This was no long, strange trip. It was a long, tough fight.
A 10-year battle came to an end in early March when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to protect and preserve the Sharp Park Golf Course, completing a concerted effort to eradicate the layout and turn it into parkland.
The 1932 Alister Mackenzie design, which makes up about a quarter of the entire park, came under fire from environmental groups that claimed the golf course and golfers were harming and encroaching on two rare species: the endangered San Francisco garter snake and the protected California red-legged frog. Ironically, the California garter snake survives in large part by eating the eggs of the endangered frog.
California Red-legged Frog
FEATURES: Reddish coloring on the underside of the legs and belly and can range from red to brown and/or gray
SIZE: 2 to 5 inches long
HABITAT: Slow-moving or standing deep ponds, pools, streams and tall vegetation (grasses, cattails and shrubs)
UNIQUE FACT: It became famous for being the frog featured in Mark Twain’s short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
In the crosshairs of the environmentalists
Over the years, four court decisions as well as other rulings by a number of agencies, were made for the preservation of the course, in part because it was the construction of the layout that cut off the Pacific Ocean from the brackish Laguna Salada and created a freshwater pond, which became habitat for the snakes and frogs. The two rare species weren’t even identified on the site until 14 years afterthe course opened.
The supervisors designated the course a “Historic Resources Property,” as defined by the California Environmental Quality act. It also gave permission for the modification of three holes that border the Laguna Salada to enhance the snake and frog habitat, as long as the alterations fit with the historic architectural quality of the layout.
The concerted preservation effort of Sharp Park, but also the other golf courses owned by the city of San Francisco, was spearheaded by the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance (SFPGA), run by its co-founders, attorney Bo Links and retired attorney Richard Harris.
Links describes it as a grassroots organization made up of local people who want to save and support public golf courses.
“We have to fight for their existence. People who play them cannot take them for granted,” Harris says.
The two men say golf courses were put in the crosshairs of environmentalists through what Harris described as a “well-coordinated effort.”
With the formation of SFPGA, those favoring preservation also had a well-run mechanism to defend the municipally owned golf courses.
According to Harris, one misperception that proponents of the course debunked was the idea that the golf played at Sharp Park is only done so by rich, white males. It was an unfair accusation, considering the inaugural championship tournament of the Western States Golf Association (WSGA), one of the country’s oldest and largest African-American golfing societies, was held there. The WSGA was formed when the precursor to the PGA Tour had a Caucasian-only clause.
Links says the SFPGA showed how dramatically wrong that assumption was. “Every color of the universe is there,” he says of the Sharp park golfers.
Harris agrees. “It’s a very broad group and a very diverse group,” he says.
According to Harris, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans make up a majority of the golfers, and 20 percent of the people who use the layout are woman. There is even a sizable percentage of children who golf there.
The group also pointed out that neither endangered frogs nor endangered snakes (nor any other animals) were being severely harmed by the course and golfers.
For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the project and determined that there was no way the layout would “substantially degrade the quality of the environment; substantially reduce the habitat of a fish or wildlife species; cause a fish or wildlife population to drop below self-sustaining levels; threaten to eliminate a plant or animal community; or substantially reduce the number or restrict the range of an endangered, rare or threatened species.”
In addition, the California Coastal Commission ruled that the golf course was a “sensitive coastal resource area” under the Coastal Act because of its recreational value, specifically public golf.
The commission noted that the layout qualified because: “It is a highly popular course enjoyed by golfers who appreciate its historic architecture, dramatic views and inexpensive rates.”
Partly as a result of those findings, the Pump House Project, which will protect the course from flooding while helping to maintain the frog and snake habitat, also was approved.
The past guides the future
The SFPGA also used history to tell its story, showing that the land on which much the course was constructed was hardly pristine. It was an avocado farm at one point in the early 1900s.
In her 1917 will, Honora Sharp bequeathed the land for the park, which is in the city of Pacifica, to San Francisco with the express instructions that it be used for “a public park, or public playground.”
It was John McLaren, the man behind the creation of Golden Gate Park, who came up with the idea to build a third city course at Sharp Park to help alleviate overcrowding at San Francisco’s other two layouts, Lincoln Park and Harding Park.
McLaren apparently envisioned not just another municipal golf course, but one of the finest in the nation, so he picked Alister Mackenzie to design the layout. Mackenzie was regarded by many in that time as the premier golf course architect, and many still believe that today.
How familiar McLaren was with Mackenzie’s work before choosing him to head the project is unknown, but in choosing the Scot – who was also a medical doctor – McLaren had a man who valued golf for its health benefits and was a proponent of municipal golf, a staple of Scottish society.
Mackenzie wrote, “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. 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.”
Virtually every course Mackenzie built was private, but one of his wishes was realized, at least in part, by his role in Sharp Park.
Mackenzie also wrote that he “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.”
Harris sees the influence of Great Britain in Mackenzie’s Sharp Park design. “He was emulating his homeland,” Harris says of the municipal seaside layout. “It is an intended connection to Scotland.”
A game plan for continued success
Bo Links offers some rules of thumb to aid those looking to preserve and protect municipal golf.
First, he says, is the need to organize politically, calling it “a fact of life.” The next step is to use that coordination to let politicians and government officials know that they are being monitored by people who are passionate about their cause and that these people vote.
He also says that all meetings and hearings related to the course must be well attended by people wanting to save it. “Show up. Show up. Show up,” Links says.
Harris agrees, adding that: “Because it’s public property the public gets to say how that property is used. Everyone gets to comment. That’s how it should be.”
It is vital to know the facts of the situation and use those facts to tell the story, he says. It is also important not to assume that those making the decisions know that story.
Lastly, Links said the organization should filter through all pertinent information, such as white papers and research, and put the data together in a way that can be easily accessed and understood.
The organization’s website is a primer for getting the message out in a professional, yet simple and readable, manner.
Sharp Park’s salvation is far from assured. Next up is the permitting process for the proposed renovation/restoration of the layout.
Architect Jay Blasi is teaming up with fellow designer Tom Doak on the project. Twelve of the original Mackenzie holes are intact, although four holes along or near the water were abandoned in 1941 when an earthen levee was built.
Jack Flemming, who at the time was San Francisco’s supervisor of golf, constructed replacements on the other side of Highway 1. He was a good fit for the project because he had previously built golf courses for Mackenzie.
In the existing layout, 12 of the holes are original, two of the hole corridors are Mackenzie’s (although the greens aren’t), and four of the holes are Flemming’s work.
The Blasi-Doak plan calls for restoring as much of the Mackenzie work as possible and blending it with the Flemming holes, all the while being sensitive to environmental issues on the site.
“There are certain elements of the golf course that will need to change in order to accommodate the habitat moving forward, so our goal is to find a way where that can happen without adversely impacting the overall golf course,” Blasi wrote in an email. “We think, given their location, that most of the tees, greens and bunkers can be restored, and we can bring back the MacKenzie without environmental hurdles. The holes closest to Laguna Salada will require design solutions that meet the needs of all the ‘ologists.’ Same goes for course-wide drainage. There are some big drainage issues today, and we want to find solutions that work best for the habitat and the golf course.”
Harris and Links are ready for the next step and the opposition that will invariably come with it. They know how it will compare to what has come before and are ready.
“It will be as difficult,” Harris said, “but it won’t be as long.”