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.
SFGC is world class, of that there is no doubt. The routing on the front 9 is audacious and holds your attention in the best possible way throughout. The one-two combination of the short but devilish par 3 7th and the fantastic par 4 8th is the best two hole stretch I have played.
The back 9 doesn't have the same flair as the front although whatever is lacking in the routing is more than made up for in the bunkers and the par 3s, which are each stellar in their own ways.
SFGC is a 6 ball experience when you factor in the front 9, the bunkering and SFGC's place in the game and clubhouse but it is a slightly reluctant 6 ball for me. The back 9 just doesn't have that wow factor and when you start thinking about whether Doak was right or not in his renovations, you are concentrating on the wrong things. Overall this is a world class golf course which is a must play if you are lucky enough to get an invite just be sure to soak it all in when you are standing on the 7th tee box.
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
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:-)