In a continuation of our series looking at the best public golf courses, this time we’re on the sunny west coast of California. We’re going to dive into the best public golf courses in San Francisco, the financial hub and tourist hotspot.
At just under 232 square miles and containing one of the most developed cities in the U.S., the peninsula is already struggling for disposable green space.
Add to that the vast and impressive Santa Cruz Mountain range running north to south, there is even less flat space available to build golf courses.
So it won’t come as a surprise many of the golf courses in San Fran are well established and have existed for some time. Some of which are considered the best in the U.S. which you can explore in my other post looking at the best courses in the city. The likes of the Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club and California Golf Club of San Francisco are Top 100 quality.
See also: What are the best golf courses in San Francisco?
But today, we look just at those courses you can play, rating them in order of quality. Without any further delay, let’s jump into the best public golf courses in San Francisco.
The best public golf courses in San Francisco
|1||Presidio Golf Course|
|2||TPC Harding Park|
|3||Sharp Park Golf Course|
|4||Half Moon Bay Golf (Ocean Course)|
|5||Baylands Golf Links|
|6||Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park|
|7||Half Moon Bay Golf (Old Course)|
|8||Poplar Creek Golf Course|
|9||The Golf Club at Moffett Field|
|10||Shoreline Golf Links|
|Value of money||Sharp Park Golf Course|
|Groups||Baylands Golf Links|
|Clubhouse||Poplar Creek Golf Course|
|Views||Half Moon Bay Golf (Ocean Course)|
1. Presidio Golf Course
We kick off this list of the best public golf courses in San Francisco with the wonderful Presidio Golf Course.
This is a special place, which has a long and storied past. For starters it is one of the oldest golf courses on the West coast. The original 9-hole layout opened for play in 1895, having been designed by Robert Wood Johnstone.
For many years, Presidio was strictly only for the use of the military and its private club members. It has actually only been open to the public since 1995, so for many years it was an unknown entity to most.
In 1910, the 9-hole layout was extended to 18-holes. This project was again completed under the watchful eye of Robert Johnstone, alongside William McEwen. But major work followed shortly after in 1921.
The course was lengthened and significantly improved by the British firm Fowler & Simpson. Herbert Fowler and Tom Simpson were two of the most respected golf course architects on the Continent. And this is one of the only courses stateside to have benefitted from their input.
The club occupies a sumptuous plot of land, in Presidio of San Francisco. This is the most northern plot of land in San Francisco and is very hilly.
The course nowadays is characterized by stately pines and eucalyptus trees. But when it first opened, this forest barely existed.
Narrow fairways make this a challenging test. Accurate ball-striking is essential, especially with the massive elevation changes. The scorecard says the course is only 6,481 yards from the back tees. But it is much more challenging with not one flat lie to enjoy.
As close as you’ll get to the city with some fantastic views. A quirky routing and top class conditioning. Presidio simply has to be the best public golf course in San Francisco.
2. TPC Harding Park
Next up and we’re off to the tournament pedigree establishment of TPC Harding Park.
Owned and managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, this is one of the most popular municipal golf courses in the state. It is up there with the likes of Torrey Pines down in San Diego.
The course first opened for play in 1925 and was designed by leading architects of the time, Willie Watson and Sam Whiting.
Ever since then, it has hosted many high profile tournaments. These include initially the USGA National Public Links Championship, followed in the 1940s by the first PGA Tour event, the Victory Open. It was a regular haunt for the PGA Tour for many years.
The club occupies a pristine location, on the west coast and surrounded on two sides by Lake Merced. Across the southern side of the lake, is the uber-private Olympic Club, with its two Top 100 courses.
Tall Monterey Pines characterize the site and frame many of the sublime fairways. The condition of the course is superb, all the more so since a major redevelopment in the early twenty-first century. TPC Harding Park had fallen into such disrepair, it was completely overhauled to attract once again the PGA Tour.
Soon after, the course was once again hosting some major tournaments with amongst them, the 2009 President Cup and the 2015 WGC-Match Play Championship.
WIthin easy location of the city, there is a reason this is so popular and offers a nice contrast to Presidio which is first on the list.
3. Sharp Park Golf Course
Some 10 miles south of San Francisco in Pacifica, is the fantastic Sharp Park Golf Course
Like some of the aforementioned, Sharp Park has been around since the early twentieth century. It opened its doors to the public in 1932, and has remained a municipal course ever since.
The layout was designed by the great Alister MacKenzie, who sadly passed away two years later. This is the same MacKenzie who designed Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne, Pasatiempo and of course the par-3 course at Augusta National. In fact Sharp Park is one of the only publicly accessible courses MacKenzie designed.
Located in Fairway Park, this historic links course offers the visiting golfer sensational views out over the Pacific. Just as impressive are some of the views back across the headland and surrounding mountains.
Fairways are narrow, with tracts of woodland dotted around the course. A couple of holes come into contact with the Laguna Salada lake, but that is the only water you will encounter.
This is a solid golf course at tremendous value, with twilight rates in the $30 range. For a golf course ranked by GolfWeek as one of America’s 50 Greatest Municipal Courses, it is well worth the drive.
4. Half Moon Bay Golf Links (Ocean & Old)
The spectacular Ritz-Carlton of Half Moon Bay is a luxury five-star oceanside resort to the south of San Francisco. It occupies a sensational plot of land, high up on the cliffs overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean.
Here there are two championship quality 18-hole golf courses, designed by two of the world’s foremost architects, Arnold Palmer and Arthur Hills.
Arnold Palmer’s Old Course came first in 1973 and is a classic American parkland course. With the help of Francis Duane, Palmer constructed a course which offers plenty of intrigue and enjoyment. There are multiple doglegs, numerous water hazards and enough tree-lined fairways to keep you dialed in.
The postcard hole is the final one, running parallel to the ocean back up to the hotel. Glorious views and a glorious finish. And as a U.S. Open Qualifying venue, don’t expect an easy ride.
But for me the apex course at Half Moon Bay, is the more recent Ocean Course. It was designed by Arthur Hills and opened for play in 1997.
Unlike the Old Course which meanders through a large residential estate, albeit some pretty special houses, the Ocean Course is surrounded by nature. It was built to resemble a traditional links-style layout, with long wispy rough, wide undulating fairways and exquisitely contoured greens.
With no protection from the elements, the wind can play havoc with your round. Suddenly wide open fairways seem a lot more narrow than they should be!
There are changes in elevation, huge bunkers shared by opposing holes and some epic views. And this all crescendos into the last three holes which are sensational bringing you back to the clubhouse.
Resort courses may not be that appealing to some golf purists. But as far as comparing their merits versus other publicly accessible courses, I rate these highly.
If you’re visiting San Francisco and want to be out of the city, Half Moon Bay resort should definitely be high up on your list of options. I briefly reviewed it in the article below talking about California’s best golf resorts.
See also: What are the best golf resorts in California?
5. Baylands Golf Links
What was previously called Palo Alto Municipal Golf Links, is no more. Instead, after a major 2018 redevelopment, we have the superb Baylands Golf Links.
This brand new routing and design was completed by the talented Forrest Richardson. Richardson is a hugely respected voice in golf course architecture circles. He also has a portfolio of courses that stretch across the globe.
The City of Palo Alto, who manage the course, gave Richardson the green light to completely reconfigure the old layout. This was a big call given the fact the Palo Alto Municipal was a William F. Bell creation whose history reached back to the 1950s.
But any successful business needs to continue innovating. And with many golf courses, they need to modernize and move with the times. This has been successfully achieved here at Baylands Golf Links.
Wide sprawling fairways with beautifully crafted and sculpted greens await. Across the 55 acres, you’ll come across native vegetation and wetlands. They also planted some 300 new native trees.
There are a number of elevated sections, following the works. This allows for fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay as well as of the Baylands. ‘New’ to the scene, but already making waves.
6. Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park
As we continue our exploration of the best public golf courses in San Francisco, we come across the Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park.
I don’t often throw a 9-hole golf course into one of these golf course lists. Not because I don’t rate them. Just because the occasion has never really presented itself.
But I find myself incapable of leaving Gleneagles Golf Course out for a number of reasons. Foremost amongst them is the simple fact this is a top class layout right in the center of San Fran.
There is plenty of movement in the land, having been built on a hillside. This makes it an incredibly challenging layout. The greens are diabolically fast, the fairways are narrow and the thick brush needs to be avoided at all costs.
It was designed by the Irishman Jack Fleming and opened for play in 1962. Fleming had in the past worked with Alister MacKenzie and Robert Hunter at Cypress Point of all places. The spectacularly contoured greens and Golden Age bunkers clearly rubbed off on him.
Although there are only 9-holes, with two sets of tee boxes it plays as an 18-hole course and presents a very different challenge on the back nine. Playing the full 18 will stretch the course to around 6,000 yards.
There really are many reasons to like Gleneagles. Its location, the challenge it presents, the feeling of being at one with nature, the great value. Or maybe the 19th hole? A modest pub which serves great beer and even better whiskey.
7. Poplar Creek Golf Course
One of the most popular municipal golf courses close to the city is Poplar Creek Golf Course, in San Mateo.
This popularity is in large part due to its location, conveniently positioned off the freeway. It is also just a ten minute drive from the International airport. For the locals, it’s a twenty minute drive from downtown.
Previously called the San Mateo Municipal Golf Course, it opened in 1933. Interestingly, it was actually built to support unemployed laborers during the Great Depression. And ever since then, it has remained one of the more popular public golf courses around San Francisco.
The course has a great location, right on Coyote Point. Players can enjoy pretty special views across San Francisco Bay as well as south to the San Mateo Bridge. But inevitably, this exposed location will lead to tricky cross-winds, like some of the other courses along this stretch of coastline.
In 1999, the course was closed for a major redevelopment and redesign. It was after this renovation the course changed its name to Poplar Creek Golf Course. This was in celebration of the myriad poplar trees and the creek that runs through the site.
The routing is decent, not spectacular, but definitely fun with ample risk/reward holes on the front nine. Its greens are more often than not in decent condition, so make sure you bring your putting game.
One reason to extend your stay though, is the awesome clubhouse. As far as 19th holes go, this one is decent! Loads of screens to catch the game and a plentiful menu.
8. The Golf Club at Moffett Field
Further down the shoreline overlooking San Francisco Bay, is the Golf Club at Moffett Field. This is quite a unique location, right next to the NASA-leased Moffett Air Field. It’s not every day you get views of a NASA hangar when teeing off.
The club is some 40 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco, towards San Jose. It is arguably far more popular with San Jose residents as it would be for those in San Fran. But the drive is not too difficult, heading south on the freeway.
The course was designed by Bob E. Baldock and opened in 1957, initially as a 9-hole course. Some ten years later it was extended to the full 18-holes. Ironically, the club used to go by the name of the ‘Hill Course’, in honor of the commanding officer at the time. Yet the plot of land is flat as a pancake.
That said, from a golf perspective, it is entertaining enough with enough variety in the routing. Granted there are a number of parallel fairways, but you’ll find a good mix of long, as well as shorter, more strategic par 4s.
The course enjoyed substantial investment in 2007, with the terrain being recontoured, bunkers restored and greens improved. From the back tees, the course measures 6,572 yards, so no push over.
9. Shoreline Golf Links
Last on our list of public golf courses in San Francisco, is Shoreline Golf Links. We’re just stretching the limit of how far you can go with Shoreline. But from central San Francisco, you’re looking at a 40 minute drive.
The location is convenient enough, positioned just north of the Bayshore Freeway. You’re within easy reach of San Jose to the south and obviously San Francisco back north.
Shoreline Golf Links offers the visiting golfer some sensational views. The course is located on a vast 750 acre plot, just north of Silicon Valley. When driving to the entrance, you’ll be passing the impressive Googleplex building.
On one side you have views across San Francisco Bay and on the other, the distant San Jose mountain range. This isn’t called Mountain View park for no reason.
The course opened in 1983 and was designed as a collaboration between Robert Trent Jones Jr, Donald Knott, Mark Rathert and Gary Linn. Ever heard the phrase ‘too many chefs’? That might be why Trent Jones Jr returned some four years later to touch up the design and work on various aspects.
But the reality is, Shoreline Golf Links is good fun and incredibly good value. There are many challenging tee positions and when the wind blows, boy will you know it.
What is the best public golf course in San Francisco?
The best public golf course in San Francisco is Presidio Golf Course. The club is located in Presidio of San Francisco right to the north of the city. A beautifully verdant site, the course first opened in 1895 and was designed by Robert Wood Johnstone.