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Travelin' Joe's guide to golf in San Francisco

San Francisco
Jim Johnson/Premier Aerials
Three of the Bay Area's premier courses (clockwise from bottom: San Francisco Golf Club, Olympic Club and TPC Harding Park) are neighbors surrounding Lake Merced.

This much is not open for debate—San Francisco, host to the 2012 U.S. Open, is the most beautiful, diverse, eccentric and engaging city in the U.S. But here's the question: What kind of golfing town is it? Here's Travelin' Joe's guide to golf in the Bay Area.

Worth Groveling: Olympic
I had to pass inspection by the general manager of Olympic Club—at the club's downtown location and in advance of the day I hoped to play. Permission granted, I holed a 25-footer on the 2nd hole, chipped in for par at 10 and jarred a 110-yard nine-iron for birdie on the par-5 16th—and still shot 92. Olympic then, as now, was the picture of a championship test (although a little redundant) and undeniably a bucket-list attraction.

Goofy Good: Bodega Harbour
What's scarier than Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, shot at Bodega Bay? The first five holes of the wee town's golf course. Bodega Harbour opens with four uphill holes squeezed between houses, then a bizarre z-shaped par-5 where you have to lay up off the tee and then have a blind second that skirts a cattle ranch. When you get to the 16th, you leave the cart behind and hoof it through a two-hole protected environmental area. Despite—or because of—all this, I love the unpretentiousness, slick greens and ocean views.

One and Done: Harding Park
In 1998 this muni was such a wreck that it was used as a parking lot for the U.S. Open. Seven years later—after a contentious, way-over-budget renovation spearheaded by Sandy Tatum (page 76)—Harding was Tour-worthy and hosting a thrilling American Express Championship, at which Tiger Woods beat John Daly in overtime. I love the feel-good story and awesome cypress trees but am not a huge Harding fan. All of the holes (except 18) look and play alike to me.

Best View: Mira Vista
People usually say the 17th at Lincoln Park, where you feel as if you can reach out and touch the Golden Gate Bridge. And that's not a bad choice. But another option is the 18th green at Mira Vista. You're at a soaring elevation in the East Bay, looking out at a broad sweep of the Bay that takes in San Francisco, the Golden Gate, Mount Tamalpais and more. Stunning.

Coolest Head Pro: Dede Braun-Moriarty
Dede is the first female head pro in San Francisco and works at the Presidio. (Her husband, Mike, is a former San Francisco fireman and city champ.) She knows her stuff.

One-Hole Wonder: Half Moon Bay (Old)
This 36-hole beauty sits atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Half Moon's Ocean course is a personal fave, but sister course the Old not so much. Tom Doak once called the Old's first 17 holes "mostly Hamburger Helper," but the 18th is a jaw-dropper—a 413-yard par-4 that slopes downhill toward a wetland that bisects the fairway and ends at a green cocooned by the stunning Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Lining the entire right side of the hole is the gigantic water hazard known as the Pacific.

Restored Glory: Cal Club
For most of its 80 years the California Golf Club of San Francisco played third fiddle to Olympic and San Francisco. No more. Following a Kyle Phillips redo that was part restoration and part redesign, the A. Vernon Macan--Alister MacKenzie course is an equal.

Unexpected Gem: Claremont
It's a bit shocking, really, to stroll the mean streets of Oakland and stumble upon Claremont Country Club. (O.K., the neighborhood isn't all that bad nowadays, but nobody expects great golf in this kind of urban setting.)

Most Diverse: Mira Vista
Not surprising, perhaps, given its Robert Hunter roots. Chinese. Filipinos. Japanese. Italians. African-Americans. Mexicans. Definitely has a working-class vibe. Seriously, it's like a blue-collar Benetton ad.

Heresy! 16th at Pasatiempo
Pasatiempo architect Alister MacKenzie called the 387-yard par-4 "the finest two-shot hole I know." And some of the biggest names on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 Course Ranking Panel agree. Not me. I don't think 16 is even the best par-4 on the back nine. The 16th asks for a blind layup off the tee to a left-tilting fairway that edges a barranca with OB. The approach is from a downhill, sidehill lie to an elevated, three-tiered green with too much slope for today's speeds. Overall, I'm a huge fan of MacKenzie's finest public-friendly course, but the 10th, with its restored (by Doak) gully bunker, and the 11th, with a barranca as a diagonal risk-reward hazard, are superior.

My Sleeper: Gleneagles
Lee Trevino supposedly called Gleneagles the best nine-holer he has ever played. That may be urban legend, but Gleneagles is a really cool place where outsiders almost never go. It's in a sketchy part of town, but it's where the hackers and old-school sharks like to hang. (Oh, and the greens were rebuilt last year, with volunteer help from the super at the Cal Club.)

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