BY JOHN STEINBREDER
It was San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who dubbed the metropolis he long wrote about, “Baghdad by the Bay.” He first applied that appellation in the early 1950s, and it reflected his delight in the city’s exotic nature as well as its artistic and intellectual attributes.
Hard as it may be to imagine Baghdad as anything other than a war zone, the Iraqi capital was for many centuries the commercial and cultural center of the Muslim world. And in the mid-1900s, it held a romantic allure for many people as a mysterious outpost, replete with ancient ruins and open-air bazaars and populated by snake charmers, spice merchants and spies.
Caen was still a San Francisco fixture when I first visited the city in 1977. And I fell hard for the place. Near constant water views and cable car rides wowed me right away. So did the sights of Victorian townhouses rising improbably from the steep slopes of the city’s signature hills. The Grateful Dead played concerts in local halls, while offshoots of that band and other San Francisco acts, like Santana and Jefferson Airplane, jammed in clubs. Equally as enticing was the seafood at old-school retreats like Tadich’s and Sam’s, both of which have been serving customers in curtained, wood-paneled booths since the mid-1800s. And I also was able to bear witness to the culinary renaissance that chefs Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower inspired with their groundbreaking creations at Chez Panisse across the bay in Berkeley.
I even met Caen as he held court at the Balboa Café, a Fillmore Street watering hole to which he often retired after a busy day of work, to wind down and also to gather material for his daily pieces.
In the decades after those initial visits, I made dozens of return trips – and made new finds each time. The de Young Museum for its spectacular art. The tranquil Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The San Francisco Ballet for productions both classical and modern. And the dining only improved, as top-notch chefs continued to push themselves, and each other, to new gastronomical heights.
Then, I discovered that Baghdad by the Bay also happens to be one of the great golf cities in the land.
San Francisco is on the smaller size as major cities go, just 47 square miles in size. But it is big enough to hold three acclaimed public facilities (Presidio, Lincoln Park and Harding Park) and two of America’s finest clubs in Olympic, which maintains one downtown clubhouse and another at its three courses 10 miles away, and San Francisco Golf, an ultra-private enclave with a nearly impossible-to-find entrance that belies its desire to operate under the radar. And just across the southern border, in Daly City and South San Francisco respectively, lie two other layouts of note, at Lake Merced Country Club and the Cal Club.
Four of those retreats are clustered in the southwest corner of the city, with Olympic, San Francisco and Harding Park all bordering Lake Merced and the club named after that body of water located just a couple of Bryson DeChambeau-esque drives to the south of them.
Some of the best architects in the game have had their hands in designing these classics, among them Alister MacKenzie (Cal Club and Lake Merced), A.W. Tillinghast (San Francisco) and Willie Watson and Sam Whiting (the Lake and Ocean courses at Olympic and the 18-hole course at Harding Park). Tom Weiskopf revamped the Ocean at Olympic and collaborated with Jay Morrish on the nine-hole Cliffs Course there in the mid-1990s, while Rees Jones remodeled Lake Merced around the same time. In 2006, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina renovated San Francisco Golf Club. Then, there was Kyle Phillips, who shortly thereafter orchestrated a brilliant restoration of the Cal Club, returning what had become an overlooked and somewhat rundown course to its former glory.
For the most part, San Francisco’s layouts are routed in and around towering stands of cypress and eucalyptus trees and across well-contoured terrain that often leaves golfers with testy fairway lies and putts that can break a couple of different ways. Frequent fog only adds to the degree of difficulty, making the air heavier and the turf softer, so that the courses play even longer. Winds blowing off the Pacific often present problems too, especially as they swirl above the treetops. Discerning just how much, or how little, club to hit in those conditions is no easy task.
No matter the many challenges, however, the scenery is spectacular, especially when the Golden Gate Bridge comes into view. And it is usually cool enough to wear a sweater vest during a round.
Collectively, these courses can be fairly described as accessible to golfers of all abilities, provided they play the proper tees. Yet they also have proven capable of testing elite amateur and professional golfers in big-time competitions.
Olympic, for example, has been the site of five U.S. Opens and a U.S. Amateur and is slated to host the 2028 PGA Championship and the 2032 Ryder Cup. In addition to having this year’s PGA, TPC Harding Park is also where a pair of U.S. Amateur Public Links tournaments were staged (in 1937 and 1956) as well as the regular site in the 1960s of a PGA Tour event called the Lucky International Open. It also held the WGC-American Express Championship in 2005, with Tiger Woods beating John Daly in an epic sudden-death playoff, and the 2009 President’s Cup. In 1990, Woods played in his first USGA championship at Lake Merced Golf Club when the U.S. Junior Amateur was staged there. He didn’t win that one but went on to prevail in the next three.
In the San Francisco City Golf Championship, which has been contested at Lincoln Park, Harding Park and on a few occasions, the Presidio, since the tournament’s founding in 1917, the town has one of the oldest and most famous municipal golf competitions in the country. The roster of victors is a heady one and includes Ken Venturi, Harvie Ward, George Archer, Juli Inkster (in the women’s division) and Johnny Miller (who took the junior title in 1963).
Let us also not forget that Venturi, Archer and Miller are all San Francisco natives as is Bob Rosburg – and that Venturi was a longtime member of the Cal Club (where the back markers today are called the Venturi tees). Both Miller and Rosburg grew up playing at Olympic as junior members, with Rossie’s biggest moment coming when at age 12 he trounced Hall of Fame baseball player Ty Cobb, 7 and 6, in the first flight of the club championship.
I continue to pay regular visits to San Francisco, and while the vistas and the food and bar scenes still weaken my knees, I lament how crime and homelessness have pushed Herb Caen’s city closer to Baghdad in the 21st century than the one he idealized in the 1950s.
But its golf heritage is stronger than ever, and that has made me wonder – is “St. Andrews by the Bay” a more appropriate moniker?