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California Golf Club

After a brilliant restoration, this rolling layout that Alister Mackenzie left his mark on reassumes its place in the pantheon of great bay area courses

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in Summer 2012 LINKS

Straddling opposite sides of Lake Merced, San Francisco Golf Club and U.S. Open host The Olympic Club have rightfully earned their reputations as the city’s best courses. But seven miles to the southeast, there’s another club that is every bit their equal after a $13 million renovation: California Golf Club of San Francisco. In 2007–8 Kyle Phillips restored the course to its Golden Age splendor when Alister MacKenzie redid all the bunkers and a few of the greens.

“Before when people came to San Francisco they thought  of just two courses—Olympic and San Francisco,” says Phillips, whose other credits include Kingsbarns and Dundonald in Scotland, and Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. “But now, mainly through word of mouth, there’s another one that people are saying, ‘We’ve got to check this out.’ It’s been very gratifying.”

What visitors find are long-range views of the Bay Area, stunning bunkering, and rolling terrain with firm-and-fast conditions. Unlike most other layouts in coastal California where spongy poa and sticky kikuyu dominate, Cal Club features fine fescue and colonial bent fairways and bentgrass greens that allow the ground game to flourish.

“The firm and fast conditions, which I’m very fond of, having spent most of my career in Scotland, England, and Ireland, have greatly influenced the way I think about golf,”
says Phillips. “There’s a different level of excitement about the game than on this side of the pond where the ball splashes down softly. It’s great to see Cal Club embrace the idea of firm and fast.”

Although Phillips created five new holes on the front, it’s hard to distinguish between his design and the original course created by Willie Locke and A. Vernon Macan in 1926 and MacKenzie just two years later. Due to an eminent domain land grab to make way for a new road, the club lost the 1st green and entire 2nd hole in 1966. It hired Robert Trent Jones to squeeze the first five holes into the remaining land, but the congested routing fit neither the style nor scale of the others.

The goal of Phillips’s redesign was twofold: relieve the congestion on the opening holes and restore the MacKenzie style of bunkering. He achieved the former by building a new 7th hole—a sweeping downhill cape—on 17 acres of vacant land in the middle of the course and by moving the driving range. He accomplished the latter by studying a 1938 aerial of the course, as well as some photos taken during MacKenzie’s work, including an ad for his American Golf Course Construction Co. that ran in American Golfer in 1928.

During its heyday, the course attracted the top players in the area, including Ken Venturi, who became a member in 1954 when he was working for Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet’s caddie in the 1913 U.S. Open and 1947 Cal Club president. Says Venturi: “All the big matches were there.”

With no tee times or crowds to fight as at Olympic, Cal Club is once again attracting the area’s best players, many of whom use the 60 push carts the club bought to encourage  walking.

MacKenzie would feel right at home.                                            

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