by Bo Links and Richard Harris
Sharp Park, located on Salada Beach in the San Francisco suburb of Pacifica, shares the distinction with the Eden Course at St. Andrews1 as the world’s only Alister MacKenzie-designed, municipal seaside golf links.
Since opening day in 1932, the course has been a central part of life in the small seaside town of Pacifica - reminiscent of classic Scottish public links, such as North Berwick and the Old Course at St. Andrews itself. Indeed, when Dr. MacKenzie revealed his design to the public in 1930, he declared that the course he conceived for Sharp Park would be “as sporty as the old course at St. Andrews and as picturesque a golf course as any in the world.”
Now is the time for the community to come together and preserve this important public recreational legacy for future generations.
Golf enthusiasts from the Bay Area and around the world, historic preservationists like the Washington, D.C. based cultural Landscape Foundation2, and others who treasure Sharp Park, including public officials from San Francisco, Pacifica, and San Mateo County, are fighting to rescue Dr. MacKenzie’s muni masterpiece.
Alister MacKenzie turned these dunes into one of America's great cultural landscapes.
George SharpSharp Park Golf Course occupies approximately 120 acres of a 400 acre park – most of it forested wilderness – bequeathed to the City of San Francisco in 1917 by the executors of the estate of Honora Sharp, the widow of George Sharp, a prominent San Francisco attorney who sailed around Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He made a fortune during and after the Gold Rush but dropped dead in a local courtroom while pleading a case in 1882. The gift from Mrs. Sharp’s estate is subject to the condition that the property will revert to the Sharp family heirs unless it is used exclusively for a “public playground or park.”
Historic photographs show that before the golf course, the land was an artichoke farm and before that predominantly a barren and deserted stretch of sand dunes surrounding Laguna Salada (Spanish for “salty lake”), a brackish lagoon located in an area designated on the 1892 US Geological Service topographic map as “Salt Valley.” 3
Historic photo of artichoke farm and Laguna Salada.
In 1927, when San Francisco’s two existing public courses at Lincoln Park and Harding Park were oversubscribed with enthusiastic golfers, the man who created Golden Gate Park had a brainstorm. Why not build a third course on the land that had been donated by Mrs. Sharp? So John McLaren, the legendary steward of San Francisco open space and parkland, floated the idea of a seaside public golf course at Sharp Park. McLaren’s handpicked architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie (and his firm Hunter & MacKenzie) were selected pursuant to a contingency arrangement of sorts: they would draw up plans for a golf course for no fee; but if the plans were accepted at a later date and the course constructed in accordance with those plans, Hunter & Mackenzie would be retained as the course architects. In late 1930, somewhat after the fact, everything came together. By unanimous vote of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Alister MacKenzie was officially hired as the golf course architect for the City’s third municipal course in the dunes at Salada Beach.
You will never see a more eclectic group of golfers anywhere.
MacKenzie was by then a Bay Area resident, with an office in Oakland, and a recent string of Northern California architectural successes, including Cypress Point (1928), Pasatiempo (1929), Claremont (Oakland, 1929, remodel) Lake Merced (Daly City, remodel 1928-29) California Golf Club (South San Francisco, remodel 1928), and Meadow Club (Fairfax, 1926).
Dr. MacKenzie’s plans for Sharp Park were completed by 1929. He left construction supervision to the watchful eye of his partner Chandler Egan (two-time U.S. Amateur champion, 1904 Olympic golf silver medalist, and the architect primarily responsible for renovating Pebble Beach for the 1929 U.S. Amateur Championship). Robert Hunter, Jr. (son of MacKenzie’s long-time partner Robert Hunter, who had by then relocated to Southern California) was retained as the supervisor of construction. Egan and Hunter, Jr. were joined by Jack Fleming, who had been the construction foreman at Cypress Point.
Born of Scottish parents in 1870 in Yorkshire, England, Alister MacKenzie received a medical education at Cambridge. He served as a British Army surgeon in the Second Boer War in South Africa in the 1890s and then as a camouflage officer with Royal Engineers in World War 1. He quit the practice of medicine early in the 20th Century and went into partnership in London with H.S. Colt and Charles Allison – the first-ever business dedicated solely to golf architecture.
“One of the reasons why I, a medical man, decided to give up medicine and take to golf architecture was my firm conviction of the extraordinary influence on health of pleasurable excitement, especially when combined with fresh air and exercise,” MacKenzie explained. “How frequently have I with great difficulty persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting room since.” 4
As consulting architect at St. Andrews in the early 1920s, MacKenzie was the first to chart the swales, hollows and pits which characterize the fairways of the Old Course. “Golf in its early days was always played on commons or links land which bordered the sea,” MacKenzie explained. “The natural characteristics of this type of land made it easily the most suitable for the game.” 5
Golfers the world over have come to know Dr. MacKenzie as one of history’s greatest golf architects, whose courses circle the globe from New Zealand (Titirangi) to Australia (Royal Melbourne and New South Wales) to Argentina (The Jockey Club) to England (Alwoodly and Moortown), Ireland (Cork and Lahinch) and, of course, Scotland (Blairgowrie, and his work at St. Andrews, including assisting H.S. Colt in designing the Eden Course).
In the United States, Dr. MacKenzie worked primarily in the Midwest (where he built university courses at the University of Michigan and Ohio State, and the great layout at Crystal Downs in Northern Michigan) and Northern California. Indeed, his final resting place is Santa Cruz, overlooking Monterey Bay, 90 miles south of San Francisco, where his ashes were scattered at Pasatiempo, the wonderful up-and-down course he built for Marion Hollins. Bobby Jones played Pasatiempo on opening day in 1929 and it was that experience, as well as the fact that MacKenzie (working again for Mrs. Hollins) had also recently designed the amazing new course at nearby Cypress Point, that caused the game’s greatest amateur (and some say greatest player) to retain MacKenzie to construct Jones’s “dream course,” Augusta National, on an abandoned flower nursery in rural Georgia.
In 1920, MacKenzie published "Golf Architecture," the first-ever book on the subject of golf course design, in which he enumerated key principles of golf architecture, including:
Dr. MacKenzie was a devotee of natural beauty, and an artist in the tradition of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the 17th Century father of English naturalistic landscape design. “The chief object of every golf architect or greenkeeper worth his salt,” MacKenzie said, "is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from Nature herself." 7
"My reputation,” he continued, “has been based on the fact that I have endeavored to conserve the existing natural features and, where these were lacking, to create formations in the spirit of nature herself. In other words, while always keeping uppermost the provision of a splendid test of golf, I have striven to achieve beauty . . . . This excellence of design is more felt than fully realized by the players, but nevertheless it is constantly exercising a subconscious influence upon him and in course of time he grows to admire such a course as all works of beauty must be eventually felt and admired." 8
An ardent advocate of municipal golf, MacKenzie “… hoped to live to see the day when there are the crowds of municipal courses, as in Scotland, cropping up all over the world. There can be no possible reason against, and there is every reason in favor of, municipal courses.” 9
Unfortunately for public golfers, MacKenzie worked mostly for private developers, so very few of his courses are publicly accessible. Most golfers only hear about MacKenzie’s greatness when the world’s best play the Masters every April at Augusta National. Similarly, most American golfers never get closer to a genuine seaside links than their couches and TV sets every summer during the British Open.
But for over 80 years, lucky San Francisco and Peninsula muni players and visitors have had Sharp Park – the Pacific Coast’s answer to North Berwick – a place where a remarkably diverse golfing clientele of all races, languages, social classes, and genders pull their carts, hit their shots, and enjoy a beer and a sandwich in a charming 19th hole pub, for a modest weekday greens fee under $30.
The Spanish hacienda-style clubhouse was a Works Progress Administration construction project, designed by an associate of Willis Polk, who in turn was head of the San Francisco office of Chicago-based master planner Daniel Burnham. In other words, when constructing Sharp Park – in the dark days of the Great Depression – San Francisco went first-class all the way.
The clubhouse at Sharp Park is a WPA classic.
As for the course design, Dr. MacKenzie made the most of the opportunity handed him by John McLaren. Deploying state-of-the-art machinery and innovative engineering techniques, he dredged the Laguna Salada, converting it from a brackish marsh into a fresh water lake, then set about surrounding the lagoon with golf holes. Sharp Park incorporates MacKenzie's prescription that a golf course should be a place of surpassing natural beauty, and that the game should foremost be a fun and healthful pastime, equally playable and enjoyable by persons of all abilities.
At Sharp Park, MacKenzie combined features in one place that he had scattered over other layouts. His original design included holes featuring multiple tees (Nos. 2, 5, and 14), double fairways (Nos. 5 & 10), cross bunkering (No. 16), fairways in the sand dunes (Nos. 3 & 7) and several holes bordering the inland lake (Nos. 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11). There were tees on spits in the water, and island landing areas. Two of the holes were clearly inspired by MacKenzie’s “Lido Hole” which catapulted him to fame in 1914 when he won a design contest sponsored by Country Life magazine.
Looking at Sharp Park is like viewing a John Constable painting of an English landscape.
MacKenzie completed his plans for Sharp Park in 1929 and left construction supervision to Chandler Egan and Robert Hunter, Jr. He traveled to Argentina, the British Isles and other states visiting old courses and designing new ones - from the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires to St. Andrews, to Bayside Links in New York, to Augusta National in Georgia.10 Back at Pacifica, Egan marveled at the Sharp Park site’s “remarkable seascape,” prompting local reporters to refer to the course as “a second St. Andrews.” Everyone associated with the project fully intend it to become “the finest municipal golf course in America.” 11
Indeed, local press reports analogized the effort to build Sharp Park as nothing less than an attempt to bring a touch of Scottish coast land on the Pacific Shore. One report said the joint effort of McLaren and MacKenzie would “create a seaside municipal course of outstanding character akin to those of the English and Scottish coasts.” 12
When the course opened for play on April 16, 1932 it played 6,173 yards to a par of 71. The local press echoed Egan’s theme, noting that the course presented a “thorough test of golf and a perfect seaside layout.” One report commented that “picturesque dunes and a lagoon or so dot the landscape to add their charm and hazards to the golfer’s day." 13
Modern architectural scholars have come to regard MacKenzie’s design at Sharp Park as one of America’s greatest public courses. Daniel Wexler, America’s leading exponent of “lost courses,” has lauded Sharp Park as a “marvelous golf course, featuring seaside holes, two double fairways, a large lake, and a cypress-dotted setting fairly reminiscent of Monterey. It was, in short, a municipal masterpiece.”14 In a call for restoration, Wexler observed, after surveying hundreds of public and private courses from coast to coast, that the original Sharp Park “would have to stand well out in front as America’s finest municipal golf links.”14
Tom Doak, perhaps the country’s most noted authority on golf course renovation, has cited Sharp Park as a “milestone,” evidencing an evolution in Dr. MacKenzie’s style even at the height of his fame as the country’s most sought after golf architect. 15
One of today’s most prolific golf architecture critics, Geoff Shackelford, echoes these themes, saying: “Certainly no municipal-course design has ever come close to matching the overall package of beauty and affordable links-style golf.” 16
MacKenzie himself, in his comprehensive (and long lost) manuscript, The Spirit of St. Andrews, praised Sharp Park and San Francisco’s public golf facilities in general:
“The municipal courses in San Francisco are far superior to most municipal courses. The newest, which we constructed at Sharp Park, was made on land reclaimed from the sea…. The course now has a great resemblance to real links land.” 17
This sea wall protects the course from the ocean, which is only a wedge shot away.
Urban legend long had it that portions of the original course were washed away in the 1930s by powerful winter storms. But in truth, the course weathered the storms until 1941, when the original strand holes (Nos. 3 and 7) were replaced by an unreinforced sea wall, and four excellent new holes were built by MacKenzie’s associate Jack Fleming, who by then had become San Francisco’s supervisor of golf. An aerial photograph taken in March 1941 shows the original course still intact. The picture was taken just prior to the building of Fleming’s four new holes. The new holes were built (following MacKenzie’s death in 1934) in a canyon east of the rest of the golf course, located on the other side of what was then state Highway 1.
Twelve of Sharp Park’s current 18 holes are MacKenzie originals, and an additional two holes lie in original fairways, but without original greens. While the course has seen trees mature, traps grassed-in, a stream or two culverted, and withstood other relatively minor insults of the golf course aging process, the unmistakable fact is that 14 of 18 holes track MacKenzie’s original routing. A comparison of the present-day course with the original routing maps proves the point, as do the hole-by-hole descriptions penned by Jack Fleming for one of the San Francisco newspapers for the course opening in 1932. 19
Those familiar with MacKenzie’s style will immediately recognize the Good Doctor’s trademark heaving, tumbling greens at current holes 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, and 18. Fairway undulations and mounds on current holes 1, 3, 9, 10, 14, and 16 mimic the famous fairway bumps and hollows at the Old Course at St. Andrews. And the deception bunker 50 yards in front at the right side of the current 14th green is a classic bit of MacKenzie’s renowned use of camouflage principles.
A walking tour of the current course not only reveals the original green contours and the locations of original bunkers, but a detour through the ice-plant strewn sand dunes in the shadow of the sea wall also reveals three of the “lost holes” abandoned in 1941 when the new holes were built east of Highway 1.
The lost holes are there, waiting to be reclaimed!
Overarching the design details at Sharp Park is MacKenzie’s beautiful landscape architecture. The Monterey Cypress that define several fairways 20 frame picturesque views of the mountains and headlands surrounding the low-lying golf course. It is as if the Good Doctor had set the fortunate golfer down in the middle of an early 19th Century English romantic landscape painting by John Constable.
Portions of the original 4th and 8th holes.
Although time and underfunded maintenance have taken the edge off many of the original features, Sharp Park is still unmistakably a great golf course – a MacKenzie classic, and an American masterpiece. But it is more than that. Sharp Park incorporates Dr. MacKenzie’s faith in the capacity of public golf to "... help enormously in increasing the health, the virility and the prosperity of nations ..." 21
In the throes of the Great Recession of the early 21st Century, the Good Doctor’s Golf Prescription remains timely. Indeed, the late Ken Venturi aptly described Sharp Park as “Dr. MacKenzie’s great gift to the American public golfer.”
A west coast version of The Old Course.
Sharp Park is a public golf companion piece to the Golden Gate Bridge, a monumental engineering and artistic feat, created in the depths of the Great Depression by a great artist, to inspire and uplift the public spirit.
Unless the golfing world stands up to demand preservation of Dr. MacKenzie’s historic seaside public links, and unless money is raised within the golfing community to help preserve golf at Sharp Park while at the same time enhancing natural habitat for the endangered species in and about the property, this great work of golf’s greatest architect will be lost forever.
If a golf course with Sharp Park’s historic legacy and devoted multicultural clientele can be destroyed by a combination of anti-golf prejudice and over-aggressive use of the Endangered Species Act, no golf course is safe. For these reasons, the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance solicits the support of golfers everywhere to save this municipal golf masterpiece.
This post is excerpted from an article originally published at Golf Club Atlas