Top Public Golf in San Francisco

The City by the Bay is a great city in which to play 

Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner once called San Francisco “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” The area of this city pressed between ocean and bay may be limited, but the number of golf facilities available to the public is not, and for a place where the cost of living ranks among the highest in the U.S., the cost of golf is surprisingly reasonable, with most green fees nicely south of $100.

6 COURSES — 58 MILES — $328

 You can get off a plane at SFO and within a short time be on the first tee. It’s only 10 miles north to Gleneagles, nicknamed the “speakeasy of golf courses” by the individual who took it over from the city, Tom Hsieh. Quirky, testing, and a bit hard to find, it’s been listed among the top nine-holers in the country. During the 2014 Ryder Cup (at the other Gleneagles, in Scotland), John Branch of the New York Times compared the two: “Hey, you don’t need a passport for this one, just a $39 green fee (for 18 holes).” There’s no restaurant, but as you would guess from its nickname, there is a full bar.

The Presidio Golf Course, 10 miles north and in the heart of the city, is the oldest course in San Francisco, created in 1895. Babe Ruth played up and down these hills clad with Monterey pines and eucalyptus, and the club’s most famous member was another Bronx Bomber, Joe DiMaggio, who grew up nearby. The enduring stars here, however, are the four par threes.

Less than three miles away is Lincoln Park, where a young George Archer practiced under street lights, honing the putting stroke that would win the 1969 Masters. It’s not a long course, but constant wind and small greens combine to create a full challenge, and few courses offer more spectacular views, with downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge competing for your attention. If that’s not enough, beside the 11th tee is an art museum designed as a replica of the French Palace of the Legion of Honor, which served as a location in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Lincoln Park has a bar and grill, and for something a bit finer there’s El Mansour on nearby Clement Street or at the Beach Chalet, just two miles south.

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Illustration by Gary Hovland

On the shore of Lake Merced five miles south is TPC Harding Park, where enormous cypress trees frame the fairways that nurtured both Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller. A $16 million renovation back in 2002 transformed this long-neglected muni into a gem that has since hosted several major events, including the 2020 PGA Championship won by Collin Morikawa. It was also here that Tiger Woods beat John Daly to win the 2005 American Express Championship. Told Harding had been used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club across the lake, Daly said, “They should have played Harding and parked cars on Olympic.”

Few golfers get the chance to play Augusta National or Cypress Point, two Alister MacKenzie icons, but anyone can play the Good Doctor’s Sharp Park, nine miles south of Harding. A course that starts in a forest and finishes beside the sea, it has a Scottish vibe, its clubhouse a gathering spot in the town of Pacifica. Course conditions has been spotty for years, but a restoration movement is afoot. If you’re in the mood for seafood after golf, try the crab sandwich at Nick’s Rockaway. 

From there it’s a half-hour drive down U.S. 101 to Poplar Creek, a rare course built during the Depression. Eponymous poplar trees and a meandering creek form the challenge at this course where the distant views include the San Francisco Bay and the East Bay Hills, and if occasionally you hear a roar above, it’s because you’re now back within four miles of the airport.

Where have you played golf in San Francisco?

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Winter 2023 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.

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