The top 10 golf courses in the San Francisco Bay Area

Our local's expert picks for the best public, resort and municipal golf courses you can play from San Francisco to Oakland.
The par-3 17th at TPC Harding Park, a historic San Francisco municipal course that hosted the 2020 PGA Championship

SAN JOSE, Calif. - When I'm home - which is all the time these days because of the pandemic - I'm just like every other golfer.

I want to play with my buds on a decent course that doesn't dent the wallet. That's hard to do in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I lived in Michigan, I could find any number of excellent public courses in metro Detroit for less than $50. Since moving west, I've had to expand my budget. Now, anything less than $80 seems like a bargain.

The last six years I've explored the region for the best combination of affordability against the quality of the course. With the 2020 PGA Championship coming to the TPC Harding Park, I'm diving deep into the Bay Area golf scene to identify its best public courses.

I kept this list as tight to the Bay Area as possible: No Napa (Silverado). No Monterey (Pebble & friends). No Santa Cruz (Pasatiempo). I also excluded CordeValle in San Martin (essentially south San Jose) because you have to stay at the Rosewood to play it. My selections are true public green spaces, open to all.

I regret leaving out some intriguing options. Santa Teresa, a county muni that's my home course, is never in bad shape and sports a fun back nine. The nine-hole Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park is a local San Francisco favorite that has had its struggles, unfortunately. Lincoln Park boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If I stretched my boundaries a bit, I could have gone north to the Links at Bodega Harbor in Bodega Bay or south to San Juan Hills near Hollister. Hiddenbrooke to the east in Vallejo has a decent reputation, but its three most recent reviews as I write this story are two stars or less due to struggling summer conditions, so it didn't make the cut.

Here are my top 10 selections (in no order). Whether you agree or disagree, let us know in the comments below:

  1. TPC Harding Park, San Francisco
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    TPC Harding Park has its fair share of critics who complain about monotonous holes and the lack of an 'oh wow' moment, but there's no doubting its tournament pedigree. The $16-million renovation in 2002-03 restored its championships chops, leading to a a slew of events: Two World Golf Championships, multiple Charles Schwab Cup Championships, two Presidents Cups (the next in 2026) and this year's PGA. It's always refreshing to watch the pros struggle with Harding Park's rough. It gets me every time.

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  2. South course at Corica Park, Alameda
    No. 10 on the South course at Corica Park.

    Like Baylands, the 6,874-yard South Course at Corica Park near the Oakland International Airport experienced a rebirth in 2018. Rees Jones teamed up with Greenway Golf - the management team of the 45-hole, city-owned facility - to transform a featureless muni long past its prime into an Australian Sandbelt-themed links. It's playable and interesting, despite little elevation change and almost no water hazards. More than 110 bunkers, many edged with shaggy grass, steer players through the routing. The more affordable North course is in the midst of its own renovation. The Mif Albright par-3 course was modernized in 2014.

  3. Presidio Golf Course, San Francisco
    The fourth at Presidio Golf Course is short at 130 yards, and it plays from an elevated tee.

    The hilly Presidio Golf Course, part of a national park in the heart of the city, remains one of the best courses shorter than 6,500 yards in the world. Presidio plays longer than its 6,449 yards thanks to the elevation changes and the infamous cold, damp air of San Francisco. A recent bunker renovation improved the look of a playground dating to 1895 as one of the oldest courses west of the Mississippi. Two new accommodations - an inn and a lodge - built within the park since 2012 don't offer golf packages but would still be a great way for golfers to enjoy the sights of San Francisco.

  4. Cinnabar Hills Golf Club, San Jose

    Cinnabar Hills would be more well-known if it wasn't hidden in the hills of south San Jose surrounded by so many popular resort destinations. It offers 27 holes of scenic and challenging target golf. Inside the clubhouse is the Lee Brandenburg Historical Golf Museum, home to the largest collection of golf memorabilia west of the Mississippi, including President Eisenhower's green jacket from Augusta National and Walter Hagen's Ryder Cup captain's jacket. The museum, alone, is worth the trip.

  5. The Course at Wente Vineyards, Livermore
    A view of tee #5 from The Course at Wente Vineyards.

    It's not a coincidence that Greg Norman, with his own wine label, designed the Course at Wente Vineyards in the heart of Livermore Valley Wine Country for a family-owned winery. Golf pairs well in the rolling hills of the East Bay, although the weather trends hot, dry and windy in summer months. The 7,181-yard routing traverses three distinct topographies - native woodlands, mature vineyards and natural grasslands - to deliver profound vistas and challenging holes. It hosted the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship, part of what was then the Nationwide Tour (now the Korn Ferry), from 2006-08.

  6. Ocean course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links

    Most golfers will likely favor the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay by Arthur Hills over its sister Old Course. There are more ocean views and more scoring opportunities with five par 5s and five par 3s. Although I don't believe it plays all that linksy, the fescue, the pot bunkers, the often gloomy and breezy weather and the bagpiper playing at the hotel Wednesday through Sunday all help to promote that theme.

    Plenty of famous players have teed it up on the Ocean Course. Paula Creamer won the LPGA Samsung Golf Championship in 2008. Audemars Piguet, a luxury watch manufacturer, held an event played by Sir Nick Faldo, Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, Louis Oosthuizen, Victor Dubuisson and Bud Cauley in 2015.

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  7. Tournament Course at Coyote Creek, Morgan Hill
    View of the 17th hole on the Tournament Course at Coyote Creek Golf Club

    Coyote Creek is a 36-hole facility designed by Jack Nicklaus in south San Jose near Cinnabar Hills and CordeValle, although its land is calmer, flatter. Its fairways are visible from Highway 101, no doubt a tease for many vacationing golfers en route to Monterey. Its Tournament Course, a host venue for the PGA Tour Champions in 2001-02, is technically "private," although golfers shouldn't have a hard time finding a "public" tee time on the resort's website or through GolfNow. Holes 2 through 8 are located across the highway on hillier terrain. Holes 17 and 18 climax around multiple lakes and man-made waterfalls.

  8. Baylands Golf Links, Palo Alto
    Baylands Golf Links was completely redesigned by Forrest Richardson.

    Baylands Golf Links, Palo Alto's revived muni run by O.B. Sports, has become a part of my regular playing rotation since reopening in 2018 after a seven-year, $12-million redesign by Forrest Richardson. With five par 5s and five par 3s, and plenty of room to spray it in the ever-present wind, it's a fun walk. Its links characteristics are somewhat mitigated by the Seashore Paspalum turf, a grabby style of grass that doesn't cater to bump-and-run shots.

  9. Old Course at Half Moon Bay
    The par-4 18th hole is why everybody plays the Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links.

    Although I highly recommend a stay and play like the one my family experienced in 2015, golfers don't need room reservations at the fabulous Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay to access either course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. The Old Course is one of Arnold Palmer's first designs. It doglegs throughout a housing development before a spectacular escape to the cliffs for the final two holes. Don't forget to snap a photo on No. 18. With the ocean and five-star hotel in the distance, it's as scenic as any tee box in California.

  10. Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica

    Now that Sharp Park (rates: $51-$56) has resolved its legal fight with environmentalists dating to 2007, it can hopefully move forward toward a brighter future. The 6,382-yard muni, a San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department facility like TPC Harding Park, was designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, but aches for a modernization and better care. Tom Doak and Bay Area local Jay Blasi are working with the city to restore green sizes and other lost MacKenzie features. Sharp Park's setting - first through a forest before moving adjacent to the ocean - is inspiring, even if the experience (poor conditions, slow play) often doesn't keep up its end of the bargain.

    9 Min Read
    May 14, 2019
    These aging munis have great bones or historic pedigrees and could be revived with a proper renovation and more TLC.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,100 courses and written about golf destinations in 25 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.

Thank you for including Sharp Park! Played this course as a kid. Nothing fancy; go inside the 'pro shop', pay green fee, roll a few puts on the smallest putting green ever, and wait for them to announce your name. This course is a piece of history, no MacKenzie course should ever be at risk to close.

I can confirm that Tilden and Lincoln have conditioning issues. Although I still enjoy them thanks to the scenery. Similarly, I played Harding once and didn't find it to be as impressive as all the talk. There was lots of orange construction areas roped off between holes as I recall. And I didn't find the condition to be all that spectacular either. But those trees are lovely. Thanks for the tip on Half Moon Bay, I hadn't thought of going there for golf much. What's my favorite Bay golf spot? Shoot, there's a lot of good mediocrity, but I don't really find any of them to check all the boxes. I guess that's why I'm reading this list. Haha!

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Baylands is the most overpriced dump site in the country. I know that public golf in the Bay Area is VERY limited, but how can that dump be in any top 10? When Palo Alto muni was shut down for renovations, locals were excited. I signed up for one of the early non-resident, book-in-advance tee times at over $100, and realized it was just the old muni layout minus some trees with improved grass in the fairway. Here are all the courses not on your list I would play before ever playing that dump again: Tilden Park, Crystal Springs, Shoreline, Lincoln Park, Poplar Creek, Skywest, Sunnyvale Muni

Great listJason, I've played them all with the exception of Baylands.. The NCGA course Poppy
Ridge in Livermore is another enjoyable wine country track worthy of pushing your list to eleven.It has 27 holes all three nines are fun and challenging Also an excellent range,and practice area, and beautiful clubhouse It's always in great shape even during the rainy season and a terrific value for NCGA members.

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I agree with all your picks except Sharpe Park. I played there last year and it was in horrible shape- the fairways were basically dirt painted green and the greens were terrible shape. The bunkers are few but very well maintained even without raking during these times. On the other hand Poplar Creek is very reasonably priced and it fairways and greens are meticulously maintained and beautifully landscape. The course is not difficult but it has its challenges ponds and creeks on holes 2,3, 11 and 14. It’s extremely busy and this may be its only negative

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South Course at Corica Park was Re-Designed by Rees Jones and Marc Logan not Robert Trent Jones Jr.

Agree with this list, 100%. If Sharp Park gets the renovation that some of the others received, it can move into the top 3 for sure.

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Great list! I moved from the L.A. area to Silicon Valley (San Jose area) in 2008. Still haven't played some of these, but the ones I have played tell me this is a good list of challenging, but fair courses. I play San Jose Muni too much because it is close, cheap, long enough, and narrow enough to still be a challenge. Need to visit more of the courses on this list.
By the way, I attempted to play Baylands a little over a month ago, but the geniuses in the Palo Alto city government decided to keep all of the on-course restrooms locked due to Covid! I played 4 holes, birdied hole 4, then had to walk in just to use a restroom.
Still need to play more courses on the list.

Visiting my kids in SF from my home town, Tucson, I always appreciate the change from desert golf. Enjoyed being paired with a local at Lincoln Park and the Golden Gate views on the back nine. Have also sampled both courses at Half Moon Bay--yes, 18 on the Old Course is cool, but I really think the Ocean Course tops it with a real links feel, great ocean views, and of course, it's a blast coming up 18 with a bagpiper marching back and forth on the ramparts. Looking forward to a quick drive down the coast to Sharp Park.

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The top 10 golf courses in the San Francisco Bay Area