We here at Talking To A Fade believe strongly in public golf courses. This is both because the model is inherently better (see: Scotland, Ireland, etc.) but it also is simply the only way folks like us, who don’t belong to a private course, can enjoy the game of golf.
So, sure it’s a reality – but it’s also something worth celebrating. There are hundreds, and probably thousands, of amazing golf courses in the U.S., and certainly worldwide. This feature “Playing Public” is meant to highlight some of those courses and public golf in general.
Sharp Park, Pacifica CA
Depending on how big you define the “Bay Area,” the region has some pretty choice public golf courses — from TPC Harding Park and Presidio in San Francisco, to the new Corica South in Alameda, down to Half Moon Bay (Ocean) on the coast, as well as several in the East Bay and north of the city up to Napa, Sonoma and the surrounding areas. (Note: No matter how you define the Bay Area, it doesn’t venture as far south as places with top notch courses like San Jose, Santa Cruz or Monterey. But we’ll get to those as well.)
Sharp Park, located south of San Francisco in the beachside community of Pacifica, is actually part of the San Francisco Public Golf Courses, which means that residents can play the course extremely cheaply. Even for those without a resident card, it’s less than $50 to play on a weekday, and slightly more on weekends.
Part of that is because the course is not in wonderful shape – in some cases, it screams “municipal golf course” but in other ways, it’s a true gem. Because Sharp Park mostly is on the coast and was designed by Dr. Alistair MacKenzie. That’s right, that’s the same guy who designed Cypress Point, Pasatiempo and a pretty nice track down in Augusta, GA. In fact, Sharp Park and the Eden Course at St. Andrews are the only two municipal seaside golf courses in the world designed by MacKenzie.
The history of Sharp Park, and the efforts to save and rebuild it, have been well documented elsewhere. I highly recommend this podcast by TalkinGolf for a primer, and I won’t attempt to crib from that. But, to sum up, the course has deteriorated over the years but is now on the way back. But it’s still very much on the way, and not there yet. I found the below recently and it’s amazing to think of what it looked and played like back in the day:
But what’s it like now? Here’s a walk-through. I played the course in November 2019. I’ve played it maybe 10 times in the past, but it’d been at least four or five years since my last. I had always heard that the course was designed by “Dr. Mackenzie,” and I always loved the back nine of the course (not knowing that much of the front nine is not from his original design) so this time I tried to take notes.
It’s a shorter track regardless of what tees you play from, so I teed it up from the Blue tees, at just over 6200 yards.
HOLE 1: 370 yard, Par 4
As part of the SAVE SHARP PARK movement, all the holes have names, but I didn’t keep track of them from the start. This is a pretty tame opening hole but it does have some quirks. There’s a large mound in the fairway about 150 yards out, so it’s more of a sight decoy than anything – that is, unless you dead hook your drive into a tree and it rolls out to rest on the left side of said mound. The next element that takes this away from your basic muni is that there’s a half-burn – that is, a creek that runs only across the left side of the fairway maybe 50-60 yards short of the green which is on the left side of the hole. I completely forgot about the burn until just after I made contact with my second shot and was lucky to clear it with room to spare, though I ended up short of the green, then chunked my wedge and walked away with a double-bogey on one of the easier holes on the course.
Where to Miss: Miss right – the fairway is wide enough but it really opens up to the right. This will also give you a much better angle to the green and keep you away from the half-burn fronting the green on the left side.
HOLE 2: 336 yards, Par 4
Hole 2 runs straight back to the clubhouse and pretty unremarkable off the tee, though the green slopes hard from back to front so the second shot is tricky, and has a few bunkers you probably don’t want to be in. I missed the green on my approach, and two-putted for bogey.
Where to Miss: With your drive, it’s fairly straight though the tee box is tighter on the right side so it sort of feels tighter than it is. But in terms of your drive, it’s a toss-up. (Try to hit it straight.) But on your approach, if you miss the green, it’s far better to miss on the right (which is the 3rd tee box) than the left, which is a big cart path, trees and the first hole.
HOLE 3, 366 yards, Par 4
Hole 3 switches back yet again, and here’s where you are likely thinking how uninteresting the course is. While the cypress trees provide nice frames to the course, that switchback course design is one of the least interesting ways to play golf (at least for me). This hole adds a bit more distance, but if you can hit the ball reasonably straight, you should be able to do well here. Yet again, I struggled off the tee but managed another bogey.
Where to Miss: Right, all day. The left is a cart path and trees, while there’s a huge bailout to the right. You’ll also have a much better angle to the green.
After Hole 3, you walk across the street and then through a tunnel that takes you under the freeway back up towards the hills. In the wetter parts of the year, the next four holes are where there are major drainage issues and which help keep the front nine as being a pretty big letdown overall. Again, I’ve learned that these aren’t part of the original design but they are largely needed to keep this an 18-hole course with some yardage. And they’re not bad!
HOLE 4, 462 yards, Par 5
The short par-5 is largely straight though it plays on a gradual uphill slope. The ground movement suggests that there’s a dogleg when in fact you can really hit the ball straight two or three times to get to the green. While I didn’t exactly hit it straight, I got on the front of the green with my fourth shot and drained a 10-foot putt for my first par. Note, below is the greenside “bunker” on this course – you can see that on some holes, this is really where the course needs funds to get this back into better playing conditions.
Where to Miss: Again, it’s a fairly straight hole and quite wide, but if you have to miss one way (and don’t we all), miss right. Left can get you into more tree trouble than the right. If you go too far right, you won’t have a chance to go for the green in two, so hit it straight if you have designs on that, right?
HOLE 5 – HUNTER – 196 yards, Par 3
The first hole whose name I took down is a bear – almost 200 yards uphill, and the tee shot feels like it’s narrower that it is as both sides of the hole are tree-lined. It’s easy to come up short, which I did, and was lucky to two-putt for a bogey.
Where to Miss: If you can miss long on an uphill par-3 that’s 200 yards, good on you. But the better miss is short or right. Left is dead.
HOLE 6 – EGAN – 416 yards, Par 4
This is the number one handicap hole on the course, and it’s one I remembered well from playing it previously. It’s a big downhill hole, so it still can play fairly short as it bends from right to left. I hit my best drive of the day straight down the middle and still ended up on the far left side of the fairway. That caused me to get too cute with my approach (which I missed, and you’ll likely start noticing a trend in my game here), but then 2-putted for a bogey after a bad wedge onto the green.
Where to Miss: Don’t just miss right, AIM right. As noted, the hole really slopes from right to left, so even a ball down the right side of the fairway is going to roll to the left. As shown in the picture above, you do need to get the ball out about 150-170 yards before your inevitable
slice fade or hookdraw, but again if you can, miss to the right.
HOLE 7 – 412 yards, Par 4
The last of the hillside holes, This feels a bit too similar to the sixth hole, and after a horrendous drive in to the right side of the fairway, I was lucky to escape with a bogey. I don’t know why, but I’m fairly sure I have never played this hole well.
Where To Miss: LEFT! Yes, there are holes where the better miss is to the left. Off the tee, the right side is all trees and yet there is a massive, massive bailout to the left. The farther left you go, the longer your second shot, but you will have a second shot – if you miss badly to the right, you’ll be hitting three.
HOLE 8 – 91 yards, Par 3
This hole is clearly a plug to fit into the existing layout (various things have eaten up part of the original course) and it’s a simple gap wedge onto the green, and even I managed to do that. And then miss a relatively short birdie putt.
Where To Miss: Look, I’m not a good golfer. But it’s less than 100 yards. It’s a par-3. You shouldn’t really miss. But if you do, I think short is the way to go here as there’s not a lot of room behind the green and there are traps to the sides.
HOLE 9, PACIFICA – 483 yards, Par 5
When you name a hole after the city it’s in, hopefully that’s a good sign. And this is where the course really starts to flex its muscle. It doesn’t head back to the clubhouse but instead ventures straight for the coast. A nice drive towards the right side helps you have a better angle at the green, though a right side bunker makes it a bit more dangerous from that side. Notably, the back of the green has very little room and an overly aggressive approach shot will be OB as there’s little to stop the ball if it lands past the green. Despite the sprinklers being part of my second and third shot I got on the green in regulation and two-putted for par.
Where To Miss: Again, you’re going to want to miss right – as shown above, off the tee, unless you hook it around the cypresses in front of the tee, you’re dead left. There’s plenty of space off to the right and you can get into a great position for your approach even with a pretty good faded drive.
HOLE 10 – 422 yards, Par 4
Hole 10 actually does head back to the clubhouse and is another dogleg left. From the tee, you can’t see the green at all, and it feels much longer than the yardage would suggest. The fairway on this hole was in fairly bad shape when I played, and both my playing partner and I found ourselves in what felt more like hardpan waste areas despite being in the center of the fairway. This is the #1 handicap hole on the course, and accordingly, I double bogeyed without figuring out how to play the hole the best way.
Where To Miss: The best shot off the tee is to hit it down the left side because the ball should then roll off to the right, where things open up quite a bit. But if you miss left with a pull, you’re in the trees or worse. Since it’s much more open to the right, that’s the place to miss. Up towards the green, the miss is long as it’s pretty tight on both sides of the hole.
HOLE 11 – 411 yards, Par 4.
Despite switchbacking alongside Hole 10, this feels very different as the coastal feel begins to feel quite present. The cypress trees along the right side seem to leap out into the fairway at just the right places, and the way they frame the back of the green is really striking. This isn’t the kind of thing you see at most muni courses. (Oh, I bogeyed this one.)
Where to Miss: This is one of the rare holes where a left miss is much better. The right side is lined with cypress trees and also makes your approach shot absolutely blocked.
HOLE 12 – 208 yards, Par 3
Here’s a thing – I hate long par-3’s. I know that designers like them because for top golfers it’s the only way they can get them to use their longer irons. But for mid-handicappers like myself, it just takes what should be an advantage (teeing off with a club I can control better) and instead puts a 4-iron or a hybrid in my hands. But this hole is…incredible. It is framed by a dune wall that separates the course from the beach and feels a lot like the 11th hole at Pacific Grove (or, is it the other way around?). The green also sits up in a mound like, Donald Ross-esque turtleback, so if – hypothetically – you missed the green on your tee shot, and then hit a wretched chip, you could get yourself in a place where you walk away with a double-bogey due to the difficulty putting. Which. I did. This was not hypothetical after all.) Note – my iPhone camera failed me on this one, otherwise I’d post a photo.
Where To Miss: Miss short. There’s little room behind the green and too far left or right is likely OB.
HOLE 13 – 564 yards, Par 5
The longest par-5 that subtly turns left is fairly approachable, and it’s also gorgeous. The left side is framed by the reeds of the local tidewater (a protected area that has some rare frogs in it, and the course circles this area for much of the back nine). Like the 10th and 11th holes (which all run side by side), the fairway here wasn’t in great shape and it took me four shots to get to the green, where I yet again two-putted for bogey.
Where To Miss: The left side, which runs down the entire hole, is so scenic – reeds and marshland and absolutely out of bounds. Miss right. Only on your approach to the green is a left miss okay as that’s where the 14th tee opens up.
HOLE 14 – LIDO – 383 yards, Par 4
Off the tee, this doesn’t look all that interesting, but if you know the origin of the holes name (a lost course on the Eastern seaboard that many said was the greatest course in the country), you might wonder if there’s more than appears to the eye. There is. The marshy reeds continue to run down the left side, and on the right there are a line of cypress trees between this and the 18th hole. But otherwise it seems quite straight. But the approach to the green is really interesting. There’s a mound about 70 yards out from the hole that looks to be much closer to the green if you aren’t paying attention. The green is also framed by trees on the right and back, and has bunkers on the right and left sides. It’s a much tougher hole than it appears and is really, really fun to play.
Where To Miss: Off the tee, right keeps you alive. Approaching the green, miss left.
HOLE 15 – HIMALAYAS – 142 yards, Par 3
I’m fairly sure this hole is named after a blind par-3 at Prestwick, not the world class putting course at St. Andrews, but honestly that’s good company either way. It’s also somewhat blind as there’s a massive bunker in front of the green, a cypress on the right side and you can really only see the far left side of the green from the tee.
What’s interesting once you get up to the green is realizing that the flagpole is GIGANTIC, which likely causes some misinterpretation of how far away it is for those not using yardage books or rangefinders.
Where to Miss: Short, but not too short. If you clear the bunker and stay relatively straight here, you’re going to be fine. (I just made the fringe and two putted for par.) Missing right puts the cypress tree in play. Missing left is okay as long as you’re long enough and get over the junk.
HOLE 16 – 360 yards, Par 4
The 16th hole runs along the seawall and is framed by the sounds of the waves and seagulls, as well as cyclists and pedestrians walking along the path atop the seawall. Don’t get mad at them chatting, this is public golf and that’s the price we pay. This is another of the holes that I remembered vividly when thinking about this course, and though I don’t believe it’s original to the course, it’s really fun. It’s simple enough off the tee – hit it straight – but the approach brings a lot of questions. Depending on the pin placement and where your tee shot is, you need to be careful. Right and back of the green is pretty much dead, but the green slopes pretty hard from back to front, so you have to give it enough club or you’ll be at the bottom or off the green entirely. Making it fun there’s also a greenside bunker on the left.
Where To Miss: Off the tee, if you miss wildly, go left as there’s the entire 17th fairway to keep you in play. If you miss badly to the right, you’ll likely be in the iceplant and other foliage below the seawall and that doesn’t sound like much fun. But it is pretty wide open, as shown below. This is one of the few holes I hit the fairway and a GIR and walked away with a par.
HOLE 17 – 340 yards, Par 4
This is a gorgeous hole, with the marshland we saw on hole 13 and 14 now framing the right side of the fairway. It’s short too, so Driver isn’t necessarily your best club here. The green is framed by bunkers though, so you definitely want to be approaching with a wedge or something with a lot of loft.
Where to Miss: You can’t miss right or you’re OB. This is again one of the rare holes where the miss is to the left. But again, don’t miss too far or you’ll be coming into the green with a club that either lands you in a bunker or skids you off the back of the green. (Sorry, Bryson, but a 4 or 5-iron isn’t supposed to only run out a few yards.)
HOLE 18 – 491 yards, Par 5
This is a shorter par 5 (the tee was even up when I played it) and it is a big dogleg to the right. A strong drive will put a green in two into play for longer hitters, and though the green is slightly elevated from the fairway, it’s not enough to matter much. If you get off the tee well, this is a great way to come home from a fun round on the seaside.
Where To Miss: Left is actually better as the trouble is so far left as to hopefully not be in play off the tee, while cypress trees line the right side of the fairway. If you really miss right far enough back that you can clear those trees from the 14th fairway, you can get back into a place where you should still be able to get on in regulation. But a better way to miss is off to the left side of the fairway, which could still allow a bigger hitter a way on in two.
Sharp Park is a great public course, and is on its way to being once again a world-class muni. If you’re anywhere near the Bay Area you should try to get down to Pacifica to give it a try. Be aware that if it’s rainy season, holes 4-7 might be literally unplayable until they solve that drainage issue. Even then it’s still worth it. And, if you’ve made it this far and are considering helping to save this historic course, you can do so by buying this incredible merch at State Apparel.