The Rebirth of Golden Gate Park Golf Course, Part 1
How the First Tee-San Francisco rallied community support to upgrade a beloved Par-3 course and secure access for its kids
By Alan Shipnuck
On March 4, 2023, the San Francisco golf community turned out to bid adieu to an old friend. Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a 9-hole par-3 on the western edge of one of America’s greatest urban oases, has been a beloved institution since 1952, but this charming little course suffered from decades of deferred maintenance. March 4th was the last day the public could play GGPGC before the course would close for an extensive infrastructure project, which was to include regrassing the course and installing a state-of-the-art irrigation system. Among the regulars, there was excitement and anticipation tinged with a little wistfulness.
“It’s a great little course, I’m gonna miss it for the next six or seven months,” said Keith Robertson, 66, a retiree who plays Golden Gate a handful of times each week. Frank Yeong, 91, is such a regular that he has a parking spot reserved in his honor. Golden Gate is where he taught his daughters to play, and his grandkids. When he turned 89 he rented out the joint and invited all of his friends. Yeong spent closing day pressing flesh and making rhythmic swings. Also making the scene was Ace Mullins, a charismatic 8 year-old who discovered Golden Gate by way of the First Tee-San Francisco. “The environment is very welcoming,” says Ace, who can provide riveting play-by-play of his first-ever par, on the 2nd hole. “The people are very nice to me when I come. The First Tee has been very important to me.”
First Tee-San Francisco (FTSF) has operated GGPGC since 2013, thanks to the foresight of the late Sandy Tatum, the San Francisco golf patriarch who recognized the need to safeguard access to green grass facilities for First Tee kids. In 2023, the confluence of two events offered a rare opportunity to do something transformative: the First Tee’s lease was due for a renewal and the Golden Gate clubhouse had to be rebuilt after a fire. Enter Dan Burke, CEO of FTSF, who had a vision of what Golden Gate Park Golf Course could become. It is a lovely setting, with rolling terrain atop old sand dunes and mature cypress trees, about 500 yards from the Pacific Ocean, which can be glimpsed from the top of the property. Some par-3 courses can feel claustrophobic—the Hay sits on only seven acres, the Cradle on ten—but Golden Gate is an expansive piece of ground at 22 acres. “This is an amazing golf course but it needed some TLC,” says Burke (below right).
He conceived of a sweeping restoration and course architect Jay Blasi (below center) eagerly signed on. A Northern California resident, Blasi is best known for his work on Chambers Bay, but in the years since he has mostly been working on private projects hidden behind the hedges. Blasi donated his services for Golden Gate, eager to give back to the game that has given him so much and enticed by the potential of the land.
“What people probably don’t know,” says Blasi, “and what is most exciting from a golf design standpoint is we are on sand dunes. If you dig down a foot you are in pure sand. Well, pure sand is the most important ingredient for great golf. And what is most meaningful here, when you think about the best par-3 courses, whether it’s the Preserve at Bandon or the Sand Box at Sand Valley, more often than not they are at a destination golf course where the clientele is going to be wealthy golfers taking a buddies trips. Here, we feel we have an opportunity to offer an equal caliber of quality and excitement. And yet the folks who play here range from age 5-95, and come from all sorts of economic backgrounds. Many are beginners who will play their first round of golf here. It is truly a municipal golf course for the people of San Francisco, but we feel we can give them something that people will travel around the world to see.”
Burke filled out his dream team by signing up Josh Lewis (above left) to oversee the construction. A partner at Gradoville & Hertzing Management Group, Lewis has worked in the dirt at places like Bandon Dunes and Pasatiempo, and his savant-like ability to grow grass is reflected in his Twitter handle: @TheTurfYoda. He was thrilled to be part of the feel-good work at Golden Gate. “This will probably be the most meaningful project I’m ever going to be a part of,” Lewis says.
Blasi’s design featured a couple of holes rerouted for safety reasons, whimsically reshaped greens and exposed sandy edges to reconnect Golden Gate visually to the nearby beach. FTSF leadership and Burke doggedly raised $2.7 million dollars from First Tee supporters to cover the construction costs, all the while navigating the fierce local politics in San Francisco. In all of Burke’s public pitches, the First Tee was front and center. “Our demographics reflect the San Francisco Unified school district,” he says. “It has a high percentage of underserved kids and is a very diverse community.” The renovation at Golden Gate would give these kids the facility they deserve and secure their access for the next 15 years, while also serving the larger golf community and upgrading a city asset…all paid for with donor money. It would be a model of public-private partnership. Who could possibly quibble with such a win-win? And yet Golden Gate’s future remained uncertain into February 2023, when the San Francisco board of supervisors convened to vote on the project. This fraught meeting evoked the many political battles that Sandy Tatum had finessed in the 1990’s to get approval to reimagine Harding Park. Burke’s equally skilled diplomacy carried the day and Golden Gate got the votes. Three weeks later the bulldozers were ready to roll in.
But first there was the festive closing day to say farewell to the old course. One of the golfers on hand was First Tee kid Angeline Kong, 10. Her best score at Golden Gate is a 39, thanks to two chip-ins. “This course helps me work on my short-game,” she said. After studying drawings of what the new course will look like, Angeline enthused, “I can’t wait to see it come to life!” Then tentative opening date was October 1, but that would largely be determined by the progress of the concurrent clubhouse project. Unknown obstacles surely awaited, but on the eve of breaking ground, Blasi was even giddier than Angeline.
“Any golf course project takes a long time to get going,” he says. “You think about it, you dream about it, you literally can’t sleep at night with excitement of it, never knowing if it’s going to happen. This one was amplified. Here we are on March 4, and two days from now, in the early morning, we’re going to get started, stripping the site. It’s a dream come true.”
This is the first in a five-part series about the remaking of Golden Gate Park Golf Course, kicking off our new “In The Dirt” franchise. Fresh Golden Gate content will drop weekly. In the coming months, “In The Dirt” will chronicle restorations at Pasatiempo and Canal Shores and new builds at Gamble Sands and Crazy Mountain Ranch. Thanks for following along!
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.