Classic Course: San Francisco Golf Club

By Brian Hewitt

Photo credit: L.C. Lambrecht


A.W. Tillinghast’s only West Coast design has been restored to its original splendor

In 1918, when the San Francisco Golf Club unveiled what turned out to be A. W. Tillinghast’s only original design west of Texas, it produced barely a murmur. No one knew the course would set the bar for later Tillinghast classics—Baltusrol (Upper and Lower), Winged Foot (East and West), Ridgewood, and Bethpage Black, to name an elite few.

San Francisco Golf Club, wrote Tom Doak in his seminal 1996 Confidential Guide To Golf Courses, “was Tillinghast’s first masterpiece.”

A century later, thanks to a 2001 Doak green renewal and his 2006 restoration of the original 13th, 14th, and 15th holes, the course again shines brightly. Doak unearthed the famed “Tarantula” bunker, buried by layers of soil between the 14th and 15th fairways. His strategic removal of trees rediscovered sightline after sightline. Also among the reveals were multiple views of the clubhouse, peeks at the Pacific, and glimpses of far off Mount Tamalpais.

The club’s 150 acres now sit up more comfortably across Lake Merced from its more publicized neighbor, the Olympic Club. Meanwhile, SFGC has always minded its own business, its membership close-knit and carefully selected.

Applications to join are by invitation only and aren’t rubber-stamped overnight. As one local member explained, the club doesn’t want new members to “feel” new when they finally gain full status. But…

“It’s really pretty informal here,” says Bruce Mosbacher, a former chairman of the Green Committee. Friday afternoons and Saturdays members go out in fivesomes and sixsomes: No golfer left behind. Show up, put your name in a hat, and you’re in, regardless of age or handicap. Ready golf.

“It’s all part of the fabric and ethos of this place,” says another longtime member.

On the course—par 71, 6,836 yards from the tips—the fairways are tumbling and wide, the bunker complexes multifarious, and the hole locations on the quick, bentgrass greens demand strict attention.

“San Francisco Golf is about as good as it gets,” says non-member Conrad Nilmeier, a former Stanford golfer and accomplished local amateur. “You really would be cheating yourself if you walk around with your head down. There are so many great visuals.”

The full experience also includes a stroll through the retro men’s locker room. Its sepia-toned rows are lined with wooden cubicles on top of which sit golf shoes, polished and piled. There are wine-soaked cheese and crackers available between nines inside the back door. The Papersteak sandwich on the grill room’s lunch menu is right out of a Jack London short story.

The club’s rich history is illustrated and annotated in galleries of photos and memorabilia found in almost every room. In one case are the two Belgian .58 caliber pistols fired during the historic 1859 duel near what is now the 7th tee, the last such event in America, where a California Supreme Court justice shot and killed a U.S. Senator.

San Francisco Golf Club, like the Tony Bennett signature song, is an enduring classic.