Presidio Golf Club: Unparalleled History and Beauty in San Francisco

By Doug Saunders, Contributor

Back in 1776, Spain established a military post on a strategic bluff of land overlooking one of the most beautiful natural ports in the world, the San Francisco Bay. Since that time, this post, The Presidio, has been ruled first by Mexico and then by the United States. The U.S. Army took control in 1846 while the simple shipping village grew to become one of the great cities of the world. The Presidio served as an important post for troop training and deployment as well as a key headquarters for the West Coast until it was decommissioned in 1987. During its history, the city of San Francisco has been built up to, under, and around the property, leaving the 1480-acre site an enclave of open space.

Today the Presidio has been transformed once again into an integral part of the largest urban park in the world, the 77,000-acre Golden Gate Recreation Area. This vast expanse is bordered by lovely turn of the century Victorian Homes, the bustling roadways of the cosmopolitan city, the Pacific Ocean, and the famous Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.

When the base was decommissioned, all of the military facilities were turned over to the Interior Department and the National Park Service. One unique chunk of that military history was the Presidio Golf Club, a course of unparalleled history and beauty.

The Presidio Golf Club was first laid out in 1896, making it one of the oldest golf courses West of the Mississippi. While first created for military personnel, The Presidio became a joint club with both civilian and military membership. The private club formed in 1916 and built the elegant Tudor style clubhouse that still exists since 1924. Over the years, dignitaries such as Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Dwight Eisenhower played at the Presidio, as the golf course was the jewel of military courses in the West.

When the Presidio Post was decommissioned, the fate of the golf course was uncertain. The National Park Service, as the environmental stewards of federal lands, worried about the possible conflict of interest of a golf course in a National Park. Members of the private club worried that they would lose the course completely. Golfers in San Francisco wondered if this great track that had been whispered about for generations could be opened to the public.

The final solution called for the golf course to become public and be renovated and managed by Arnold Palmer Golf Management on a lease basis. As a vendor on National Park Service land, Palmer proposed to manage the course using strict guidelines to create an environmentally sustainable golf course that would serve as a model for other golf courses to emulate.

The Presidio opened for play to the public in 1997 after a three year, $5 million renovation project. The refurbishing of the neglected greens, tees, and fairways created one of the finest conditioned public golf courses to be found in any urban setting. But even more appealing that the setting is the dramatic layout itself. This is a classic old style layout that travels over a hilly landscape surrounded by mature trees. The mixture of elevation change, persistently heavy ocean air and fog, steady breezes and lovely views of the surrounding city puts this course on a par with the great private clubs of the city, such as the Olympic Club, Lake Merced Country Club, and San Francisco Golf Club.

To enter the Presidio you have to snake up Arguello Street through one of the more exclusive sections of the city. At the top are two stone gates marking the edge of the Presidio. Palmer Golf built the new clubhouse, which is a rugged, yet inviting structure that exudes warmth on a foggy S.F. day. The original clubhouse is visible from here and still remains as the Presidio Golf Club's home. While the golf course is now public, the private club members can obtain tee times while preserving their traditions in this great building.

The Presidio Golf Course has three tees and plays to 6,477 yards from the tips, 6,141 yards from the White tees, and 5,785 Red tees. These yardages make the course seem short, but don't worry, the thick air and hills will give you all that you can handle. The first hole drops off a hill and draws you to the wide fairway. But the prevailing winds can play havoc throughout a round here.

The first three holes drop down into the depth of the property and the blend of manicured fairways and thick rough areas of natural vegetation create a great atmosphere. But club selection can be challenging with the elevation changes. On the 526-yard par 5 2nd hole, your tee shot carries down into a deep swale unless you rip a drive across the dip. This can leave a blind second shot out of the valley that keeps you guessing about the target line. The 386-yard par 4 3rd hole then head back up the slope putting added pressure to each shot. This elevated green is a two-tier affair and you don't want to be above the pin here.

These holes set the tone for the Presidio. Swirling winds and lots of undulation are the trademark here. You quickly see why the military's top brass would always put the Presidio at the top of their West Coast Inspection itinerary.

On the tee of the par 3 4th hole, the environmental touches that Arnold Palmer Golf Management brought to the Presidio are evident everywhere. The tee boxes are surrounded by thick growths of natural foliage creating a garden like setting. Looking down at the large greens of this downhill hole, you see the evidence to the left of a huge natural area that is where course drainage is collected and filtrated naturally.

This green was recently rebuilt and the inclusion of a fan for air circulation and a metal stand for halogen lights have been added to help control temperature and air movement in order to encourage healthy turf. Unseen is an elaborate underground air filtration system that helps to stimulate root growth. All of the features are part of an ongoing program of research and development into cutting edge maintenance techniques that promise to find new ways to stimulate healthy turf growth.

"We are under a mandate to find better environmental solutions here at the Presidio and our hope is to develop techniques that other course can adapt in the future. The goal is still a playable golf course through less chemical use," said Head Superintendent Kevin Hutchins.

While it seemed all downhill from the first tee at the fifth hole, it is time to start marching the troops back up towards home. This hole is just 304 yards long and is a good birdie opportunity with a large relatively flat green. The sixth hole is a side hill, uphill 364 yarder that again plays longer than it looks with a very elevated green to hit into. This is another large tilted green that puts a premium on getting close on your approach.

While you are on this green, check out the condition of the bent grass green itself. While bent grass creates a preferred putting surface, it is rare to find along the coast of California. Most greens here are poa, the most prevalent grass in the world. The Presidio re-sodded all of the greens with bent last fall as a cure to a nematode infestation. The hope is to nurture this disease resistant strain to this microclimate and provide a better putting surface for play.

Coming home on the par 5 ninth hole brings the old clubhouse into view and the city in the background. Keep your drive to the left on this sweeping hole or trees can block you out on your second shot. This is a large, fairly level green so try to get close for a good birdie opportunity.

The outer nine opens with another par five that is 504 yards from the tips and, again, uphill to a smallish green. From this green, you can look back towards the city. This area plateau use to be totally void of trees when the course was first built. All of the mature trees here were planted in the thirties, totally changing character of the course.

Starting at the 11th hole, the course rolls back down to the lowest part of the course. This is a downhill 394-yard par 4. The smallish green is a tantalizing target after the recent uphill holes, but it has a large swale that divides the green, so play to the pin. The downhill trend continues on 12, a 459-yard par 5 and 13, a 175 yard par 3. These holes are scoring opportunities that should be capitalized on.

The home holes force you to climb back to the clubhouse. The 16th hole, a 366 yard par four, is intriguing as you can feel the vibration of traffic under your feet as the highway runs through a tunnel under this hole. If this climb doesn't test you, then the 350-yard 17th hole can. The old observation tower is in view as you hike to this big green. They encourage walking at the Presidio and the experience should bring back the thoughts of boot camp as you trudge up these hills.

The final hole is a 516-yard par five lined by tall eucalyptus trees. This can be a windy affair coming home so hit it straight. The blend of cityscape and open space are best seen on this great finisher as the quaint homes fill the backdrop on your last approach shot. After your final putt drops, you will understand why the Presidio was a favorite among military brass and you will be thankful that it has been preserved in this unique national park.

Presidio Golf Course
300 Finley Road/Arguello Gate
San Francisco, Ca. 94129
Phone: (415)561-4653

The Presidio Golf Course is located on 300 Finley Road just inside the Arguello Gate of the Presidio. From the Golden Gate Bridge take Rte. 101 (19th Avenue) south, then turn left California Street. Turn left on Arguello Street. At the top of the hill is the Arguello Gate entrance to the Presidio.

Green Fees: $42- $72 plus $30 cart fee.

Doug Saunders, Contributor

Doug Saunders has covered more than 20 major championships and his unique perspectives on the game have appeared in numerous publications including Golf World, GolfWeek, Golf Course Management, Golf Course News, Golfdom, and the USGA Golf Journal. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, California Golf Writers, and the Sierra Nevada Golf Course Superintendents Association.

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