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Presidio Golf Course, San Francisco

Review by ausgolf’s Selwyn Berg. May 2005.

A timeless classic layout that today challenges and thrills golfers of all abilities with its hilly tree-lined fairways and tightly bunkered green complexes.

Whilst San Francisco Golf Club and The Olympic Club deserve their reputations as the two finest private courses in the Bay Area, golfers without exclusive memberships or connections are well catered for with excellent public access courses such as Harding Park and Presidio.

Dating back to 1895, and originally designed by Robert Wood Johnstone, the Presidio course was expanded in 1910 by Johnstone in collaboration with William McEwan and redesigned and lengthened by the British firm of Fowler & Simpson in 1921.

Observers of the ongoing debate about ball technology making several classic layouts ‘obsolete’ will be interested to read Herbert Fowler’s views from that time: “Now that the ball-makers have successfully ruined most of our leading courses, it remains for the golf architects to so design the greens that they shall be both difficult of access and that the putting shall demand care and skill in judging slopes and undulations”.

The challenge that the Presidio course today presents to golfers of all abilities arises primarily through its architects’ successful implementation of just that design strategy, which has withstood the test of time and the relentless onslaught of ball technology.

Whilst the driving areas are often generous enough to encourage a lusty blow, approach shots to greens must be struck with precision to negotiate tight entrances created by bunker placements, wicked slopes and wooded roughs. When the greens are hard and fast it is imperative to leave oneself an uphill putt.

Presidio is not a long course, at 6400 yards from the back tees, but it is hilly, with many elevated tees and greens and a scarcity of level ground on the fairways that makes it play longer. When the fairways are soft and wet there is little roll for the ball. In addition, the holes are lined by mature pines and eucalypts that place a premium on accuracy, and can make many shots seem much tighter than they truly are. There is indeed a penalty to be paid for missing the fairway, as the wiry first cut of rough will grab a club on either a long shot or a delicate chip.

Fowler was noteworthy too for his minimalist approach: “God builds golf links and the less man meddles the better for all concerned.” Fairway bunkering is refreshingly sparse and strategically placed in order to test the better player with a risk and reward situation – play close to or carry a bunker in order to set up a birdie approach, or aim away from the hazard or even lay up for a safer route to par? The bunkers themselves are not huge affairs, but they are dug into the natural contours of the land such that a ball will often feed into them. The greenside bunkers in particular are wonderful affairs, dug deep into the sides of the putting surfaces in the classic MacKenzie style that will be so familiar to Australian golfers who have enjoyed courses such as those on the Melbourne Sand Belt.

The Presidio Course is now part of the Golden Gate National Park, near the famous bridge and just 10 minutes from downtown San Francisco. The elevated fairways afford great views over the city. The site is a former U.S. Army base, and the course was used by officers and their guests, including such luminaries as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Arnold Palmer. In 1995 the course was turned over to the public, and is now managed by Palmer Golf Management.

The first hole grabs your attention immediately. Big hitters can carry the fairway bunker on the right in order to leave a simple wedge approach to an open-fronted green, but any error will be punished by sand, heavy rough, or even OOB on the right. Play safely short and left into a very wide, flat fairway, but then be prepared to flight your mid-iron over greenside traps, or shape it right to left in order to find the heart of the green or attack a pin tucked back left.

The second again demands course management skills. A par 5 from a very elevated tee presents a fairway sloping steeply from right to left, requiring the drive to flirt with a long snaking bunker on the high side of the fairway. The closer your ball is to this bunker, the better your view of the green, and a possibility to reach it in two. This is a risky proposition indeed, as the elevated green is almost circled with sand, and closely surrounded by wooded rough.

The third is a tough par 4 that demands an accurate tee shot to avoid the timber, even though there are no fairway bunkers, just a single trap short of the elevated, 3-tier green.

Presidio boasts a superb set of one-shotters that provide great variety in length, elevation and demand precise shot-making.

The fourth is a signature “postage stamp” par 3 from another high teeing ground to a green again ringed with sand. Enjoy it, as the next par 3, the seventh, plays all of its 219 yards from the back tee to a long, elevated green which is bunkered at the front to favour a right to left shot with a long iron.

The eighth is a 378 yard par 4 that again demonstrates that a good golf hole does not require fairway bunkering if it has trees and slope. No fairway bunkers on the tenth, either, a mere 504 yard par 5 that is a true 3-shot hole given the steep climb to a green that is tilted across the line of approach and cleverly guarded by sand front and rear.

No fairway sand again on eleven, a long, downhill, right to left par 4 that can be shortened considerably by a perfect tee shot that follows the contour of the hole and avoids tree touble on the right.

The twelfth clearly justifies its place as the toughest hole on the course – a 453 yard par 4 with a large menacing fairway bunker 200 yards out from the elevated green. Most golfers will need to lay up in front of the green, so its not a bad idea to leave the driver in the bag and position your tee shot well short of the bunker.

The thirteenth is a wonderful par 3 hole, uphill to a wind-exposed green that is partly obscured from the tee by tall vegetation half way up the slope. There is bunker trouble if you are short, but chipping from the long grass beyond the green is also not easy.

The final par 3, fifteen, plays downhill to a green protected by some of the best bunkering on the course – deep, cavernous affairs that cut right into the sides of the green, rising up from hollows below the putting surface with steep faces that defy escape and create additional undulation at the edge of the green.

Details and bookings : http://www.presidiogolf.com

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