Golfing in the shadow of the Golden Gate

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO -- You're taking a business trip to San Francisco and you wonder if you should take your clubs along - maybe squeeze in a round between visits to clients.

If you've never been to Northern California before, you'll find great courses here, but you wouldn't call the Bay Area a golfers' paradise. And finding a place can be tricky if you don't plan ahead.

But to help those who cannot go more than a week without 18 holes, here are four interesting courses within a half hour of Fisherman's Wharf or the Financial District and one very unique club that's less than an hour away if you have more time. Three courses are located in the city itself, one in Berkeley across the bay, and one in Novato, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. These are very popular courses with local players so making tee times before leaving home is smart.

Weather is always an issue in or near San Francisco. The best times of year are April and May and September and October when it's less likely you'll hit rain or fog. The winter can be a soggy mess anywhere in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, summers inside the city limits are unpredictable; you could need long pants and a jacket due to fog. Berkeley is warmer in summer than San Francisco; Novato, however, is well out of the fog belt and has warm, dry summers.

Presidio Golf Course, San Francisco: Scenery combined with history

The 109-year-old Presidio Course, the oldest in San Francisco, was on a military base that was decommissioned and turned into a national park in 1995. Previously, only military officers could play here. Previous golfers included such impressive names as Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Dwight Eisenhower. The fairways, designed by Robert Johnstone in the 1890s, have been renovated since Arnold Palmer Golf Management took over operations for the National Park Service and the course went public.

Accuracy is important on these straight, tight holes, placed fairly close to each other. The fairways wander over hills and knolls and run past 100-year-old eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees. You're only minutes away from the Golden Gate Bridge and there are beautiful views of the city. "The ambiance is just great with the cypresses and the city views," says Scott Steele, director of golf.

This is a 6,477-yard course with a rating/slope of 72.2/136.

The Presidio does 78,000 rounds a year. Steele recommends calling 30 days in advance for a tee time, even though there is an advance tee time fee of $12 per person on weekends and $8 on weekdays.

Green fees are $42 during the week, $65 on Friday, and $77 on weekends and holidays, plus a $16 per person cart fee. "It's a great walking course," Steele says.

The course is located at 300 Finley Road, just inside the Presidio's Arguello Gate. From San Francisco take Geary Boulevard to Arguello Boulevard. Turn right on Arguello and go through the gate.

Harding Park, San Francisco: A jewel gets new polish

Harding Park Golf Course, originally designed by William Watson in 1925, had a $16 million renovation in 2003 to raise the course to world-class standards. The layout still follows the original route, but new bunkers, tees and greens have vastly improved this jewel. The redesign was done with the help of PGA Tour Design Services with former USGA President Frank D. "Sandy" Tatum, serving as a consultant. The PGA Tour is scheduled to play at the World Golf American Express Championships at Harding next year.

Majestic cypresses line the fairways of this 6,825-yard course, which is bordered on three sides by Lake Merced.

The makeover has made tee times tough to get. Non-resident green fees are $76 Monday through Thursday and $88 Friday through Sunday.

Harding Park is located at 99 Harding Road, near Skyline Boulevard.

Lincoln Park, San Francisco: Short with stunning views

Another historic San Francisco-owned track is the 18-hole Lincoln Park Golf Course which has much-photographed views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The most famous hole is the par-3 17th overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the cliffs of the Marin Headlands.

Stars like Bobby Jones, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and Babe Zaharias have played on this course designed by Tom Bendelow and built in 1908. Jack Fleming redesigned the par-68 layout in the 1960s; it measures 5,149 yards from the back tees. Conditions here are definitely muni-style and the course can get packed on weekends. Parking can be a problem as well. The city is talking about renovating Lincoln Park, as was done at Harding. But it could be sometime in the future.

Lincoln Park Golf Course is located at 34th Avenue and Clement Street, very close to the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Tilden Park, Berkeley: Get away from it all

Built in 1937, Tilden Park Golf Course was designed by William P. Bell Jr. It stands inside the East Bay Regional Park on a wooded hillside, only a couple of miles from the hustle and bustle of the University of California-Berkeley campus. "But when you're out on the course, you get away from absolutely everything," says Anthony Beltramo, assistant golf professional. "There are no houses on the course and it's as if you're 100 miles away from everything."

From the back tees, the course measures about 6,300 yards (rating/slope, 70.6/123). The hilly fairways can make for tricky lies, and you'll have to watch out for the trees as well. A multi-million drainage improvement program took place a couple of years ago. So now playing during the winter rainy system is much more pleasant.

This is a fairly busy course, even during the week. Some 250 to 300 rounds a re played daily. However, course managers have launched a crusade to get everyone on and off in 4½ hours.

Tee times can be made seven days in advance - a good idea due to the heavy play.

Tilden Park sits on a ridgeline at Grizzly Peak Boulevard at Shasta Road in Berkeley. It can be tricky to find, so check a map before you go. A round at this course is a great activity to combine with a quick stroll through the beautiful campus of UC-Berkeley.

StoneTree Golf Club, Novato: A new classic

Stone Tree Golf Club is the only upscale, non-government-owned course on our list. Built in 2000, it was designed by former USGA President Frank D. "Sandy" Tatum working with golf star Johnny Miller and two course designers, Fred Bliss and Jim Summers.

It took several years of wrangling before developers got permission to build this 6,800-yard course, largely because environmental groups fought any building on the heavily wooded site in an area known as Black Point. But the resulting course turned out to be one of the finest in the Bay Area and is well worth the drive to the north.

Many fairways are lined by dense stands of "hard-as-stone" oaks that give the course its name. Some holes travel up and down through a canyon; others were laid out on flatter wetlands. More than 11,000 trees have been planted here to give more shape and beauty to the flatter sections of the course. From the back tees, the rating/slope is 73.3/143.

"There are 18 great holes here," says head golf professional Dallas Goldsmith, "but the best stretch is Nos. 13 through 17 which wrap up through the canyon behind the clubhouse. They are definitely the most remembered holes because of the undulations and ups and downs."

The course is located at 9 StoneTree Lane, Novato. Take Highway 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Highway 37. Take the east exit toward Napa and Vallejo. Proceed 2 ½ miles on 37 to the Atherton exit. Then turn right into the entrance to the club.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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