A municipal course reborn: Baylands Golf Links debuts in Palo Alto, California

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Jim Cummings stared longingly at the new fairways of the Baylands Golf Links from the enclosed patio of the clubhouse at the media grand opening party May 24.

He wanted to play, but an aging, aching body wouldn't let him. He liked what he saw of the old Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course where he has played for seven decades. Cummings was one of several civilians to serve on the city's golf advisory committee to help get Baylands Golf Links approved and built, a lengthy process that took seven years and roughly $12 million.

"I have been playing here since 1956," Cummings said. "Back then, all it had was dirt fairways and dead grass. They've tried for a long time to grow something out here. This time, I think they got it right."

Another committee member, Craig Allen, was a Stanford University freshman when he first played the course the year it opened in 1956. Allen hit the ceremonial first tee shot at the grand opening.

The story of Baylands Golf Links is one of persistence and patience for golfers like Allen and Cummings and government officials like Rob De Geus. It immediately vaults into the conversation among the best "munis" in the Bay Area, thanks to architect Forrest Richardson's deft touch and vision with the five par 5s/five par 3s routing, and the management of O.B. Sports. But it wasn't easy getting here.

Palo Alto Muni: A brief history

The city of Palo Alto has always been committed to keeping development away from the shores of San Francisco Bay within the Baylands Nature Preserve. Architects William F. Bell and his father, William P. Bell, who designed some of California's greatest classic courses, created the original course for the city, designing a typical muni where mostly featureless fairways ran parallel to one another.

In 2011, the city council approved a major redesign to coincide with a flood-management project on the San Francisquito Creek adjacent to the course. Rob De Gues, the deputy city manager, admits it was a "bold" choice.

"The city council said: 'Let's take a chance to make something much more interesting and much more fun'," he told the crowd at media day.

As often is the case with such large projects in environmentally sensitive areas, government bureaucracy caused lengthy delays. The course was shortened in 2013 into a disjointed 5,558-yard par 67, using temporary holes to replace others that closed. That's the first year the course started losing money, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Palo Alto's muni closed for the redesign in 2016, but the pro shop stayed open to operate the range, a nice facility with artificial turf tees and soaring nets in a central location across the street from baseball and softball fields at the Baylands Athletic Center. A better path lay ahead.

Baylands Golf Links: A brighter future

I got my first chance to play the new 6,680-yard Baylands Golf Links in March. Course conditions have improved tremendously since O.B. Sports took over management in April, an amazing feat considering new Superintendent Steve Hoying took over without a single piece of maintenance equipment at his disposal.

New hole signs and tee markers were put in place and yardage books printed. Each hole is named after a bird found in the bay. The kitchen in the clubhouse has been gutted, and the restaurant and pro shop remodeled.

Gone were the geese and their droppings, an ongoing issue that will be key to the success of Baylands. New General Manager Ed Winiecki said a dog trained to manage the geese population is on order. Ground squirrels, a nuisance in the past, can no longer burrow into new bunkers laid with heavy-duty liners.

Golfers accustomed to the old course won't believe its new look. The 10 acres of new wetlands and 40 acres of new, native grassland habitat lining the fairways provides some nice definition, added color and more shot-making. The tees and fairways are seashore paspalum, a saltwater-tolerant grass that can be irrigated with a higher percent of recycled water. Overall, the footprint of manicured turf shrank from 135 acres to 81 acres, a 40-percent reduction that will save on water costs. More than 10.5 acres were carved out of the space for a future public park.

Richardson brought to life an otherwise dull parcel of land. No longer are the fairways as flat as the runways of the adjacent Palo Alto Airport. Wadsworth Construction shaped humps and bumps everywhere. From the 6,110-yard blue tees where most golfers will play, the round starts (464 yards) and ends (489 yards) with very reachable par 5s. A handful of trees - hundreds were cut down, leaving only a few in play - expertly guard the final green.

Golfers get one extra swing at a hole in one thanks to five par 3s. The interesting par-4 14th hole offers two green sites, the left one tucked against a wetland and one on the right nestled into a bowl of mounds. More lumps and bulges create semi-blind approach shots on the par-4 16th and par-3 17th holes. Time will tell if a few topsy-turvy green slopes might be too much for everyday players to handle.

As with any new course, green fees are a hot topic. I met several city residents who weren't sure they could afford the higher prices. The riding tee times I found available at the course website this week varied in cost from $74-$84 (weekdays) and $101-$111 (weekends) for non-residents, $69-$79 (weekdays) and $93-$103 (weekends) for Bay Area residents and $63-$73 (weekdays) and $81-$91 (weekend) for city residents. Walking tee times ($52-$90 depending upon the day and your residential status) are a better value, especially when even more affordable rates kick in after 2 p.m. The first review on Golf Advisor addressed the concerns about the price. User jdiamond7 gave Baylands four stars, summarizing the experience this way: "On the whole, I did like the course. Staff was very friendly. It would be a much better experience at 30% lower prices."

It's a simple decision really, one that doesn't require an economics degree from Stanford. The nearest option for cheap golf is the Golf Club at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, another course managed by O.B. Sports. If you want more than what a $35-$50 tee time at Moffett offers, Baylands is the best game in town.

"This is going to be a special golf experience in this region," said Phil Green, the chief operator officer at O.B. Sports.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

Seven years and $12 million. Keep that in mind.
I started playing the Palo Alto Muni in the mid-80s. I considered it one of the better Muni's in the area. The course was in typical Muni shape, which means okay to not so okay, but helped immensely in sheltering golfers from the howling winds typical of the baylands. I returned there the second day was open to the public. I immediately noticed that the pro shop in the restaurant were, other than new paint and flooring, the same as last time I seen them seven years ago. With a few exceptions all the holes were in exactly the same place as they were seven years ago. Bulldozers added links-style contours to the once very level fairways, so that was nice, but the turf was very deep and sticky much like the first cut of rough. Links golf when played correctly features low trajectory shots to mitigate the wind, which is an abundance on this tract. Forget about low running shots and just be prepared to succumb to the elements because there is no distance here when the wind is coming from the side or in your face. Oh, and if you prefer to tee your ball more than an inch above turf bring four-inch tees because the turf is so thick the first 2 inches is needed to locate terra firma.
The tees have been moved some, but that's about it. (In fact on several holes the forward tees were actually two green balls stuck in the middle of the fairway with no discerning cut or signage.) Water on the course is few and far between. Definitely bring your own. If you like to walk, and I do, be aware there is not a bench anywhere on any of the holes. So be prepared to either stand or sit on the bumper of your friends cart if you would like to get off your feet while waiting for the two foursomes in front of you to tee off. Not exactly a four-star tract.
So let's reiterate: no distance, no water, no benches at the tees, and on the day I played no refreshment cart.
Perhaps I am not sensitive enough to appreciate the natural aesthetics of the native baylands ambience but other than the very green fairways and greens the many waste areas were just that, gnarly little weeds eking out an existence along expanses of brown dirt. There were a few lush patches, very few, but mostly lots of dirt, lots of weeds, and nothing to break the wind except that chubby single eating the two chili dogs on the first tee. And all this for $82. Seven years and $12 million. Good thing most Palo Alto residents are affluent or there might be some bad feelings here.

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A municipal course reborn: Baylands Golf Links debuts in Palo Alto, California