An in-depth look at the course and culture at California Golf Club of San Francisco
En·thu·si·asm – /in-TH(y)oozē-azəm/ – definition: intense and eager enjoyment – root: Greek en theos, roughly translated as possessed by spirit, or inspired. Lofty language, but fitting to describe the membership at California Golf Club of San Francisco, as well as the effect of spending time with them on their outstanding golf course. Cal Club is a place where enthusiasm for the game of golf, and for life itself, is alive and well.
To be clear, Cal is a golf club. The golf course is the focal point, and walking golf is the only activity of interest, at least during daylight. The beautiful land on which the course sits, and its eclectic architectural history, combine to produce an intensely enjoyable playing experience.
Many noteworthy hands have touched the course at Cal Club over the years and the it has evolved considerably. The changes serve as a reminder that no golf course ever remains static—ebbs and flows occur along the way.
In 1924, the club acquired the land in South San Francisco that would become its permanent home. Willie Locke was initially retained by CGCSF to design their new course. Locke came to America with many other turn-of-the-century immigrant professionals who were busily trying to keep up with the burgeoning demand for the game in the post-Ouimet U.S. Open era. He played a part in the development of several Bay Area courses, including nearby Lake Merced. Unfortunately for Locke, his tenure at Cal Club was short. He completed a routing, but was replaced after only two days by A.V. Macan. Macan was an Irishman who made a name for himself designing courses in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Although most of Locke’s routing was incorporated into the final design of the course that ultimately opened in 1926, changes were material enough that Macan was given sole credit. Not long thereafter, the club turned to the duo of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Robert Hunter for an aesthetic upgrade. The pair was turning heads with their work from Meadow Club in Marin, down to the Monterey Peninsula. Bunkers were completely redesigned and rebuilt, as were the 10th and 18th greens.
The course remained largely unchanged until the 1960s, when the city claimed the northern portion of the club’s property to build a road. Robert Trent Jones was brought in to do a reconfiguration. Although CGCSF was still considered a fine test of golf, an ominous trend was set in motion that continued through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The golfing culture of the club was weakened and its golf IQ diminished. In these conditions, well-meaning members tinkered in a similar fashion to that which befell many classic courses in America. The character of the Locke-Macan-MacKenzie-Hunter creation was nearly lost in the clutter of additions and alterations.
Enter a group of passionate and committed members led by past-Director Al Jamieson who decided the time had come to take Cal Club back to its roots. They were aided in the endeavor by accomplished historian David Normoyle. In his terrific interview with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg podcast, Jamieson detailed the trials and tribulations of getting the project underway, as well as the results. Cal’s leadership settled on architect Kyle Phillips, a veteran with acclaimed original and renovation work around the world. According to club lore, he earned the job with his idea to utilize a dramatic ridge for a new 7th hole, but Jamieson explained that it was Phillips’s presence that convinced the committee. “In 2005, we interviewed ten architects…Kyle Phillips clearly won the day with his presentation, his demeanor, his maturity and his background. He made us think outside the box.”
What was originally conceived as a necessary replacement of the course’s greens morphed into a full scale “retrovation”, as Normoyle labels it. “Cal Club is absolutely one of the leaders in the clubhouse when it comes to not accepting what you were, and not accepting what you are, but trying to imagine the best you can possibly be, and having the willingness to take the risk to find out what that is,” he said. Upon reopening in 2008, and every day since, players have been nearly unanimous in their assessment that that risk paid off, huge.
Cal Club Today
With names on the lockers like Eddie Lowery, Ken Venturi and Arron Oberholser, and a robust local and national membership that is very well-traveled, it is an understatement to say that this group is woke. Their collective finger is directly on the pulse of what makes the game great at this level. A frequent refrain from the initiated is that the bar at Cal Club is the best hang in golf as well. It is a place where you can find yourself in a discussion about the nuances of golf course architecture, or just as easily witness a debate about which Dead show had the best rendition of Morning Dew. Fitting for the Bay Area, birthplace of the counter-culture movement as well as the home of a collection of golf courses that are among the finest on the planet.
The debate about Dead shows and songs will remain unsettled for now as we are seeking further insight into just what makes the culture at Cal Club so special. Certainly, the place is jammed with golf-crazed bon vivants, but there is more to it than this surface impression. The membership supports youth and competitive golf. It is not uncommon to see kids with their parents, high school golfers and players from Cal or Stanford walking the fairways. And if that accommodating attitude weren’t enough, the club has a special membership designation for the highest caliber aspiring players. Named after the Bay Area’s native son, the Venturi membership gives access to the facilities to top players who need a home base. Playing skills are not enough to become a Venturi though. Candidates undergo a rigorous interview process to ascertain the quality of their character. 2019 has been a particularly good year for alumni of the program with Martin Trainer earning his first PGA Tour win and Isaiah Salinda among the nation’s top collegiate players. Cal Club members don’t just talk the “grow the game” talk, they walk the walk.
Speaking of walking, the club has a strong walking culture. Players are welcome to tote their own sticks, use a trolley, or take one of the great caddies. The point is to experience the course on foot while enjoying the interaction among players that is lost when zooming around a course in carts. The strong culture was built one step at a time, and those steps continue today.
The primary ridge on the Cal Club property stretches across the south end, with the land gently cascading downward into a valley and then back up to the clubhouse. It is splendid topography for golf – varied but never severe. The contrast between the two nines adds yet another dimension to Cal’s variety. The outward half plays as a loop around the western side, and the inward half to the east has more of a back-and-forth feel. That description might lead one to believe that the front is more interesting, but the back has just as many advocates in the lively “which is better” debate. Strategic placement of hazards coupled with elevation changes tee to fairway to green gives the holes on the back nine an interesting character all their own. In the case of Cal Club’s routing, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The course always had splendid greens, which Kyle Phillips complemented beautifully with well-positioned bunkering unified in the MacKenzie-Hunter style. Conditions are kept fast and firm by Superintendent Javier Campos and his crew. They go to great lengths to provide the turf that delights players, including hand picking invasive poa from the bentgrass putting surfaces.
There are no weak holes at Cal, and no repetition within the sets of one, two and three-shotters. The changing wind and microclimates are factors that the savvy observe with keen senses to make adjustments. Smart aggressiveness is rewarded with birdie looks. The unconfident or foolhardy are afforded eighteen chances to wreck their card or blow a match.
Phillips and Campos give players a steady diet of picturesque shots on the ground, enhanced above by nature with the towering cypress trees and views of the surrounding San Bruno Mountains, Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais. Few inland courses offer more of a visual feast.
Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions
Cal’s opener is a gentle handshake par-5 playing up over a rise and then down to a green set at the north end of the property. The 1st is no pushover though, with hints of what’s to come—a deep bunker fronts the putting surface, which has ample slope. The par-4 2nd turns back and heads uphill to a fantastic green with bunkers right and a short grass run-off left. Coming through these two holes at level par is a solid start.
The third tee is the first real glimpse for players of the greatness of the land. This par-4 gently bends downhill and to the right around a set of difficult bunkers. The green backs up to the 8th, with a snaking bunker separating the two. The par-5 4th is understated from tee to green, but does demand consecutive solid shots to get in scoring position. Whatever thrills are lacking in the fairway are made up on the 4th green, featuring raised sides and a depproach into the next tee. The 5th is an outstanding strategic short four that plays uphill with staggered bunkers on both sides of the fairway. Pin position and comfortable approach distance are factors to be considered on the tee. This stretch of holes is getable, but it can just as easily get you.
Cal gets dramatic working across the ridge on the 6th and 7th. The green on the course’s first one-shotter is heavily pitched and elevated, with trouble on all sides and gorgeous Bay Area suburb views beyond. Deep bunkers guard the left, the property line and a fronting bunker are tight on the right, and long is a steep, tightly-mown runoff that is a potential funhouse of horrors. Players need to step up and hit a solid tee ball, or else. Phillips’s short par-4 7th is a fantastic hole that sweeps down and to the right in what some would consider a Cape style. After making a risk-reward decision off the tee, players can approach the receptive green through the air or on the ground.
The long par-3 8th plays downhill from the ridge to a green ringed by bunkers on three sides. Lower approaches have to contend with a fronting mound positioned in the spirit of rub-of-the-green to produce random bounces. The drive on the par-4 9th is blind back up the hill to a fairway that dances along a plateau around bunkers and a steep fall-off left. Players who miss the green can find all manner of challenge from sand to rough to contoured short grass.
The back nine begins with a stout two-shotter. The tee ball plays down into a valley and must be well struck to have a reasonable length approach into the well-protected green. The 11th turns back, plunging down and around a hillside left to a green set beautifully at the base of the hill on which the clubhouse sits. Shortgrass surrounds allow lovers of the ground game a chance to conjure a little magic. Players climb partway up the hill to cross the valley on the par-3 12th. The large green is fraught with peril, on and around the putting surface.
The next three holes play back and forth, but because of brilliant placement of hazards relative to tees and movement of the land, never feel monotonous. The interconnected fairways add a further touch of class. The par-4 13th is straightaway with bunkers flanking the landing zone. Approaches must be confident enough to crest the wicked false front. The par-4 14th snakes downhill to an angled green with bunkers cut into the hill below right. It is the tee shot on the three-shot 15th that plays with an angle to a fairway trudging uphill past a Principal’s Nose bunker. The partial amphitheater setting for the large, contoured green is breathtaking.
The closing stretch is ideal for match play, with each hole presenting the opportunity to make birdie while also holding open the real possibility of a double bogey. Cal’s final one-shotter is benched into a hillside in a manner reminiscent of the 12th at Augusta. The neighborhood beyond is visible—a reminder of the urban setting. The par-5 17th plays over a rise and then runs downhill to a reachable green. The home hole demands one more solid drive to an obscured landing area. The approach plays into a terrific tiered green with the clubhouse as a backdrop.
Over the years, many hands have touched the Cal Club. There is no doubt that today, both the club’s course and culture are in the very capable hands of people who get it, and who are willing to allow visitors to partake of the magic. Jamieson summed it up, “It is a place that people can come and have a great deal of fun and camaraderie…We try to treat a guest like a member.”
In the immediacy of the Cal Club experience, a feeling arises that was hinted at by Bob, Jerry, Phil and company:
California, preaching on the burning shore
California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door
Like and angel, standing in a shaft of light
Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine
And so too, that feeling of patiently waiting for one’s next taste:
My time coming, any day, don’t worry about me, no
It’s gonna be just like they say, them voices tell me so
Seems so long I’ve felt this way and time sure passin’ slow
My time coming, any day, don’t worry about me, no…
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf