Saturday, January 28, 2006

San Francisco and Olympic Golf Clubs



San Francisco Golf Club (#27 in the world) is a traditional golf club. Designed early in the career of A.W. Tillinghast, many consider it his best. Personally, I think his best is actually Bethpage Black, but San Francisco is a close second.

The City of San Francisco has the reputation of being a very liberal city based on gay rights, environmentalism, etc. However, I always found that beneath the surface, its old money is some of the most conservative in the western world. San Francisco Golf Club is more a reflection of this older, conservative city than the more liberal one most people know. San Francisco Golf Club was proud that it did not let in new members who made their fortunes in technology during the Internet bubble years. It is a bastion of old money conservatism. It is reflective of a type of club that is increasingly scare. Our experience has been that Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are three of the most conservative cities in the U.S. in terms of doing business and still having an old establishment. They may vote left of center, but the old-line, blue-bloods are alive and well and still pulling the strings. I found that S.F.G.C. is a very conservative club along the lines of a Merion or The Country Club. Membership in an elite course such as these still represents something that money can't buy. Any fool could leverage himself to the hilt with a big mortgage, lease a BMW and give the appearance of having arrived. Only the truly elite could get into a club like San Francisco. You have to be nominated by seven members of the establishment. And they will not let in anyone without the proper pedigree. And for good reason. Their traditions are time honored and are to be respected. Why let in some technology genius who would ruin the decorum in the locker room by checking his hand-held email device every 3 minutes.

Belonging to one of these clubs is the ultimate safeguard. You can't rely on your neighborhood any more as anyone can buy a home next to you. The first class cabin on a plane is no longer exclusive with the frequent business travelers taking over. But, to be the Chairman of the admissions committee at an old line club such as San Francisco or Merion or The Country Club and you are a real member of the ruling elite. In Great Britain, it is easier to tell someone's class by their education, title and accent. Not so in the U.S. With the equal opportunity movement, a Harvard or Yale pedigree is no longer a shorthand way to see if someone is like you. To find the true landed gentry in this country, check the membership lists at the most elite of clubs in Boston, San Francisco or Philadelphia.

Like the city itself, the golf course is near perfection. Everything about it. It's understated demeanor, the bartender who has been there for forty years. If the sign of a good club is the integrity of its locker room and sense of tradition, then San Francisco, like the city itself is world class. Gentleman who will always ask you for a game if you are waiting near the first tee.

With one of the hardest admissions policies, you have to make an application just to get the go ahead to fill out an admissions application. While there for the day we heard a story where an existing member's wife applies for membership and was rejected. Guess how much longer he remained a member?

As to the golf course, you get a sense of its greatness standing on the putting green or first tee; perched above the wide fairway with massive bunkers strategically placed throughout. The golf course is actually hemmed in by the city so doesn't have necessarily dramatic views. What it does have is ample room to drive the golf ball. Unlike many Tillinghast designs that have become overgrown, San Francisco is not hemmed in by trees. The terrain is used imaginatively, not straight up and down and there are many subtle, challenging dogleg holes. You can see the fairway and thus, you can view the real majesty of Tillinghast's skills, his ability to use bunkers strategically and with a sense of beauty.

The 7th hole at Olympic shows the steepness of the terrain

Especially compared to nearby Olympic Club (#39 in the world), San Francisco shines. I find the Olympic Lake course to be near-impossible to play for a non-scratch player. The trees are grown in too tight, it is built on the side of a mountain and the greens are too fast. It is hard to get an even lie. You have to be able to hit a draw and a fade at will. What makes this especially difficult is that most of the lies you will have require you to work the ball the opposite of the way the terrain dictates. That is, if you have a cut lie it requires you to hit a draw shot and vice versa. One of the prominent design features of Olympic is the 'Reverse Camber' which is an architectural term for fairways that slope in one direction while the golfer aims at a green that turns the opposite way. A Reverse Camber is not a unique architectural feature at Olympic, other courses have similar designs. What makes Olympic especially difficult is that there is nowhere to play safe or to bail out, unlike on most other designs. It simply forces you to have to try to hit a shot that all but the most accomplished golfer cannot hit.

On the bright side, Olympic Club only has one fairway bunker. In this regard it is the anthesis of Whistling Straits with its close to 1,000 bunkers. The thing is, Olympic doesn't need any fairway bunkers. The combination of hemmed in fairways, small greens and uneven lies is enough to easily rank it among the most difficult courses in the world along with Oakmont, Bethpage Black and Royal County Down (with the wind up!). The routing of Olympic is essentially sideways on the hillside. It does not play up and down the hill, but rather you find yourself walking sideways on hilly terrain throughout your round.


The hilly terrain of Olympic with its abundance of trees


Personally, I don't have the ability to fade a two iron and land it softly on the green. Beyond that, I find Olympic (the club and not the golf course), like its California neighbor to the south, Riviera, to be too large and corporate and lacking the charm of San Francisco. It doesn't have a clubby feel given the size of its membership with two courses. It feels more like an athletic club. San Francisco, on the other hand just feels privileged and more genuine.

In terms of world rankings, I think both courses are ranked about right. San Francisco is justifiably high on the list. Olympic, despite my reservations about the course and inability to play it well is a unique, historic and challenging course that should be included among the world's best.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

The club is also the path to Cypress Point. Many members here are also members at Cypress. It is a beautiful course. Before I went I asked a friend who had been and he said "like a combination of Merion and Augusta". He was right. The greens are the defense. Firm, well bunkered and fast.I played my heart out on the back nine (where we started) and shot 40. I hit a lot of solid quality golf shots that just weren't quite good enough! They just trickled of the back, were caught in a bunker face, etc. The back nine is shorter and easier than the front!
I had the paper steak for lunch. Perfectly cooked filet, medium rare, served on toasted bread. Mayonaisse served on the side with chips as requested. Remeber to take off your hat in the clubhouse if invited play! Also, I recommend nice wool trousers like the pro's wear. No shorts allowed and khaki's are ok but not not quite appropriate.

MacBoube said...

Having played SFGC for the second time recently, I noticed the changes to the back nine that Tom Doak has made. They are, in my opinion, done in great taste, and it is virtually impossible to tell that Tillie did not make them himself. That being said, I would like to comment on what Mr. Top 100stated about it being "superior" to clubs like Olympic and Riviera. Yes, it requires pedigree and it is extremely selective and prestigious to belong. Howver, the course itself is certainly not quite the test of golf that the two aforementioned courses are. While the O.C. and the Riv are difficult to score on, SFGC is not. The course is what I would call a thing of suttle beauty. It is not a monster. It is extremely playable, and when anyone strikes the ball well, they will score. Personally, my favorite holes are the
12th, an uphill two shotter with some of the best greenside bunkering in Tillinghast's arsenal. Then there is SFGC's "Amen Corner"......6, 7, and 8. Of course the Duel hole is in the middle of that stretch. That, truly is the signature hole on this great course. At SFGC, the front nine is much better than the back nine. The course is manicured and does not heavy play (avg. 50 -60 rounds a day), and that has a large influence on another aspect of its greatness. Three hour rounds are par at SFGC.

Matt Keyser said...

Top100 I was so sad to read your review, or lack thereof, of The Olympic Club.

I was fortunate enoughto play it last on the 10th and was really taken back by it. Granted I love tough golf courses, especially ones that Majors have frequented. I like to get that comparison of palying a course from the tips to see how good the best really are.

I feel like Oly has a collection of some of the best par 4s in the world. Everything from the drivable 7th, the mid 300's of the 4th and 18th, to painfully long 2nd 4th 5th and 11th. I cant remember ever hitting some many long irons into greens...just a phenomenal test of golf.

And that is just the golf course. The club house is large, but has SO much character. All of the history behind the Oly Club and the city of San Francisco and its ties to local Olympians. Just a great feeling walking those halls. I treasured my experience there and look forward to going back.

Matt Keyser

golfingslo said...

Having the opportunity to play SFGC I have to concur with your assessment of the club and their membership. One of the best stories I heard was when a friend of mine was out from Chicago to play some San Francisco courses. He was playing at SFGC and was commenting to his caddie when they were walking down the fairway and saw the Olympic Club. My friend mentioned that he had played there, The Olympic Club, yesterday to which his caddie nonchalantly said, “Their members work for our members.”

Anonymous said...

Very dissapointed to hear what you thought of the oly club. I aslo read your review on Medinah which is entirely false. The oly club is a fantastic golf course, and judging by your review, you obviously cant hit the ball straight. It is a very fair course. I dont consider myself to be a great golfer by any means, and when i was 18 i shot a 79 the first time i played the lake. It can be penal, but you have to mess up to penalize yourself, the course doesnt penalize only you penalize yourself. THe first hole is a great par 5, not too long, great opening tee shot. 2nd is a uphill tricky par 4, snapped hooked my drive hit a 5 iron out of the scrub to 70 yards, pitched on and made a 25 footer for par. Best hole on the course is 18 bar none, best short par four in the world, or best one that ive ever played. You consider yourself a golf snob who dislikes the olympic club, shame on you.

B Vaughn said...

I have been lucky enough to play San Francisco Golf Club on several ocassions over the past couple of years, and it ranks on the top of my favorite places to play. Anyone reading this review who has never been to this wonderful place should know that there are NO yardage markers on the golf course, which I think adds to the true character and purity of the course. Members are not allowed to use any type of yardage devices when they play, and the golf shop does not sell yardage books. Caddies, I'm told, base yargades off the trees lining the fairways. I find that hitting a good shot there is much more rewarding compared to other facilities, simply because it is truly based on feel since you can only guess how far you are from the hole. This is a pure golf club in the true sense of the term.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Top 100,

I have played both SFGC and The Olympic Club. The seclusion and privacy of SFGC is amazing, but Olympic is a better golf course. The way the lake course is routed is incredible and more interesting than the way SFGC works straight up and down the hill on both nines. SFGC is a very enjoyable round and an unbelieveable golf course, but Olympic is a championship golf course. You need to execute if you want to play well. It is demanding and a shot makers course, but that is how a great golf course should be. It is truly a special place and should be ranked higher on your top 100.

Jim in PA said...

I was fortunate enough to do a once-in-a-lifetime tour last September of most of the great N Cal courses. I played Pebble for the 5th time, Olympic for the 2nd, SFGC and Cypress (finally) and the MontPen Courses, along with Spyglass. My rankings were 1) Cypress--words can't explain how special the experience was. 2) Pebble. Course was great. It has grown on me. Some "big" holes, some GREAT holes-8-10. Greens are dstinct. 2a) SFGC. Understated and awesome. I'm a Tilly fan (spent a lot of time on his courses here in the east). Great holes throughout. 4) Olympic. BIG BOY course. All muscled up. Great course but not sure I'd enjoy it every day. 5 - 5 1/2) MPCC Shore and Spyglass. HUGE Spyglass fan. Could play it every day, and the MPCC course was right there with it. Also play California GC after the redesign. Really liked the Back 9, not so much the front. You can't go wrong with any of the first 6, but if I wanted to play and/or experience any of these courses again, I'd go with Cypress, SFGC, Spyglass, MPCC.

progk1 said...

I enjoy your blog and although I don't agree on a lot of your opinions, they are what they are and everyone is entitled to voice their 2 cents....especially when it's ones own blog.

Having said that, I find your assessment of the O-Club very disappointing. I understand your preference for the SF Club, it is a great course and one that GC aficionados tend to gravitate towards. I do think that the statements of having to draw the ball on every hole, near impossible to play for the non scratch golfer, etc are inaccurate and really lead me to question your judgement when it comes to your reviews of other golf courses. Some of your claims are absolutely false. No question the Lake can be unforgiving and exposes one's golf deficiencies-physical and mental-and thus may not be the most fun when your game is off. However your review IMO seems that you played poorly and thus weren't able to fairly judge both strengths and weaknesses of the course. I'd hope that you'd be able look past the occasions when your game is off when reviewing a course. Disappointing but hey it is your blog. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

Baupoo said...

have you played Olympic after the recent renevation? It is much better now.

Top 100 Golfer said...

Both Olympic and San Francisco are on my list to return to, also can't wait to see the US Open play Olympic again.

Anonymous said...

Played Olympic club (lake course) for the first time today. And having played sfclub twice I must agree I like sfgc a little better than oly. You could be right, for me the charm and exclusive factor at sfclub is quite special. I really appreciate the bunkering at sfclub especially when it comes to fairways bunkers. Oly club only has 1 fairway bunker but plays long and tough. I have said it before and will say it again, if there if there is only one course I could play for the rest of my life it would probably be sfclub.

markM said...

So what'd you have to do to get this job?! This would probably be my dream job. Travel the world and play golf and comment on it. Wow, you are a lucky man, sir!

Anonymous said...

In regards to your comment about the SFGC member whose wife was rejected for membership, you posed the question about how long he stayed a member. My guess: the rest of his life!

GChest86 said...

The SF Club is undeniably my favorite course I've played, and we'll see if it stays that way within the next year. I am starting my trip around the nation to play the top 100 in america, and being a Bay Area native I'm aiming for a few Monterey and San Francisco courses. The only place I've been to that can beat it in course condition is The Institute, the course that may be harder to get on than Cypress, unknown by many. But it could never come close to SF Club in design features, history, and vibe that is SF.

If you're in the Bay Area and looking for a golfing partner let me know. Follow me @ gchest86pga.blogspot.com

Ole what's his Name said...

SFGC represents all that a golfer who understands and appreciates golf and is peaks and valleys in that the turns and bends from #2 thru #18 keep the player's mind on the game.. and that is what Mr Tillinghast had in mind,, keeping one's mind on what is before him..
The duel hole #7 has a view that is priceless without any water or mountains.. and that is Tillie at his best..then head on down to Pasatiempo.. and see MacKenzie at his best with the least..

thedormgolfer.airset.com said...

In response to Ole What's His Name, I actually have to disagree with his argument that Pasatiempo being a poor site. The issue Pasatiempo has had is that as a result of the development after the course was built and a disregard for it when new homes were built surrounding it, the course has become much more choked, particularly evident on the 6th and 7th holes. It is one of the courses I really wish I could play when it was first built.

Anonymous said...

I really would like to see an update to these reviews if you ever get the chance to go back. Each course deserves its own post in its own and this short post is dismal in information compared to the modern posts. That being said I understand that these are very hard to get on and there might not be another time.

Top 100 Golfer said...

thanks for the comment. I agree and would like to go back with my camera and update the post. all it takes is time...and money...fingers crossed

Anonymous said...

An interesting time to do Olympic would be in the weeks after the US Open. My friend who is a member has told me that they plan on keeping the course at US Open level play for a couple of weeks after. Would be interesting to see how much harder an already difficult course plays for the pro's.

King Ward said...

I understand Olympic lost a great many trees to some type of disease. Had that happened at the time you played it?

Larry Walker said...

I've been very fortunate to play some great public venues like several at Pinehurst, Whistling Straits, Arcadia Bluff, Kiva Dunes, Bandon and several in Scotland and Ireland. How do you gentlemen suggest gaining access to these fabulous courses for just a little above average 10 handicap?

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I honestly think you do not know how to write. You have terrible grammar and based on your reviews you are also likely a horrible golfer. Instead of leveraging your connections to play SFGC maybe you should use those connections to go back to high school.

Anonymous said...

BTW the photo on your post is from number 7 on the Ocean Course and not the Lake Course.

I'd find humor if you thought you played Lake but actually reviewed the Ocean--

Anonymous said...

correct me if I am wrong, but that picture above is not the 7th hole on the lake course at olympic.

Matt Strube said...

You ever play Merced CC in San Francisco? Curious what your thoughts were?