Nearly six decades ago, the city of San Francisco announced plans to build a freeway abutting the eastern border of the property that makes up San Francisco Golf Club. Faced with such an intrusion, the intensely private club set out to rework the three holes nearest to the road on the only A.W. Tillinghast design west of Texas.
The job went to Harold Sampson, head pro at nearby Burlingame Country Club. In 1950 Sampson swapped the 13th and 14th greens and constructed a new 15th hole. The three redesigned holes were fine—the club never suffered in rankings and it hosted the 1974
Curtis Cup as well as several U.S. Open sectional qualifiers—but they didn’t fit with the rest of the course. Both the 13th and 14th were fairway-bunker-less doglegs through trees, while most of the holes are straight corridors with bunkers determining the placement of the tee shots.
When Tom Doak came out in 2001 to restore all 18 greens, the talk soon turned to a restoration of Tillinghast’s original design. As it turned out, the highway wasn’t as intrusive as originally feared, and planted trees now provide an adequate buffer from the traffic.
This update was just the latest in San Francisco Golf Club’s 112-year history, although most of the changes took place in the club’s early years. The club was founded by four homesick Scots in 1895 on the Presidio military base, 15 miles north of the club’s present location.
In 1905 the club left the Presidio (where the current course can trace its lineage to the original layout) and leased 120 acres from the Spring Valley Water Company for an 18-hole course and clubhouse. Members appreciated the new course but not the 15-mile commute southwest.
Ten years later, the club was forced to move again to its present site, at the southern border of the city. But the club was granted still more acreage, and it now had 150 acres on which to build. A 41-year-old Tillinghast, just beginning to take golf course design and life seriously, was brought in to create a links-style course. With gusty sea breezes, dune-style grass, natural mounding and hardly a tree in sight, the course proved a fine replica of the Scottish links experience. It opened in 1918.
In 1923 Tillinghast returned to inspect his layout and its maturation. He dug up some bunkers and planted some trees. The only significant change between then and the 1950 redesign was the addition of back tees on eight holes.
Similarly, the 50-plus years since have seen little change until the recent restoration. Nobody can be sure exactly how closely Doak came to matching Tillinghast’s original, but it hardly matters. The holes blend in with the rest of the course and look as if they have been there forever.
At “Little Tillie,” the 134-yard 13th, three bunkers surrounding the green make the already small green appear unhittable, even with a wedge. The 14th is only 351 yards, but dead into the prevailing Pacific gusts. Doak discovered Tillinghast’s gigantic “tarantula” fairway bunker, buried under layers of soil but largely intact. The hazard once again guards the right side of the 15th fairway and even snares weak slices on the 14th hole.
The 423-yard 15th just might turn out to be the best hole on the course. The “tarantula” steals the player’s eye immediately and appears to be a collection of bunkers. From closer, it becomes apparent that it is actually one large city of sand with some neighborhoods less desirable than others. The left side of the fairway houses the tarantula’s even nastier sibling.
The redesigned holes now fits seamlessly with the entire course.
Year Founded: 1895
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast