The transformation of Golden Gate Park Golf Course—the 9-hole par-3 golf course in the far west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—is complete, and if fun, quick, inexpensive golf on eye-catching and architecturally stimulating holes is of interest, then this is most definitely the place for you.
The eight-month project was led by architect Jay Blasi, a Wisconsin native now resident in California, who donated his services to revitalize the 74-year-old public facility. “Like a lot of people, I started playing golf at a municipal, so I understand the huge asset they are to a community” Blasi says. “The fact Golden Gate is operated by the First Tee of San Francisco and, therefore, a place where thousands of kids will get their first taste of the game made it a dream scenario.”
Leased from the city by the First Tee since 2013, the 22-acre course was originally designed by Irish-born architect Jack Fleming who was part of the construction team at Cypress Point and worked on other Alister MacKenzie designs. Fleming also created, remodeled, or restored around 60 courses in California and was appointed caretaker/steward of San Francisco public golf.
This writer played Golden Gate on his first trip to the City by the Bay in 1997. And, though I remember having tremendous fun, I also recall a few afterthought bunkers and small, flat, circular greens mown only slightly shorter than the rather patchy grass surrounding them. Now, thanks to Blasi’s vision, Golden Gate Park is in the conversation for best par-3 courses in the country.
“Jay exceeded everyone’s hopes and expectations,” says Dan Burke, CEO of the City’s First Tee program. “Seriously, scratch golfers who have visited the best courses in America and are here playing a Friday afternoon skins game will have just as much fun as an 8-year-old who’s new to the game. It’s outstanding and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Burke first met Blasi in 2019 at Harding Park—the First Tee of San Francisco’s headquarters and venue for the following year’s PGA Championship. “The range, which we use as a base, was in need of some upgrades,” says Burke, whose program serves between 9,000 and 12,000 kids aged 8 to 10 years old every year with the aim of making them “Workforce ready.” “Jay did a great job at Harding Park and was really the only architect I considered for Golden Gate. He asked all the right questions and clearly wanted to build something truly special for the city and First Tee kids.”
The overhaul cost $2.7 million and was funded entirely by private capital from a dozen or so wealthy San Franciscans who value the First Tee’s mission and its efforts to provide the city’s youth with playing and learning opportunities. “Sandy Tatum, our founder, was fiercely committed to teaching kids from low-income communities the life skills inherent in golf,” says Burke. “These individuals are keeping Sandy’s spirit alive with their generosity.”
To manage the everyday operations, Blasi hired Josh Lewis, the former superintendent at Chambers Bay where Blasi had played a significant design role alongside Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Bruce Charlton. Lewis would oversee everything according to Blasi’s instructions and remain on-site for four months. Blasi also hired shapers and construction experts Brett Hochstein, Justin Carlton, and Robert Nelson.
After getting the green light from the City for the renovation on February 15th, the first job, beginning on March 6th, was to strip the site of a foot or so of what Lewis describes as “organic junk.” A locally based excavation company removed it, descending as far as a thick seam of sand that Blasi had always known was down there somewhere. “Ocean Beach is only 400 yards away,” he says. “I wanted to expose the sand and use it to create more dramatic and exciting golf holes.” Because not all sand is created equal, Blasi had it tested and discovered it was ideal for use on a golf course negating the need for extra drainage.
The architect and his team fashioned a punchbowl green and numerous other features that now make Golden Gate an absolute blast to play. The total yardage, ranging from 756 to 1,162 yards, is much the same as it was, but the greens have just about doubled in size, each averaging approximately 5,500 square feet. They were sown with a mix of 007 and Macdonald bentgrass, which will promote a smooth roll and give the new-look layout a stamp of quality. Fescue was used for the tees and fairways ensuring the perfect surface from which to hit irons and pitch shots.
The course had a soft opening on December 4th and is expected to fully open sometime in January when work on the clubhouse, which burned down five years ago, is completed. City residents will pay about $25 a round and the rest of us about $50. The First Tee of San Francisco will resume operations and students will return to a course they’ll barely recognize even though the routing is largely unchanged.
Bentgrass greens, fescue fairways, and holes that rank alongside some of the most enjoyable par threes you’ll ever see. Those kids don’t know how lucky they are.
Have you played Golden Gate Park Golf Course? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.