Saving Sharp Park, the neglected cousin of Augusta National

A treasured Dr. Alister MacKenzie muni in San Francisco awaits a long-overdue return to glory.
Pylons guide golfers around the Laguna Salada on the 14th hole at Sharp Park.

PACIFICA, Calif. - Other than the man who designed both golf courses, Sharp Park has little in common with Augusta National.

Though they're both Dr. Alister MacKenzie creations, their playing experiences and presentations couldn't be more polar opposites. Augusta is a country club for the elite; Sharp Park a muni that accepts one and all. Augusta keeps its conditions pure. It looks like a hilly park manicured to the extreme. "Scruffy" would be a kind word for Sharp Park's inconsistent turf. It is rugged, raw and almost linksy in its seaside setting. I'm guessing Augusta doesn't allow fivesomes, six-hour rounds and playing around pylons like I've endured at Sharp Park, which is managed by San Francisco Recreation and Parks.

Despite their differences, the two courses do have one thing in common: they are considered treasures by golfers who have walked their fairways. The problem is, Augusta spends millions seemingly every year to tweak its layout, while Sharp Park desperately needs millions to become the green space and community hub it deserves to be.

"He (MacKenzie) created a magical place (at Sharp Park). That is what a good architect can do," said Richard Harris, a local attorney who co-founded the non-profit San Francisco Public Golf Alliance with Bo Links to advocate to 'Save Sharp Park,' first from an environmental lawsuit and forever from neglect. "With a site right by the ocean, you watch the sun go down. Those are the magical times. All these places are observatories of sunsets and the heavens - the pyramids, Stonehenge. A good architect puts you in that spot. He’s created sacred ground."

I can't help but watch the Masters this week and wonder why Augusta National - with all its clout and influence - can't find a way to help a neglected cousin from the same family tree that lives a few thousand miles away? Augusta has done great things to grow the game by creating the Drive, Chip & Putt, the Augusta National Women's Amateur and other initiatives. Why not reach into its deep pockets or connections to help grow the game for golfers who live in and visit one of the best cities in the world? Sharp Park is a flower waiting to bloom. It just needs a caretaker to get there.

A tumultuous past, present and future

Architects Tom Doak, left, and Jay Blasi refined several greens at Sharp Park in 2018.

Sharp Park debuted within the dunes of Salada Beach in 1932, right before Augusta National in 1933. MacKenzie dredged the Laguna Salada, converting it from a brackish marsh into a fresh water lake, then surrounded the lagoon with golf holes. A detailed historical account is available at the alliance's website.

Large storms in the early 1940s washed out a portion of the original routing, prompting construction of a seawall to protect the land. Today, it is used by walkers, runners and bikers as a scenic path, giving the whole course a community park feel. Twelve of today's holes are MacKenzie originals with 14 of them in their original footprints.

The four holes across the street, accessible by a tunnel under a busy roadway, were designed by MacKenzie associate Jack Fleming after the good doctor passed away in 1934, stretching the layout to 6,382 yards. I like the dramatic elevations on the uphill par-3 fifth and downhill par-4 sixth, but it's the holes near the ocean that capture the senses.

The holes along the Laguna Salada - nos. 13-15 and 17 - have caused much controversy. A decade-long legal dispute involved environmentalists, including the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Wild Equity Institute, whose members wanted to close the course to protect the habitat for the endangered San Francisco garter snake and the protected California red-legged frog. Harris and Links, co-founders of the alliance, donated their expertise and time to successfully ward off the lawsuits for good in 2017.

How YOU can help Sharp Park

The uphill fifth hole of Sharp Park Golf Course sits in a secluded corner of a forest.

Golfers can help "Save Sharp Park" by donating to the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance at its website or play in its annual fundraiser outing. The pandemic canceled the outing the past two years, but check the website for an announcement on the return of the event in 2022.

Although those were dark days, Harris believes those challenges ultimately rallied the golf community to get behind the vision of a better future for Sharp Park. Architects Jay Blasi and Tom Doak visited in 2018 to recommend new mowing patterns to return several greens back to their original shapes.

Harris is working with the city to get a cart barn built to power electric carts and to create a history wall inside the clubhouse. The seventh tee is currently being rebuilt. Baby steps relative to what's really needed. Any sort of major renovation or restoration work isn't on the horizon yet. Players still hit tee shots over pylons in the 14th fairway that mark wet spots from Laguna Salada.

A new threat emerged during the pandemic. Bill AB-1910 - officially called the "Conversion of Publicly Owned Golf Course to Affordable Housing" - is winding its way through the California state legislature. It encourages developers to target municipal golf courses for redevelopment into public housing. Should it become law, it would threaten any city- or county-owned golf course, even potentially famous ones like San Francisco's TPC Harding Park, host of the 2020 PGA Championship. Harris is again working pro bono for the game, and muni, he loves. On April 7, the bill's author pulled it from committee consideration, a big win for golf even if war isn't officially over, according to Harris and Craig Kessler, the director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association.

"Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sharp Park won’t be rebuilt in a day," Harris said. "COVID has kicked everything back. San Francisco has other issues on its mind. We continue to be optimistic. We wouldn’t still be trying if we weren’t optimistic. We make a little progress here and there."

Playing Sharp Park

The first time I played Sharp Park in 2015, the pace of play was so dreadful that several of my playing partners walked off after seven holes. Even the fivesome that teed off behind us had to wait on every tee. Operationally, it was a mess. The average GolfPass star rating of Sharp Park (3.3) reflects the up-and-down nature of what golfers experience day to day.

"Pace of play is a little slow but that has nothing to do with the course," wrote 'sagasty33' in a February 2022 review. "Greens are good, fairways are decent for the most part, fun layout."

I gave Sharp Park a second chance earlier this spring and discovered the magic. Teeing off at noon on a Friday, the pace was fine and the greens were solid. The fairways had the look of quarter-inch rough in spots, but as Harris pointed out to me, that's somewhat similar to the unheralded links golfers might find throughout Scotland. He mentioned Tain Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris links in the Highlands I adore.

Standing on the severely tilted 12th green at Sharp Park, the end of a brutal 200-yard par 3, I could hear the ocean even if I couldn't see it. I could smell the salty air so strongly that I could almost taste it. The sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds and the marine layer that slowly drifted in. The wind picked up. It's no wonder many of the trees are hauntingly twisted hard against the shore. I was playing links golf without the proper ground conditions but also without the expense of a plane ride. All for $51.

"Sharp Park has its own vibe. It is very different. It feels very much like Scotland," Blasi said. "The little clubhouse is a town gathering spot. The golf course is part of the town (of Pacifica). There is the connection to the water, the long views of headlands. It is a simple walking golf course. My favorite time is late in the afternoon when the sun is going down. The character or ethos is already there."

It's there, and yet, there's still so much potential to unleash. With firm and fast conditions, better drainage and turf management and a steward to manage the course properly, Sharp Park could become the golf experience MacKenzie envisioned. An assist from one or more of the game's power brokers - Augusta? The USGA? Mike Keiser? - would set a proper course for the next generation of players.

It's always the historic government-owned courses that need outside benefactors to step up the most. Look at the similar efforts to restore Lions Municipal in Austin and the courses of the National Links Trust in Washington D.C. These places serve all skill levels, ages and ethnic backgrounds. They are public museums and incubators of the game, not private playgrounds. It's the right thing to do.

“They are not making any more MacKenzies near the Pacific," Blasi said. "When you've got something like that, you want to do what you can to restore it. This is a one-of-a-kind in the world of golf. It's 15 minutes from one of the great cities in the world. There’s no doubt that we all want the course to be presented beautifully. It doesn’t need to be Augusta. We all want an experience that matches the quality of the architecture."

What's been your Sharp Park experience? Let us know with a course review here or leave a comment below.

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.
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Saving Sharp Park, the neglected cousin of Augusta National