Eggsplorations: NorCal

A survey of great, accessible golf in Northern California


There are a handful of destination golf resorts across the country that offer remarkable architecture and once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the diehard golfer. Those resorts tend to be remote, however, and they are all expensive. What other options exist for the golf nerd on a more modest budget? We bring you the first in our series of Eggsplorations – Northern California.

This winter, I took a trip out to the San Francisco Bay area with fellow architecture nut and PGA Tour player Zac Blair. SF and Monterey are home to a plethora of top-notch golf courses and architecture. There is work from Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, William Watson, Chandler Egan and Jack Neville. One of the key differences of this golf scene compared to New York or Chicago is that there are many courses with compelling architecture available to the public.

During our trip, Zac and I hit up 10 courses in the span of five days. The courses were a mix of the area’s high profile clubs and a few hidden public gems. Reflecting back on the trip, the two of us had some of the best memories from the courses that anyone can play.

Playing the four courses that are accessible to the public makes a fantastic golf trip. It exposes you to a wide range of Alister MacKenzie’s work, and it can be done on a budget with greens fees totaling just over $300. Here are the details on each of the four courses.

The centerpiece

Pasatiempo Golf Club – Santa Cruz, CA – Alister MacKenzie
$195 walking rate

For any golfer looking to see great golf course architecture, Pasatiempo is a course you must see before you die. The brilliant Alister MacKenzie design is the finest Golden Age golf course available to the public on the west coast. Along with Pinehurst #2 and Bethpage Black, it is one of the best examples of Golden Age design for the public golfer. Pasatiempo Golf Club is private but has adopted the model of UK golf courses, where tee times are available to the public on a daily basis. The website lists the stock rate at $260, but GolfNow and TeeOff.com have tee times available daily for $195 or less.

The 11th green at Pasatiempo

MacKenzie designed Pasatiempo for Marian Hollins in 1928. It’s set on spectacular rolling terrain. MacKenzie’s artistic bunkering is set into the hills and offers 18 holes jammed with breathtaking golf. The back nine at Pasatiempo is in the conversation of the best closing nine in America. There are very few golf courses that have stronger architecture than Pasatiempo, and it’s a course that should be included in any trip to the SF/Monterrey area. More on hole 14 at Pasatiempo.

The rest of the trip

Depending on whether you are flying into SF or driving from the north or south, reshuffle the courses to fit your travel schedule.

Northwood Golf Club – Monte Rio, CA – 9-hole Alister MacKenzie
$30 walking rate

It’s possible that I think about Northwood more than any other course I have ever played. The MacKenzie course is a shell of what it could be but remains a wonderful place to play golf in a surreal setting. Towering redwood trees surround the fairways, and their immense size makes the fairways appear far more narrow than they are. To lower maintenance costs, many of the original MacKenzie bunkers are grassed over, but their cavities remain. An early morning loop around Northwood is a perfect complement to a trip to Sonoma for wine tasting. More on Northwood.

Sharp Park Golf Course – Pacifica, CA – 18-hole Alister MacKenzie
$26 walking rate

Just minutes from downtown San Francisco, Sharp Park endures as one of golf’s most intriguing public layouts. The idea for the course was born in the late 1920s when John McLaren, the man who created Golden Gate Park, hired  MacKenzie, who set out to design a Cypress Point for the masses. Upon opening in 1932, Sharp Park joined the Eden Course at St. Andrews as the only other seaside links course designed by MacKenzie. The original layout was truly spectacular.

The 1932 routing of Sharp Park

Unfortunately, the city chose to abandon several holes along the beachfront in 1941.  A seawall was constructed, and four seaside holes were relocated to the eastern portion of the property. The new holes were built by longtime MacKenzie associate Jack Fleming.

1941 aerial of Sharp Park - Credit: Tommy Naccarato

Today, golfers can enjoy twelve of the original MacKenzie holes. The course was almost lost forever due to a federal lawsuit over frogs and snakes. Fortunately, the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance fought and saved the course and is currently working on plans to restore it so future generations of public golfers can experience the magic that Dr. MacKenzie brought to California’s coast so long ago. Sharp Park is a must-visit for any golf nerd who can enjoy a course that is a little rough around the edges (for now) but has great bones.

Pacific Grove Golf Links – Pacific Grove, CA – 18 hole Jack Neville & Chandler Egan design
$59 walking rate

While Pebble, Spyglass and Poppy Hills will attract most visitors to the Monterey area, Pacific Grove is a superb place to play golf. The back nine in particular stands out, thanks to its jaw-dropping oceanfront holes with exposed sand dunes. The course plays firm and fast, and the stretch of 11-16 is all-world. An insider’s trick for Pacific Grove is to take advantage of the early morning (before 8am) back-nine rate of $30.

The iconic Pacific Grove lighthouse and holes 12-14 at Pacific Grove

A few others

Zac and I mixed these courses into our trip as we saw some of the area’s high profile country clubs. If you have access to some country clubs, I would still highly recommend checking these courses out along your trip.

My next trip out to the Bay area, I am looking forward to seeing more of their vast public course offering. A few I am eagerly waiting to see include:

Gleneagles GC at McLaren Park – Jack Fleming – $22 9 hole
Corica Park South Course – Rees Jones and Marc Logan – $95
Presidio Golf Course – Fowler & Simpson – $130
Lincoln Park Golf Course – Jack Neville & Vincent Whitney – $45

The Bay area is one of the best for golf in the U.S. and possibly the best for the public golfer. What I love most about the Bay area is the ability to do a diehard golf trip or a casual one with your significant other or family.