TPC Harding Park’s Older Brother

Courses

TPC Harding Park is the golden boy of San Francisco public golf, with fame, good fortune, and given its exposure as host to this year’s PGA Championship, an international audience and global reputation.

That makes the contrast with its older brother, Lincoln Park Golf Course, a few miles northwest, all the more glaring. Technically, Lincoln Park, like Harding Park, is a “championship venue,” as both have co-hosted the San Francisco City Amateur event for over 80 years. But the par-68, 5,146-yard Lincoln Park is, as San Francisco columnist Hay Chapman once wrote, “a mere apology for the real article.”

I have no issue with its length or par. The older I get, the more I enjoy shorter courses. But after playing the hilly (make that mountainous) municipal a few weeks ago, I concluded, that as a golf course, Lincoln Park is Fredo Corleone to Harding’s Michael, or maybe Billy Carter to Harding’s Jimmy or Daniel Baldwin to its Alec. In other words, Lincoln Park was a huge disappointment.

Others have told me Lincoln Park has potential, if only given a little TLC. I would have settled for a little C alone. The course, maintained by the city parks department, was in dreadful shape. The fairways were a hodge-podge of prickly grasses intermixed with weeds bearing tiny flowers. At least, when there was turf at all. Spots on a lot of fairways were just bare dirt. Or hard-packed sand.

I suppose that’s part of its potential. Lincoln Park sits on enormous sand dunes just west of downtown San Francisco, right on the edge of the Pacific, or more precisely, along the strait between the Pacific and San Francisco Bay known as the Golden Gate. The course doesn’t look anything like a sand-based layout because of all the overgrown pines that squeeze most fairways, but the dramatic topography is there. Which you will definitely experience if, like me, you walk and carry your bag.

The first holes were built just five years after the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and you’d be excused if, while playing it, you get the impression that it was laid out during the earthquake. Hole after hole seems jumbled, with most of the long holes playing uphill, most of the short ones playing downhill, tee boxes pointed toward oblivion, fairways sloping in the wrong direction and greens positioned not at the top of hills, but over the top, leaving a series of semi-blind approach shots. The design of the course is bewilderingly bad, even though it has had a cast of name architects attached to it, or perhaps because it had too many of them.

The original nine was staked out in 1911 by a trio of local club pros, including Menlo Country Club’s Macdonald Smith, the only one of three Smith brothers not to win the U.S. Open. It was constructed by parks superintendent John McLaren on the site of the old Golden Gate Cemetery, after its inhabitants had been disinterred and reburied elsewhere, their tombstones dumped into a nearby ravine. No sooner had Lincoln Park opened than McLaren brought in golf architect Tom Bendelow to reaccess and reroute some holes. Lincoln Park was then up to 10 holes.

In 1915, the city took over the property to host the Panama-Pacific Exposition. At its conclusion, Jack Neville, then a champion amateur, later the co-designer of Pebble Beach, added three holes, including, he wrote, “one of the greatest holes in the country [with] the tee shot over an immense gulley that runs down to the ocean.” That was mostly likely the 17th, now a long par 3, but if so, the deep gulley is long gone.

In 1917, Willie Watson added more holes to make Lincoln Park a full 18, and soon thereafter city fathers decided to position a gigantic War Memorial Museum (now the Legion of Honor art gallery) across several holes, reducing the layout to a par 66. As the building was being completed in 1922, Lincoln Park was remodeled again, with more than just replacement holes added. As the Chronicle noted in July 1922, “The awful 12th and 13th holes, where many good folks were unceremoniously ‘beaned,’ have been eliminated.”

British architect Herbert Fowler claimed involvement in the redesign, although newspaper accounts give golf pro Harold Sampson final credit. I tend to give Fowler the blame for holes like the 335-yard par-4 seventh, up and over a domed hill to a green at the bottom of the far grade. It only takes a tee shot of 185 yards to carry the crest of the hill, and on Lincoln’s dry fairways, a drive could well roll almost to the green. It reminds me a holes that Fowler did at Eastward Ho! on Cape Cod. (I shouldn’t be so critical of this hole, as Coore and Crenshaw created an almost identical version at the 17th at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, and I have raved about that hole.)

The latest tinkering with the design happened 50 years ago, after a par 3 was converted to a museum parking lot, and John Fleming (a former Alister MacKenzie foreman, and at the time the city’s park superintendent) added the present par-3 third—a dogleg par 3—although presumably the big tree in the corner was not there when Fleming built it.

The bunkering at Lincoln Park is surprisingly drab, especially when you consider the minimal amount of work needed to create a hazard on this sand site. That’s what Fleming did when he designed and built the nine-hole par-3 Golden Gate Park course on similar dunes a bit south of Lincoln Park; those greens are wonderfully trapped. Lincoln’s are not. (Fleming, by the way, also designed the par-32 third nine at Harding Park in 1961, using a couple of Harding’s original holes. It’s now called the Fleming Nine in his honor.)

The one advantage Lincoln Park has over Harding Park is scenery, particularly on the 16th and 17th holes, where there are panoramic vistas on the left of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge. But before you credit some architect with positioning those holes to provide those views, be aware that the golf course was there long before the bridge was built in 1937.

The most favorable aspect of Lincoln Park, in my mind at least, is the remarkable communal nature of its operation. Other than a couple of high screens to protect traffic on Clement Street on the south, there are no fences around the course. City streets weave through the interior of the property and along its Pacific edge.

This is a city park, after all, a commons like the Old Course at St. Andrews, but at Lincoln Park the citizens are permitted (or feel entitled) to wander across the course any time of day. During my round, I passed a couple camped in a tent (duration unknown) along the fifth hole and paused three times, once to allow a family to walk across the 17th fairway for a better view of the Golden Gate, and again on the 18th until a woman walking her dogs was out of range.

It was enlightening. In this litigious age, park patrons and golfers are able to co-exist, mainly by exercising common courtesies. Of course, on that up-and-over par-4 seventh, my group waited as a non-golfer casually strolled up the fairway. When he reached the top, he turned and gave us the universal salute of contempt. He’s clearly a taxpayer, this is his park and we golfers were intruding upon his enjoyment.

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