Albert Warren Tillinghast was probably the greatest American golf course architect of his day and “Tilly” was the genius who crafted San Francisco in 1915.
“Now Tillinghast’s genius was being given free rein and it shone brightly out in California as well, at the San Francisco Golf Club.” Wrote Philip Young in the book entitled: Tillinghast – Creator of Golf Courses. “There are those who, to this day, after viewing all of his great courses, believe this to be his finest work.”
Situated close to Golden Gate Bridge, the course was not only the first remarkable example of the great architect’s craft, it was also the first course of any real quality to be constructed on the West Coast of America.
Laid out on a rolling pine-forested landscape near Lake Merced, the course stretches out across a number of valleys and ravines with the front nine occupying the most dramatic terrain. It’s here that one of Tilly’s favourite holes, the appropriately named par three 7th “Duel Hole,” is located.
This short hole is situated on the site of the last legal duel in American history (when a Supreme Court Justice shot and killed a US Senator in 1859) and it plays downhill to a small kidney-shaped green that drops off to the right.
The par three 13th hole (recently restored by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design firm) is another great one-shotter on a back nine that finishes, like the outward half, with a wonderful par five hole. With no cart paths or yardage markers to distract on the fairways, a round here with a member at San Francisco is one to savour.
The following comments were kindly provided by Tom Doak:
About 8-9 years ago we rebuilt all of the greens at SFGC in order to combat nematode infestation which had gone beyond the bounds of chemical control. We had to rebuild some of the greenside bunkers as part of that, and at the same time, we restored a few fairway bunkers that had been filled over the years, on holes 1 and 17. We added back tees on holes 2, 3, 6, and 9 as well.
About 5 years ago, we rebuilt holes 13-14-15 to the original Tillinghast design. Those three holes had been completely re-routed in 1949-50 by a local club professional, Harold Sampson, when the highway on the eastern boundary of the course was being expanded.
It's a bit hard to describe exactly what we did, without knowing which version of the course you are familiar with. This restoration was a cause of some heavy political infighting at the club: almost none of the members remembered the course prior to 1949, so to them it was a redesign, and a few of the opponents of the project are still critics of the work, even though no one has argued that what we did wasn't true to form.
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Tillinghast is of course well known for leaving his mark all over the East Coast of the US with great championship courses. Fewer people know that some of his absolutely best work happened on the West Coast. Namely San Francisco Golf Club which arguably is the very best of what he left behind. A rare visit to San Francsico Golf Club is like stepping back in time to the beginning of golf in American. Everything is the way it was back in the first half of the 20th century. It really has it all, a wonderful golf course, an original and understated clubhouse with the original locker room, amazing views, history, a magical routing and usage of a small property and on top of it all an truly iconic hole in The Duel hole – home to the last legal duel to ever take place in the United States – which was also without a doubt one of my favorite holes. A medium length drop shot par 3 (see photo) with another hole right behind it – needless to say a true dual (duel) hole.
My second favorite hole was the par 3, 15th. A short little hole with postage stamp type green elevated and surrounded by huge bunkers. A tricky shot with a short iron in the wind.
There is not a doubt in my mind that San Francisco Golf Club is one of the best members club in the US and with 40,000 courses that truly says a lot. For me it encompasses most of what is great about golf and why I love this game.
San Francisco Golf Club gives Bethpage Black a run for being A. W. Tillinghast’s best course. The golfer gets a sense of its greatness standing on the practice putting green or first tee perched above the wide fairway with massive bunkers strategically placed throughout. The golf course is actually hemmed in by the city so doesn't have necessarily dramatic views. What it does have is ample room to drive the golf ball. Unlike some Tillinghast designs that are tightly tree lined, San Francisco is not hemmed in by trees. The terrain is used imaginatively, not straight up and down and there are many subtle, challenging dogleg holes. You can see the fairway and thus, you can view the real majesty of Tillinghast's skills, his ability to use bunkers strategically and with a sense of beauty. San Francisco is an old school club with a small membership. The club and clubhouse are understated and stands out as one of the best in the world.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
From tee to green, San Francisco Golf Club is as good as it gets. Bunkering is one of Tillinghast’s strong suits and Tom Doak’s restoration shows them off brilliantly. Between the fairway bunkers and the ubiquitous doglegs, the line of charm is in play on every tee ball. And while there are plenty of greenside bunkers, half the holes still provide options other than an aerial approach. Once you get to the greens, however, things get less exciting. They are fast and often steep, but lacking the contours (except at #7) that I prefer. I did, however, love the two huge mounds that frame the cross bunker short of the 12th green. Local lore has it that they once carried a railroad across this corner of the property. Oh, and one warning in case your host doesn’t mention it: SFGC does not allow shorts. I thought when Winged Foot had changed its policy to allow them that this rule was extinct in American golf. Shows what I know.
As I headed out the door, a friend I was staying with in Carmel, said San Francisco Golf Club does not deserve its notoriety: “I’ll be interested to see if your assessment of it is the same as mine.”… My friend believes San Francisco Golf Club – only 6,600 yards from the tips and par 71 – is not in the same league as Olympic Club
, which has hosted many major championships. However, given the chance, I would much rather play San Francisco Golf Club. It sits higher up in the city, with occasional views of both the Pacific and the Bay to the east, and its many elevation changes offer terrific city views. A.W. Tillinghast designed the course in 1918, and I have become a real fan of his work. San Francisco membership is very small, and they like to keep it that way… If you ever have the opportunity to play there, do so. Larry Berle.
October 01, 2014
The above review is an edited extract from A Golfer’s Dream
, which has been reproduced with the author’s kind permission. A Golfer’s Dream
, by Larry Berle, tells the story of how a regular guy conquered America’s Top 100 Golf Courses (following Golf Digest’s 2001/2002 list). Larry has exclusively rated for us every course in the hundred, using our golf ball rating system. However, Larry did not rate the 100 courses against every golf course he has played, but instead he rated them in relation to each other within the hundred. Consequently, in some cases, his rating may seem rather low. A Golfer’s Dream
is available in Kindle format and also on Kindle Unlimited via Amazon... click the link for more.
When I think of tradition, history, privilege and a golf course which silently narrates the genius of times gone by, the San Francisco Golf Club is second to none. A.W. Tillinghast visited the Bay Area and created a layout which could only be described as architectural brilliance. The course challenges all golfing abilities, testing finesse, accuracy and imagination. It’s an honour to walk this property and learn about the many contributions that this club
has made to American golf history. Those who are fortunate to enter the gates and tee it up will walk away short of breath. With a membership which once included golfing legends such as Eddie Lowry, this club is dripping with history. The gentleman and ladies, which compose the sacred membership, are incredibly proud, courteous, privileged and uphold all of the fine traditions of this game. While standing on the 11th tee, my heart was touched by none other but the former USGA President and living legend, Sandy Tatum. Time stood still as we watched the 93 year old send his drive down the middle of the 15th fairway, followed by a courtesy tip of the cap. Seeing him swing the club truly inspired me and reminded us that San Francisco Golf Club is a shining jewel amongst a constellation of golfing stars. Upstairs in the clubhouse, the club recently opened a History Room filled with pictures, books, and trophies for all to enjoy and soak up the club’s glorious evolution.
Without question one of the most underrated courses on the top 100 list.....I played here in early November and was overwhelmed by the variety of shots that presented themselves over the course of 18 holes. The greens roll true and pure and the grooming of the course is as good as it gets.....A previous review mentions that there is not any truly memorable holes....standing on the 7th tee and staring down at the 7th green and back up the 8th fairway was one of the best true golf views in the game.....The course does not have any gimmicks or tricks.....it is just purely a true test of golf......Walking down the 18th I felt very much like I had playes a tillinghast masterpiece......Definitely a must play......should be higher rated....
Managed to play this course about 10 years ago when I worked there as a caddy during the summer. I'm from Ireland, where everyone and anyone has probably played Ballybunion
, so I was not used to places like this. Probably a couple of hundred members. Exclusive would not describe it. The Olympic Club
, which is an exclusive club in its own right, is across the road and I was told that members there dream of getting into San Francisco.
Apparently there has never been a professional or major amateur tournament here. Makes one wonder when the back tees are used, which would make this place a hell of a challenge. As a low handicapper, there is one outstanding aspect of San Francisco; everything will be tested here. Course-management, bunker play (definitely!), long and short game, this place is a complete test. No weak holes whatsoever, every shot needs to be measured and thought through with respect to the next, except maybe for the drive into the enormous first fairway.
So why only 5 stars? Well, the one aspect of the course that left me a bit cold is that it can be quite difficult to think of a stand-out hole that is genuinely thrilling to play. There is definitely no 12th at Augusta
, 15th at Ballybunion, 9th at Turnberry
or 18th at Pebble Beach
here. And for me personally that is one of the really thrilling things about golf, negotiating some spectacular landscape, be it natural or otherwise. So anyway, definitely play this course if you have the chance, it really is superb. Just no need for the camera, showing pictures might make your friends wonder what the fuss is about:-)
I was very lucky to have the chance to play this course several times as a teenager in the late 80's because I was a caddie there. I've played Pinehurst #2
, Sea Island
and many other wonderful golf courses but my heart will always love SFGC's better than any! I can remember being the first one on the course early one monday morning with dew still on the course and as I left the first tee looking back seeing only my foot prints in the fairway felt like I was in heaven. I can't say enough good things about this course to explain it, maybe total serenity puts it best! Maybe when I retire from the Army I'll get lucky enough to play it again. SSG Gresham
I have played 4 courses in the top 10 ( including Pebble Beach ) but San Francisco at 41 is my favourite. I have been lucky enough to play this course half a dozen times with a friend who is a member and it just gets better each time. The greens are the best and quickest that I have experienced.There are no gimmicks here , no water and no breathtaking scenary,just one great golf hole after another. The clubhouse is worth a mention,very old school,you could easily be at Walton Heath which is refreshing for country club USA.
I am fortunate enough to have played SFGC several tiems with a member/friend. The excellence of this course cannot be overstated. I have not played Augusta, but I think the third hole here is amongst the finest in the world. Each hole has its challenges, and now that the course has been restored to its original design it is even better. Do not ever turn down a chance to play here!