Instead, the regents would convert the land into a major commercial and residential development. But the most famous player to grow up on the course, Ben Crenshaw, is passionately engaged in a proposal that would restore the original routing and build a new clubhouse and driving range. The plan has a better chance since the course was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the site of an important act of desegregation in 1950 when two African-American youths were allowed to play.

Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, Calif., is a scruffy patch of hilly land where apparel designer John Ashworth played high-school matches. In 2014, he mobilized to save the 64-year-old course from being turned into soccer fields by taking over the lease from the city and pledged $3.6 million in private funds—raised from sources including Bill Murray, Mark Wahlberg and Kelly Slater—to completely renovate the course. Goat Hill is now an admirable model of sustainable golf, with a new irrigation system using recycled water to serve a 4,800-yard par 65, and a California casual vibe that features audible music and no dress code. “Our place is about fun golf, and especially for a beginner to really feel the game for the first time,” Ashworth says. “All of us who are fighting for munys support each other, and know that whenever a project like this succeeds, it helps public golf everywhere.”

Sharp Park’s fight has been led by two dogged romantics: Links, at 67 the author of five golf books and the two-time winner of the Lido Competition golf design contest, and Harris, 70, a former captain the Stanford golf team and teammate of Tom Watson who has never belonged to a private club and plays most of his golf at Sharp.

An important part of their strategy in representing Sharp is to publicly emphasize the authenticity of the course’s regulars as predominantly working class or retired, with a large minority contingent that is mostly Asian, and women making up more than 20 percent of the players. The goal is to refute any characterization of Sharp’s golfers fitting the stereotype of entitled patricians selfishly out of touch with their community and the environment. Aware of the urgency, Sharp’s golfers have written thousands of letters and emails to government officials, and shown up en masse at public meetings.

Brad Knipstein

A large part of Sharp Park advocates' argument to protect the course has been that it serves a diverse community of golfers.

A leader among the golfers is Sharp Park Women’s Club member Lisa Villasenor, “The course, the clubhouse, it’s our ‘Cheers,’ ” she said. “I told everybody, ‘If you guys want to see yellow tape around this clubhouse, that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t help.’ ”

The latest vote would suggest the help has helped swing the tide. But the battle for Sharp has been too long and winding for celebration to overtake continued vigilance. Still looming is a need to enhance the seawall that protects the course, and the bureaucratic challenges that will entail. Links and Harris have been conditioned to accept nothing will be easy.

RELATED: Sharp Park photo essay

“We’ve learned that golf, especially municipal golf in larger cities, is not inevitable,” Links says. “If they want to keep it, golfers will have to fight for it.”

On the website of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, which, in the event of Sharp’s survival, will be charged with raising the private money to fund the badly needed infrastructure renovation and a Tom Doak-led restoration, Links and Harris have issued a golfing call to arms entitled “Why We Fight.” It concludes:

“If a golf course with Sharp Park’s historic legacy and devoted multicultural clientele can be destroyed by a combination of anti-golf prejudice and over-aggressive use of the Endangered Species Act, no golf course is safe.”

A little overheated? Perhaps. But because golf needs to keep the muny in its soul, all golfers should care about the preservation of Sharp Park.


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