844 West Orange Ave.,
South San Francisco,
- + 1 650 589 0144
2 miles W of South San Francisco
Members and their guests only
The California Golf Club of San Francisco dates back to the Golden Age of design and, although the club can trace its roots back to 1918, California Golf Club did not truly come of age until it moved to its present site in the mid 1920s.
The club originally commissioned little known Scotsman Willie Lock to design the course on the new site in the fashionable Bay Area, but an Irishman, Arthur Vernon Macan, replaced him before construction started. It’s unclear as to why Locke was replaced by Macan but we do know that Locke routed California, so he should receive posthumous credit. Alister MacKenzie was drafted in to address shortfalls in California’s bunkering in 1927 and since then the club’s reputation soared.
Former Walker Cup player Gene Andrews won the US Senior Men's Amateur Championship here at the California Golf Club of San Francisco in 1970, which was probably the club’s proudest moment.
In 2005, after years of struggling with putting surfaces infested with roundworms, the club decided to rebuild the greens and Kyle Phillips was the chosen architect following a dramatic proposal. Not only did Phillips rebuild the greens, he also built five new holes so that the club could boast a stronger outward nine to complement the existing excellent homeward nine.
According to his official website “Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design renovated and restored the course using 1927 as a benchmark when Dr Alister MacKenzie re-bunkered the course. The original course, designed by A. Vernon Macan, had been compromised in the 1960s when San Bruno Creek gave way to the existing Westborough Road, leaving only 13 of the original holes intact… The first event at the newly renovated course was highlighted with a 6-hole exhibition by PGA Tour player Arron Oberholser and former U.S. Open Champion Ken Venturi hitting the ceremonial first ball.”
The California Golf Club of San Francisco can now boast tournament measurements. From the new back tees, which are aptly called Venturi, the course can be stretched to more than 7,200 yards.
The following edited extract by George Waters is from Volume Six of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at email@example.com.
“The California Club of San Francisco completed work a few years ago that nicely illustrates the value of component restoration. Before the project, the course was a scramble of different designs. The original routing had been substantially altered by land sales and highway projects. Some very interesting holes playing along a creek had been lost for ever.
Although Alister MacKenzie had performed a complete redesign of the course’s bunkering early in the club’s history, years of wear and tear, tinkering and redesign had stolen nearly all of the character from his work. Newly constructed ponds and other impromptu features further detracted from what is arguably the best golfing ground held by any of the courses in San Francisco.
Kyle Phillips, the entrusted architect, approached the two nines differently. The routing of the back nine was more or less intact, and there was a reasonable amount of photographic evidence regarding MacKenzie’s bunkering. Phillips worked very closely with the original holes on the back nine, deviating only slightly from a full restoration.
The front nine was a different story. This was where large parts of the original course had been lost and where photographic record was limited. Philips had to devise some creative solutions to these holes to get the most out of the property. By relocating the practice area away from the clubhouse he was able to make use of some exciting terrain that was previously unused.
He also engaged in large-scale earthwork to recreate the feel and playing characteristics of the lost creekside holes. At the same time, Phillips kept the bunkering style consistent and chose to restore selected elements. This kept the front nine consistent with the back nine; additionally, it connected the history of the course. The result is a design that uses the property to the best advantage, while making a strong connection with the past. The ‘Cal Club’ represents a highly successful component restoration.”
A playground of the nouveau riche, Cal Club sits on a beautiful piece of tumbling terrain in South San Francisco overlooking the bay. The routing reminds me a lot of LACC, with the front playing on lower ground, artfully routed through massive valleys, and the back playing higher up with great views of San Fran.
The front nine has been relatively tweaked over the years due to eminent domain (it is California after all), but Kyle Phillips did a great job in blending the opening holes in with the rest of the original course that remains intact. Phillips copied the original first and second holes on the land allotted, creating a wonderful start of par 4.5 holes. With the other three holes on the front that could not be salvaged, Phillips created a daunting par 4 third which plays down into the valley to a green that demands a proper angle, the swooping cape 7th and the redan 8th. The front is also highlighted by original holes like the short four 5th, the 6th with an infinity green overlooking the bay, and the strategic 9th with a blind tee shot and green well guarded by Mackenzie bunkers. The course has a large mix of designers, but the character which the renovation preserved allows it to fit together in a seamless, amazing walk that seems to have been there for 100 years.
The back plays on less severe ground than the front, but features a multitude of diverse shots. The nine is highlighted by the 11th, a subtle dogleg left playing around a hill back towards the clubhouse, the tree-framed 14th with an artfully placed green over a valley, and the downhill short par 3 16th.
The fast and firm conditions presented by the great efforts of Javier Campos (a great twitter follow @calclimbingsoup) and his team make Cal Club a ton of fun to play. The undulating greens and Mackenzie bunkers enforce strategy and options, making Cal Club a great contender for the best course in the Bay Area.
Was fortunate enough to play Cal Club in March 2022. What an unbelievable experience.
The course is everything I love in a setup.
A lack of thick rough means you can spray the ball about a bit off the tee without worrying too much about lost balls but often then leave yourself a less than ideal angle for your approach shot.
The greens are firm, which again means finding fairways is crucial if you want to get the ball close with your approach shots.
I love this sort of setup as it is challenging to the low handicapper whilst also providing some respite to the higher handicapper.
Give me this sort of golf over penal setups any day of the week.
Though I’ve never played Augusta National, I was fortunate to visit in 2016 for the tournament. The back 9 in particular really reminded me of Augusta with the sweeping views over a massive property. And the par 3 16th was uncannily similar to 12 without the water!
Can’t finish the review without mentioning the clubhouse and the members. Without doubt one of the coolest hangs in golf. The members were friendly and good fun and the clubhouse itself had a really special atmosphere to it. I was fortunate enough to play Secession a few years ago and this very much reminded me of the vibe I got there.
All in all an absolutely wonderful day and experience and I hope I get the chance to return some day
Having played it today or couldn't agree more with you. Both about the penal element - no lost balls but lots of doubles! Better than losing balls though! - and the members at the bar. Great place. I'd love to return when I'm hitting it well!
Some places just hit differently. It’s not overstating it to say that my experience at Cal Club was one of the most impressive I have enjoyed on my golfing travels to date. This course is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, but it is the transformational work envisioned by the club board in the early 2000’s and put in to being by Kyle Phillips, that has elevated this place into a colosseum of golfing enjoyment and strategy.
I was lucky enough to take a clubhouse tour and view a number of aerial photographs from over the years. What is clear to see is how incredible the land is here, but also, how the recent tree clearance has allowed the golfer playing the course to fully appreciate the splendour of these grounds.
The course plays firm and fast with treacherous green sites and very little punitive rough, exactly as the best Mackenzie courses play. You can see Mackenzie’s design principles shining through, with the variety of shots required and the lack of necessity of searching for lost balls being the two most evident. Only at Pasatiempo and at Palmetto have I played greens anywhere near as pure and treacherous, where missing on the right side is of the upmost importance, and the constant pressure on position and accuracy being both highly rewarding and punishing in equal measure.
The front side has been reworked over the years with the highway taking some of the land from the original course layout. It is a run of nine holes that genuinely has everything though and feels completely in keeping with the back side. The SI 1 hole 3 is quite simply a brilliant golf hole. The drive is framed perfectly and played downhill to a seemingly welcoming fairway. The reality is that length and position are vital, and it is not enough just to find the short grass, as the approach to the green is devilish with a longer iron in your hand. My other standout hole on the front side is the new 7th, a quite simply wonderful risk reward par 4 where the fairway sweeps down and from left to right. The key to the strategy is hitting the right club on the right line. The possibilities are endless but the punishment for miscalculations, particularly not making the carry, are severe.
Reading many course reviews, I often see comments such as ‘the par 3’s were the highlight of the course’ and ‘what a brilliant set of short holes’. However I can say without question that this is the best selection of short holes I have played in the USA. The combination of variety, truly engaging green sites and memorable features make these four short holes something to behold. The dreamy infinity green 6th, the lengthy downhill 240 yard 8th, the well bunkered 12th that plays a little like a redan when the pin is in the back left. And finally, the absolutely brilliant short 16th, where the front pin in particular provides pure drama, and the false front will claim many a greedy victim who doesn’t aim for the green centre.
I will remember the back nine particularly for the strength of the par 4’s which come at you think and fast. 10 and 13 are both half par holes for the average golfer, played slightly uphill to well defended greens. 11, 14 and 18 play downhill but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are an easy touch. The stringent ball striking examination of the course comes in this stretch and you will need to be playing good golf tee to green to navigate these holes effectively.
The exhilaration felt walking these fairways will live with me for many years to come. My grandmother used to say there is no such thing as 10/10 as there is always room to improve, but this is the closest I’ve been to awarding a six ball rating. A truly wondrous place and golf course that I’m thankful to have seen and experienced.
Cal Club is my second favorite course in the SF Bay Area (not counting Monterey). I'd like it more if it were a little more challenging off the tee, but around the greens it's plenty tough. Always in fantastic condition, it's a treat for me any time I can get out there!
We were fortunate to play Cal Club on a perfect November day. The greens were quick and true with more than enough movement to test the best putters. Two putting was not easy!
The general condition of the fairways and bunkers etc was nothing less than sensational- it was only the quality of the golf played that was less than impressive...
Although the course was only around 6800 yards of the back tee (with a championship tee behind us) the constant elevation change had the effect of lengthening the course
It was not my proudest moment, golf wise, but I can advise that for the day my approach shots largely consisted of long irons and fairway woods. So it played long for me! No doubt I should have played a tee forward..
Nevertheless the quality of the course shone through. Wonderful conditioning was complemented by a plethora of strategic holes. And I just loved the bunkering throughout the course!
Notable holes include:
- hole 3, a strong par 4 from an elevated tee. The fairway sweeps around a dogleg to a impressively bunkered green
- hole 5, a short narrow uphill par 4 with a delightful green complex
- hole 7, a "Cape hole" like I have not seen before. Brilliant design to use the land like this..
- hole 8, a strong downhill par 3
- hole 11, a majestic par 4 with beautifully bunkered green and clubhouse backdrop
- hole 16, a pretty "dropshot" par 3
Cal Club impressed at every level. I am hoping to play again in better form, and perhaps off a forward tee.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
I played Cal Club weeks before our nation was shut down. I am extremely happy I got to play it, this course really blew away my expectations. There wasn't a weak hole on the entire course and several memorable holes. The views are spectacular, but the golf is even better. I am quite surprised this course isn't ranked in the top 50 courses in the U.S. Tee shot variety, undulating fairways, fantastic and interesting greens, beautiful bunkering, shot variety, this course has it all.
I've played over 150 private clubs and this was the friendliest club I've been to. I like the touch of having members pictures on their locker, I've never seen that before. When at the bar, several members chatted me and my friend up. The staff was also very friendly.
Michael, the Cal Club is currently ranked #28 in our US hundred. The course has actually been listed inside our US Top 50 for the last three biennial ranking iterations.
It is funny you say that (I also mentioned the friendly members in my review). Never in my life have I been to a club where everybody that walked through the bar, came over and introduced themselves to me. Several of them stuck around for a drink to chat for longer.
I ended up being in the bar for 5 hours after my round!!
I've been angling to play Cal Club for quite some time. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I lived close to the golf course, drove by it every day, and hoped that I'd be able to play it one of these days. That day finally came this summer, and it definitely did not disappoint.
This is one of the few courses in the Bay Area that plays hard & fast year round (from what I've been told) and it was certainly that - which makes it very challenging. Most of the elite courses in SF that I've played (Olympic, Lake Merced, Harding Park) are a little damp, and you don't get much roll out on your drives and approach shots, but Cal Club is the exception. It's very green, but has a brown patina that championship golf is known for - so you know you're in for a test.
The bunkers and undulating greens are the primary defenses of the course for sure. The greens were hard and rolling out when I played, so even getting a wedge to stop quickly was a challenge that took some getting used to. And with greens running that fast, you never want to be above the hole. That being said, I love this kind of golf, and played pretty well, despite the challenges. The fairways are relatively forgiving, but there's definitely a fair amount of tee shots where you need to be strategic, so it's not just bombs away every hole. Luckily I played with members that had played the course many times, so that was very helpful. Great variety of holes, very memorable, very challenging but enjoyable. The perfect combination. Lots of standout holes, but The Par 5 1st, Par 4 7th, and Par 3 16th are probably my favorites - that may change the more I play it, who knows.
This course has quickly moved into my all-time favorites - right up there with Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, LACC, Pinehurst #2, etc. Golf Digest doesn't even have it in their top 100 courses (not even in the top 10 in CA (no way), which is insane to me. I'd put it in my top 10 for sure, no question. Can't wait to go back!
Had the chance to play California Club (Cal Club) and I was not disappointed. I came in with very high expectations which is always dangerous but not only is the course terrific, so is the experience. For a course with no water, there is plenty of challenge due to the superb bunkering.
Holes that jump out
#18 - (par 4)In my opinion, the best hole on the course. Great way to finish an amazing day with a challenging approach shot to a very guarded green. Club house in the back ground
#3 - (par 4)begins with an elevated tee-shot, wraps itself around an incredible assembly of bunkers and finishes on a beautiful pushed up green.
#7 - (par 4) definitely the most dramatic hole on the course. It is a severe dogleg right playing over a little canyon.
#8 - (par 3) elevated tee shot on a long par 3 with an interesting knoll in front of the green that needs to be utilized for shorter hitters
Shocking it isn't in some top 100 world rankings. It is private, not the easiest place to get on but if you do get the chance, play it....immediately. Also, stick around the bar after the round, the men's clubhouse is a great place to unwind after a round with some of the friendliest members I have ever met.
A fantastic course if you are able to get on. its better than Riv and every hole is different. A beautiful setting among the cypress trees. Course was in great condition and is a challenge from any tee box.
Cal Club and Kyle Phillips take a bow. Doak’s Bel-Air restoration is impressive, but the vision and execution shown on this property has produced one of the best routings I have played in California. The two new holes, the 7th a cape hole and the 8th, a long par 3 down the hill, guarded by bunkers short, and a unique double bunker shared with the 3rd 'Signature' hole are both natural and feel like they were always there. However for me it's the tree removal and rugged MacKenzie bunkering that really make this place shine. When I played last week they were still removing trees on the par 3 6th hole which has views north back over the bay and to the snow-capped mountains beyond. If I had to be uber-critical, the tree removal has left one of the great short holes, 16, exposed to the housing behind the green, but the green complex itself has plenty of interesting pin placements, including I am told, front left which has been known to yield a hole-in-one or four. Can't wait to get back and see this place playing firm and fast during the summer.