California Golf Club of San Francisco
South San Francisco, California, USA
7216 YARDS (PAR 72)
COURSE RATING/SLOPE: 74.7/135
COURSE ARCHITECT: A. Vernon Macan (1926); Alister MacKenzie (1928); Kyle Phillips (2008)
COURSE WEBSITE: http://calclub.org/
ROUNDS PLAYED: 1
LAST PLAYED: May 24, 2013.
LOW SCORE: 84 (+12)
– Golf Club Atlas 147 Custodians of the Game: #38
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the World 2020-21: #50
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the US 2017: #43
– Golf Digest Second 100 in America 2019: #109
– Golfweek Best Classic Courses USA 2019: #36
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the World 2020: #60
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the USA 2020: #28
“For most of it’s 80 years the California Golf Club played third fiddle to Olympic and San Francisco. No more. Following a Kyle Phillips redo that was part restoration and part redesign, the A. Vernon Macan-Mackenzie course is an equal.”
– Sports Illustrated
The new course and clubhouse opened on May 16, 1926 to rave reviews but only two years later, Alister MacKenzie and his associate Robert Hunter were brought in to rebunker the golf course and modify a number of green complexes. This was quite a prescient move, as MacKenzie had only worked on one US project at that point, the well-received Meadow Club located north of San Francisco in Fairfax and well before his work at Cypress Point and Augusta National, for which he became much revered.
Robert Trent Jones Sr was brought on to make changes in the mid-1960’s, as construction of a nearby freeway forced the club’s hand and a couple of ponds would get added in the early ’90s.
A nematode infestation was reaking havoc with the greens at Cal Club in 2005 and the membership realized that a great opportunity existed not only to rebuild the greens but to make improvements to the course and perhaps bring back some of Macan and MacKenzie’s original flair and design intentions that had been lost over time. Over a dozen architects submitted plans but it was the bold vision of Kyle Phillips, the designer of Kingsbarns in St. Andrews, Scotland, that won over the membership and ultimately led to his hiring.
Phillips would end up building five brand new holes, including the dramatic 7th, a cape hole utilizing a parcel of land that wasn’t a part of the previous routing. Using overheads from the 1930’s, he also restored many of MacKenzie’s bunkers in painstakingly accurate detail and removed the unnecessary and unsightly ponds that had been added in the 1990’s.
The restored and renovated California GC of San Francisco opened to great acclaim in July 2008, 90 years after the original opening. Many well-travelled architecture aficionados now consider the Cal Club to be amongst the top five courses in California, which is very high praise indeed.
The first hole showcases many of the features that will become commonplace throughout the round – great topography, incredibly intricate and aesthetically-pleasing bunkering, interesting strategic choices and clever greensites and surrounds. The opener is a mid-length par five that tumbles downhill, with a large greenside bunker in the front right that forces the player to toy with the left fairway bunkers to gain the desirable angle for the approach.
The second is a long par four that plays back up the hill parallel to the 1st, with interesting green contours and a large chipping area off to the right hand side. The third is an absolute stunner and one of the new Phillips designed holes from my understanding: a 437 yard par four from an elevated tee, with nasty fairway bunkers running for close to 80 yards in the landing zone off to the right. You need to hug that bunker line in order to gain the desired angle into the green.
The fourth hole is a brute: 592 yards from the Venturi tees, with most of it uphill. The wind is a major factor on this hole, as the land here is very exposed to the elements and on the day I played, it was playing into a stiff headwind, adding to the considerable challenge. Three excellent shots are required if you are to earn a decent birdie opportunity.
The short par four fifth, measuring only 346 yards from the tips, is a particular delight. You can blast away from the tee with a driver but good luck holding this well-protected green with a half wedge shot! Even a full wedge is no bargain and the internal contours on this green are among the most difficult on the course from my recollection. Just a lovely golf hole.
The par three 6th, a mid-length one shotter measuring 195 from the back tees, features three bunkers in front and a green that slopes sharply from right to left and falls off at the back quite severely. This is a very difficult green to hold from the tee but there is a bit of room to run a shot in between the bunkers, adding to the considerable playability found at the Cal Club.
The 7th, as noted earlier, is a Phillips original that used a large parcel of land in the middle of the course that hadn’t been used in the previous routing. It’s an inspired hole and feels as natural as can be, with lots of room off the tee to the left but offering tantalizing opportunities for the long hitter to cut off as much of the dogleg as possible. It’s a pretty unique Cape hole and the lovely green site is one of my favourites on the course, as it sits well below the approach area, allowing for both aerial or fun ground approaches.
The 8th is another excellent par three, tipping out to a healthy 241 yards! It’s well downhill, thankfully, and there is a little knob in the front right that is a dominant feature, allowing balls to be propelled toward the green off to the left. The outgoing nine concludes with a great midlength par four, featuring a semi-blind uphill tee shot and a very well bunkered approach, with one of the more scenic backdrops you’ll encounter on the day.
The back nine starts from the other side of the clubhouse with a 412 yard par four. The approach is a difficult one, with two deep bunkers both in front and to the right of the putting surface. The 11th runs back down alongside the 10th and while it measures 407 yards, it actually functions as a short par four, as well-struck drives will roll out forever and offer a short approach to a relatively open green with a bit of a kicker slope front left.
The par threes at Cal Club are particularly strong and the 12th is no exception – a 232 yard monster up the hill that’s open in front but has four bunkers front left, along with bunkers long and to the right. Like most of the holes here, a low stinger that runs into the green is a great option, although my nicely struck hybrid ended up rolling through the relatively shallow green into the aforementioned back bunker! Another great golf hole!
The par four 13th and 14th holes run parallel to each other, with the 13th climbing uphill and the 14th tumbling right back downhill. I found the 433 yard 13th to be one of the more difficult holes on the course but I would imagine that’s due to putting my tee shot into the long grass just outside the right fairway bunker on my way to a double bogey six! Meanwhile, I found the 479 yard par four 14th to be much easier – it plays considerably shorter than the scorecard length due to the downhill nature of the hole and features an open-fronted green that’s sloped sharply from back to front.
The 15th is a reachable par five if you hit a great drive but a well-placed centreline bunker in the approach area dictates much of the strategy on the hole. The 16th is the shortest hole on the course, measuring only 133 yards from the back tees. But this hole is extremely well-defended, with no less than seven bunkers surrounding the entire surface. There is nowhere to miss it here and I’d guess that despite the short length, many fine players walk off this green wondering how they made bogey with a wedge in their hands off the tee, me included!
I loved the par five 17th hole – it’s 567 yards from the back and features an uphill, semi-blind drive. The approach is all downhill and well-struck shots that avoid three nicely placed bunkers down the left side have the chance to run all the way to the green. I hit one of my best shots of the day here, a hybrid from about 260 yards and it rolled all the way through the green into the back bunker. I couldn’t get up and down but you still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face after that long, successful approach.
The 18th caps the day off nicely, with a wonderful downhill approach shot to a great green framed by the stately clubhouse up on the hillside.
I’ve read an awful lot about the Cal Club over the past few years, starting with a great profile over at Golf Club Atlas and continuing with many other articles, along with a great number of emails from friends who have played there. I had pretty high expectations for the course and I can definitively say those expectations were exceeded.
Most great golf architecture has an artistic quality to it and the Cal Club has that in spades. The bunkering is among the most attractive I’ve ever seen in all my travels and the open vistas provided through the Kyle Phillips renovation showcase the club’s wonderfully undulating topography. This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing inland golf courses I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
I was extremely impressed with the firm and fast conditions – granted, when I arrived in California in late May, I had been putting on greens that were rolling at about a six on the stimp but man, did this course play delightfully fast! I played with a friend in a two-ball, sharing a caddie and we played in about three hours – it’s a fun course to walk, with relatively short green to tee transfers and a routing that seemed to gently go up and down hills so as not to discourage the walking golfer.
There aren’t many negatives I can come up with about the course or my day there – if you want to nitpick, yes, the back nine routing gets a bit repetitive with holes running parallel to each other but it’s a minor quibble.
I loved my day at the California GC of San Francisco and after a spectacular renovation by Kyle Phillips and his team, this course takes its rightful place alongside San Francisco GC and the Olympic Club (Lake Course) as the best the great city of San Francisco can offer. I hope I’m lucky enough to return one day and experience it again.