Golf in northern california is often defined by two words: Monterey Peninsula. And why not? The most famous course in the country, and possibly the world, Pebble Beach, is there, along with other esteemed courses like Spyglass and Cypress Point.
But just 90 miles to the north is another peninsula where a variety of less glamorous but more accessible and far less costly courses can be found. The public layouts on the San Francisco Peninsula run the gamut from parkland to links-style, from upscale to well-trodden munis. In some cases, recent renovation efforts have raised the level of playability to new highs, while for others an infusion of capital improvements would go a long way. Perhaps best of all, each of these venues can be reached in less than an hour's drive from the recently renovated San Francisco International Airport.
While the Peninsula itself reaches from San Francisco's bayfront downtown south to Palo Alto and the northern fringe of Silicon Valley, an excellent starting point on a circular tour of the area courses begins just south of the airport at Poplar Creek in San Mateo.
Originally built in 1933 as part of a post-Depression effort to create construction jobs, Poplar Creek is squeezed into 105 acres of flat land alongside Highway 101. One of the most-played venues on the Peninsula, the course was closed in April 1999 and completely plowed over save for the existing trees.
A new drainage system was then put in place to combat the bay mud underlying the course. Improvements also inlcuded four new lakes and two small waterfalls, and the removal of fencing previously required to separate some tee boxes and greens. Seven new holes were created from the old 18, and the formerly flat greens now all feature some degree of undulation and have almost doubled in size to an average of 5,500 feet. Total cost for the course changes and a new clubhouse came to $12 million, a far cry from the original $65,000 spent almost 70 years earlier. The money was put to good use, especially considering the limited space available.
Named for Poplar Creek, which runs through the southern side of the property, the course measures on the short side at just over 6,000 yards. On the front are three consecutive par fours under 300 yards.
Before you start counting your birdies however, you'll have to negotiate a sharply sloping green on the sixth, a tree guarding the green on the seventh and a multi-tiered green (the deepest on the course) guarded effectively by bunkers to the left at the eighth. The back nine is slightly shorter than the front with a trio of par threes (12, 15 and 17) and just one par five (14), the longest hole on the course at 537 yards.
The 11th, a 321-yard par four, forces you to either lay up short of a lake crossing the fairway or try to carry it before aiming for the well-bunkered green. The 12th is a par three that measures 210 yards, while the 17th is a par three where you'll be aiming at an entrance to Coyote Point Park directlybehind the green.
Another good value can be found by heading south down the Peninsula along Highway 101. As you enter the Palo Alto area, the Embarcadero Road exit off 101 gives you two choices: head west and you'll soon be at Stanford University, where an outstanding campus course has seen students like Tiger Woods, Casey Martin, Notah Begay and Tom Watson walk its fairways. But guests can only play it if accompanied by faculty, staff, student or alumni of the University. If you don't have the necessary connections, take that same exit off 101 and head east. You'll quickly come upon the Palo Alto Municipal Course, opened in 1956 and designed by Billy Bell, who managed the construction of the Stanford course in the 1930s.
Situated alongside the Palo Alto airport, the course features wide-open fairways and greens in surprisingly fair shape for the amount of play the course receives. The diverse crowd it attracts year-round means your foursome just may include a local teenager, an Internet executive and a retiree.
The majority of the holes here are long and straight with little variety, yet wind can add considerable length to a course already measuring close to 6,900 yards from the tips. An artificial turf driving range sits next to the 10th tee and fairway, which has the most pronounced dogleg on the entire course. Water comes into play only once here, on the 155-yard par three 11th, where the tee shots must carry a pond to the green. And don't get stuck behind the unusual tree trunk behind and to the right of the 14th green or a bogey will be a good score.
A golfing journey to any peninsula would fall short without a proper seaside course. So from Palo Alto, head north on Highway 101 and pick up Highway 92 heading west to the Pacific all the way to Half Moon Bay. This small town of approximately 11,000 retains much of its heritage as a quiet farming community. It's also home to two costly yet worthy courses at the Half Moon Bay Golf Links.
The Links Course here, opened in 1973 and redesigned in 1999 by Arthur Hills, is the older, longer, and more challenging of the two. While housing has sprouted up alongside many of the holes here over the years, none encroaches upon the 18th, a thrilling par four that sweeps along the coast from an elevated tee over 418 cliffside yards to the green.
Minor repair work and overall sprucing up on the back nine was completed last year, while the front nine is expected to reopen in April after undergoing similar work.
The Ocean course, which opened in 1997, features panoramic ocean views from most holes. The 10th, a par five over 500 yards, and the 15th, a par four, run parallel to a local farm where sugar peas and fava beans are harvested. The best views come on the par-four 16th, where an elevated tee box enables you to see far up the coastline on a clear day, and the 130-yard, par-three 17th, where anything remotely left of the green will plummet straight down to a rocky beach below.
Situated on a bluff that separates the 18th holes on each course here is a 261-room Ritz Carlton hotel, slated to open later this spring. While the structure will do wonders for the town's tax rates, it does little to enhance the unspoiled beauty of the coastline. And its close proximity to the two finishing greens may attract some unwanted visitors in the form of misplayed approach shots.
For a golf setting on the Peninsula that remains singularly natural, head back inland on Highway 92 and follow the signs for the Crystal Springs Golf Course, located adjacent to Highway 280. This is a course where the amount of wildlife you see will easily exceed the number of shots you take, no matter how high the score.
Located within the 32,000-acre Crystal Springs Watershed, a United Nations-designated International Biosphere Reserve, the course shares 18 holes with countless fawn and bucks, plus over 70 species of birds. The former appear unimpressed by humans, often crossing fairways, greens and even the driving range seemingly oblivious to the small white objects flying through the air around them.
A great view of the nearby 20-mile long Crystal Springs Reservoir comes on the tee of the par-four sixth, easily the most beautiful hole on the course. This fairway slopes downward and to the left, hopefully leaving a relatively short second shot from an uneven lie. The green slopes to the front left, so a back pin placement makes club selection all the more important. Moreover, the course's location on the side of the Buri Buri Ridge translates into uneven lies on virtually every fairway.
Opened in 1924 and designed by British architect Herbert Fowler, noted for his work at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, Crystal Springs has recently undergone a much-needed multi-million dollar renovation effort. Improved drainage and new design characteristics have helped, and a remodeled practice range is usually busy. Pace of play can creep along at times, but the setting provides a natural distraction.
Up the coast toward San Francisco on U.S. 1 sits the Peninsula's most famous course, the Olympic Club. Distinctive light-colored gates just off the highway guard the entrance to this vaunted private venue, which most recently hosted the 1999 U.S. Open won by Lee Janzen. Treasure a round here if you are fortunate enough to get on.
If you're not that lucky, just five minutes north of Olympic is Harding Park, which features a much less exclusive but eminently playable track with a fair bit of history itself.
Opened in 1925, Harding's tree-lined fairways have hosted the San Francisco City Championship and a PGA Tour event (although not since the 1960s), and manages to evoke a private-club feel in design terms if not in course conditioning. There's also a nine-hole course on the property.
This past January Arnold Palmer's Golf Management Company dropped out of a $15 million project to renovate the property. The deal was designed to bring the PGA Tour Championship and a First Tee learning center for San Francisco youth.
It's unfortunate that this development leaves the course's future, and the possibility of hosting the tournament, unclear. Any infusion of money for even basic enhancements would go a long way to improving both the aesthetics and playability here.
Head back up the coast on U.S. 1 past the Cliff House restaurant, a popular tourist stop, and towards downtown to find Lincoln Park. This hilly course was opened in 1902 and was rerouted to its current location, a former cemetery, two years after the 1906 earthquake.
While its best days have long since passed it by, the course does hold a special place in the hearts of some home-grown golfers who have gone on to experience professional success, including Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller and Dorothy Delasin, who last year at age 19 became the youngest player to win an LPGA tournament in 25 years.
The effects of hosting approximately 160,000 rounds annually are readily apparent here, and you won't find any special amenities, not even a practice range. By virtue of its location so close to the city, it continues to draw a crowd, especially on the weekends, that is more than willing to navigate a 5,400-yard course that rarely features a flat lie along tight fairways.
A number of holes, most notably the fifth and sixth, will take you around the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, site of an art museum. A wonderful view of the city skyline can be had from behind the 10th tee, while the par-three 17th is a photographer's delight thanks to a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, keep an eye out for tourists wandering across the fairway here in search of a photo opportunity.
The Presidio Golf Course, tucked away on a former military base just minutes away from downtown, provides the perfect blend of history and scenic beauty to end, begin or be your only stop during a Peninsula golfing experience.
Up until 1995, the course was open to military personnel only. But that year the National Park Service assumed responsibility for the course from the military, and shortly thereafter, the course became open to public play. Soaring Eucalyptus trees and Monterey pines frame most of the fairways here, and the terrain varies from near-blind uphill shots to elevated tee shots.
Work is still being done on a number of the bentgrass greens installed last year, but all 18 are expected to be playable later this spring.
Playing the courses on the San Francisco Peninsula won't duplicate the experience offered 90 miles south in Monterey. But when the fog lifts, the scenery can be incomparable in its own right.
With a variety of courses in decent condition for the amount of play they receive, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better value for your green fee in any major metropolitan area across the country.
And no matter what you shoot, you're still just minutes away from one of the world's greatest cities, well-equipped to help you quickly forget about a tough round or celebrate a low score.