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California Golf Club of San Francisco

I had the pleasure of playing Cal Club on my recent trip to California. One of the best parts about playing private courses is playing with people who are exceptionally knowledgeable about the course--as was the case when I played at Cal Club. The course was originally designed by Vernon Macan in the 1920s. As the story goes, Macan left out all (most?) of the fairway bunkers in the original design with the expectation that he would add them after seeing how people played the course by studying the distribution of divots. When the course decided to add fairway bunkers, they enlisted Alister MacKenzie, rather than Macan. MacKenzie then proceeded to redesign (and add) the bunkering on the course, as well as rebuild two of the greens. The club underwent another facelift under the hands of Robert Trent Jones Sr. in the 1960s. Most recently, the course was redesigned yet again by Kyle Phillips, which has made Cal Club a truly great course. As part of this project, Phillips created five new holes, including the third, seventh, and eighth, which stand out as some of the best holes on the course.

There are some overarching thoughts I have regarding Cal Club. First, it really is a tale of two unique nines and it is a toss-up as to which I enjoyed more. Every hole on the front nine feels fairly secluded--perhaps you can see one other hole, but, like many championship courses (Bethpage being a great example), every holes feels like it is in its own little world. Then, once you turn to the back, you get sweeping views of the entire course and clubhouse. Though open, the back nine did not feel like you were in a shooting gallery. Despite being able to see so much of the course, the holes were certainly not on top of each other such that you felt cramped. That brings me to my next point, the course felt like a true championship course that was large in scale. Though I loved Pasatiempo for different reasons, the routing there did not feel as sprawling as the routing at Cal Club, which I tend to enjoy. On another note, the bunkering, to be sure, is the highlight of the course--both from a design and beauty perspective, but other notable features include the lack of thick rough, cypress lined fairways, and fun elevation change (which I will highlight below). Lastly, I found Cal Club to just be a fun course. There are a lot of courses that I love, but that I would not describe as fun. For example, Bethpage requires a lot of mental energy to get around it. The same is true of Pasatiempo. Both are world class courses and I would only be so lucky if I could play them every day, but they require you to be a bit more on guard. By contrast, I feel like Cal Club (similar to Cypress) allows you to be a bit looser. To be sure, the bunkers can kill you and the greens, from what I hear, are lightening fast in the summer. So, by no means am I saying the course is easy (my back nine score proved as much). Rather, you will not be utterly punished for a loose shot, which lets you be a bit freer in your shot selection. By contrast, hit a loose shot at Bethpage and you are either in the woods or in deep rough on what was already an exceptionally long hole. A big part of this fun factor and looseness is how little rough there is on this course. You'll rarely find yourself looking for your ball when it is only a few yards off the fairway or gouging the ball out of grass that is above your shoes.

I usually do not comment on clubhouses, but this one was beautiful. It is an enormous white structure that can be seen from all parts of the course and is just utterly classy. Memorabilia lines the walls, including Ken Venturi's clubs from his 1964 US Open win at Congressional (the back tees are called the Venturi tees). And it just seemed like a fun place to be a member. Not snooty, and from what I was told, it is a very social membership. There is a wall of televisions with comfortable leather seats in front of them. Great day sounds like playing 18 in the morning and then watching a tournament on TV. There is a card room. Of the courses I have played, if I had to choose the best hang out spot, it would be Cal Club.

Now, onto some individual holes. I also note that I played the course on an overcast, rainy day. So, these photos may not do the course justice. If the pictures look lackluster, that is only because of the weather. I refer you to the following page for some pictures of the course on a spectacular day. Also, due to the rain, I was not able to get as many pictures as normal because I was trying to protect the camera:

Entrance to Cal Club.

Front of the clubhouse.

I really appreciate that the first hole is an easy, downhill 512 yard par five. There is a lot of bunkering on the left near the green (and some on the right), but if you make it a three shot hole, you should be able to successfully navigate it.

First fairway.

I am missing a a picture of the second, but it is the fifth hardest hole on the course--a 409 yard slightly uphill par four.

The third is one of the newly created holes. It now ranks as the hardest on the course and, in my opinion, among the best on the course--a 415 yard downhill par four with some brutal bunkering that protects the front of the green. There are also fairway bunkers that you really do not want to be in, but the fairway is fairly wide to the left of the bunkers, so it is not that difficult to avoid them.

Third tee.

Bunkers protecting third green (and note the one hiding in the back there).

The fourth is a 542 yard par five. I really liked how this green was framed on the left by a bunker and the right by a tall cypress tree.

Fourth green.

Who doesn't love short par fours? The fifth is a good one at 325 yards. There are just a lot of scary bunkers that you have to avoid and a tumultuous green that, in dry conditions, must often lead to balls being putt off the green.

Fifth tee.

The sixth is the first of some really great par threes on the course--a 182 yards and slightly uphill. The challenge here is to clear the deep bunkers in front of the green, but not go over the green because the back is a tightly mown steep face that will leave an awkward chip or a hard to gauge putt. I was over the back and opted to putt, which did not work out well--guessing the right speed on an uphill putt through 20 feet of fringe on a wet day was near impossible.

Sixth tee.

As you walk to the seventh tee, you get an idea of how the course will open up. While the first seven holes are fairly isolated from each other and the rest of the course, the later holes provide sweeping views of the entire course with the clubhouse usually in view.

The seventh--another new hole--is one of the most fun on the course. A 395 yard cape hole that requires you to decide how much you want to cut off with your drive. Of course, the more direct line you take to the green, the longer the carry. I believe my host told me that it is approximately a 230 yard carry (though, I may have misunderstood that) to hit the greenside bunkers. I tend to think a more conservative play is the better bet because there is no bunker protecting the front of the green if you are coming from the middle of the fairway. Play it safe and the drive leaves a lot of room for error, and then you are left with a short iron into a fairly unprotected green (there certainly are greenside bunkers, but they are unlikely to come into play unless you badly pull or push a wedge).

Seventh tee.

Seventh fairway. Those bunkers on the right are the ones that will come into play if you take your tee shot towards the green.

The eighth is another new hole and, again, a real stellar one--a downhill, 216 yard par three. You know those holes that are so visually enticing and you really want to hit a good shot. This is one of those holes. Unfortunately, I just really hate par threes that play 200 or so yards (I need to figure that out because it is fairly common). I tried to hit a club too hard and sprayed it right. But, made an awesome up and down, so that par is more memorable than simply hitting the green and two putting!

Eighth tee.

The ninth is the third hardest hole on the course, but I think it is one of the best--a 402 yard dogleg left par four. Your tee shot simply cannot go left, but there is room on the right over the fairway bunker. Then the green is just a minefield of bunkers to be avoided.

Ninth tee.

Approach to nine.

I really enjoyed the tenth hole--a 391 yard par four. The fairway kicks right to left, but then the green slopes severely left to right with bunkers waiting to eat any balls that peel off right.

Approach to ten.

The eleventh is a 399 yard downhill par four. This tee shot is a good example of the openness that you can find on the back. Very enticing hole to hit a drive as hard as humanly possible.

Eleventh tee.

Eleventh green. Just look at that bunkering.

The twelfth is no joke--a 201 yard uphill par three. I guessed that it was playing 220, which calls for the signature cut off driver swing. The one in three times that it works, it feels great. On this particular occasion, it did indeed find the green.

Twelfth tee.

The thirteenth is a 393 yard par four with cypress trees providing a nice little chute for your tee shot.

Thirteenth tee.

Approach to thirteen.

The fourteenth might be my favorite on the course--a 443 yard par four. If you want to play it a bit safe, leave your tee shot to the right, but that will leave you with an angle requiring you to fly the mass of bunkers on the right side of the green (though that is a bit of an understatement as they are not only greenside bunkers, but rather start about 20 yards short of the green).

Fourteenth tee.

Approach to fourteen.

I had to hit from the greenside bunkers on fourteen.

The fifteenth is a 494 yard par five. It is one of the few holes that I remember where a fairway bunker sits in the middle of the fairway and has to be carried (or avoided by going left or right of it). The other fairway bunkers penalize shots that you miss left or right, rather than forcing you to consider the yardage for a carry.

Fifteenth tee shot.

Bunker that comes into play on second.

We played the sixteenth from an alternative tee. I would like to see what it plays like from the normal tee because I really enjoyed the hole from this other tee, which came in at a completely different angle. Normally, it plays 125 yards downhill. From our tee, it was closer to 108 yards. As we played it, you simply needed a perfect yardage to hit a narrow green--short or long are treacherous bunkers.

Sixteenth tee.

The seventeenth is a 559 yard par five. The interesting part of this hole comes at the green complex--a green that is positioned from left to right with bunkers going in a horseshoe around on the back left and bunkers short right. Apparently in the summer you can land it 20 yards short and still have it funnel into the green, but that did not work in these wet conditions.

Approach to seventeen.

The eighteenth is a great finishing hole--a 394 yard par four. The tee shot is just straightaway. The memorable part of the hole comes on the second shot where the fairway falls off a twenty foot precipice, which leaves a downhill approach to a green with beautiful bunkering and the lovely clubhouse on full display.

Approach to eighteen. Though hard to see here, there is a steep downhill slope about ten yards in front of where I am standing.

I don't know what else to say--I loved it! The bunkers, the cypress trees, the lack of rough, elevation change (but nothing crazy), and interesting green contours make Cal Club a world class course. It is great to see a course that has gone through multiple phases claim its spot among the best courses in Northern California, which is no easy task given, I would say, the area has the best golf in the United States. I think it is one of the courses where, if you are lucky enough to play it often, you will never tire of it.


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