PALO ALTO, Calif. - For nearly two years, golfers wanting to play the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course had to check into the Brad Lozares Golf Shop and head to the range instead.
Soon, golfers will get the chance to do what I did March 2: Head to the first tee and swing away.
The redesign and rebranding of the Baylands Golf Links has almost come full circle nearly seven years after the project was approved by the city in 2011. The new-look links-style course by architect Forrest Richardson will likely open in May or early June once its new operator, O.B. Sports, takes over management.
It's been a journey full of twists and turns for the $12-million project within the Baylands Nature Preserve along the San Francisco Bay. I liked what I saw while walking with Richardson, playing 15 holes before a rare rain storm rinsed away our preview round. It will certainly enhance an already strong Bay Area golf scene.
"When we rebuilt it, we took that theme of the Baylands (preserve) and expressed what the lands should look like next to the Bay," Richardson said. "The terrain and landscape is now connected to the Baylands."
It took years of wrangling before Richardson could put a shovel in the ground in the summer of 2016. Securing the proper permitting while the Regional Water Quality Control Board reviewed the environmental impacts of course reconstruction and a nearby flood-control project slowed things to a bureaucratic crawl. During this period of uncertainty, the entire facility suffered.
To prepare for a future park expansion, the original 6,800-yard layout devised by William F. Bell in the 1950s was shortened in 2013 into a disjointed 5,558-yard par 67. Temporary holes replaced others that closed. Complaints on Golf Advisor grew louder.
User Greg McVey had this to say in his review in May of 2014: "Having played Palo Alto several times in past years, I was disappointed to see they are doing a very gradual remodel, which appears will take years to complete. They have taken a few holes and made two holes out (of) them, such as a short par 4 and par 3, from the original #9 par 5. It just seems unfair to be even charged a discount, playing a par 67 chopped up mess."
Richardson's handiwork has brought clarity to the new 6,714-yard routing. Wadsworth Construction plowed up and shaped plenty of contours into previously flat and featureless fairways. There aren't many bunkers — only 41 — although they're properly spaced, often as aiming targets on doglegs. The winds off the bay and glimpses of the Dumbarton Bridge stimulate both the golf and the senses. Six sets of tees and new practice facilities will allow anyone to enjoy the game.
The project removed nearly 600 trees, but replanted another 200 or more. Ten acres of new wetlands and 40 acres of new, native grassland habitat line fairways covered in seashore paspalum, a saltwater-tolerant grass that can be irrigated with a higher percent of recycled water, a necessity in today's dry California climate. Overall, the footprint of manicured turf shrank from 135 acres to 81 acres, a 40-percent reduction that will save on maintenance and water costs. More than 10.5 acres were carved out of the space for a future public park.
Only three holes lie near their original footprint - the first hole (a 496-yard par 5), the sixth hole (a 435-yard par 4) along the main runway of the Palo Alto Airport and the 13th hole, a 506-yard par 5 along the San Francisquito Creek.
The headliners are undeniably the par-5 third, which plays over wetlands to a double green (shared with the par-3 15th) and a pair of par 3s, the Redan-style green at No. 4 and an island green on No. 12, framed in front by a large pot bunker. 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.
"It's Jekyll and Hyde," Richardson said of the two greens. "The left one is very difficult to hit. The other one, you can hit it in the general vicinity and the ball will find a way to the bottom (and onto the green)."
Green fees and an official opening date will be set once O.B. Sports takes over in April.