THE REBORN GOLDEN GATE PARK GOLF COURSE IS A MODEL OF PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
By ALAN SHIPNUCK
Photographs MATT GINELLA
On March 4, 2023, the San Francisco golf community turned out to bid adieu to an old friend. Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a 9-hole par-3 on the western edge of one of America’s greatest urban oases, has been a beloved institution since 1952, but this charming little course suffered from decades of deferred maintenance. March 4th was the last day the public could play GGPGC before it would close for an extensive infrastructure project, which was to include regrassing the course and installing a state-of-the-art irrigation system. Among the regulars, there was excitement and anticipation tinged with a little wistfulness.
“It’s a great little course, I’m gonna miss it for the next six or seven months,” said Keith Robertson, 66, a retiree who plays Golden Gate a handful of times each week. Also making the scene was Angeline Kong, 10, who discovered Golden Gate by way of the First Tee-San Francisco. After studying drawings of what the new course will look like, Angeline enthused, “I can’t wait to see it come to life!”
First Tee-San Francisco (FTSF) has operated GGPGC since 2013, thanks to the foresight of the late Sandy Tatum, the local golf patriarch who recognized the need to safeguard access to green grass facilities for First Tee kids. In 2023, the confluence of two events offered a rare opportunity to do something transformative: the First Tee’s lease was due for a renewal and the Golden Gate clubhouse had to be rebuilt after a fire. Enter Dan Burke, CEO of FTSF, who had a vision of what Golden Gate Park Golf Course could become. “This is an amazing golf course but it needed some TLC,” says Burke
He conceived of a sweeping restoration and course architect Jay Blasi eagerly signed on. A Northern California resident, Blasi is best known for his work on Chambers Bay, but in the years since he has mostly been working on private projects hidden behind the hedges. Blasi donated his services for Golden Gate, eager to give back to the game that has given him so much and enticed by the potential of the land.
“What people probably don’t know,” says Blasi, “and what is most exciting from a golf design standpoint is we are on sand dunes. If you dig down a foot you are in pure sand. Well, pure sand is the most important ingredient for great golf. And what is most meaningful here, when you think about the best par-3 courses, whether it’s the Preserve at Bandon or the Sand Box at Sand Valley, more often than not they are at a destination golf course where the clientele is going to be wealthy golfers taking a buddies trips. Here, we feel we have an opportunity to offer an equal caliber of quality and excitement. And yet the folks who play here range from age 5-95, and come from all sorts of economic backgrounds. It is truly a municipal golf course for the people of San Francisco, but we feel we can give them something that people will travel around the world to see.”
Blasi’s design featured a couple of holes resequenced for safety reasons, whimsically reshaped greens and exposed sandy edges to reconnect Golden Gate visually to nearby Ocean Beach. FTSF leadership and Burke doggedly raised $2.7 million dollars from First Tee supporters to cover the construction costs, all the while navigating the fierce local politics in San Francisco.
When construction began on March 6, the first order of business was to scrape away a foot of turf and thatch, revealing the rolling sand dunes beneath. In his redesign, Blasi balanced fun, whimsy and strategic challenge with the demands of hosting 40,000+ rounds per year, the bulk of them played by beginners, kids and seniors. On many of the reshaped holes the fairways are built up on the edges, to keep errants shots in play, and the green complexes feature slopes to guide balls back toward the putting surface. There will be no rough at GGP, so worm-burners get more roll on the firm, fast fescue. Expansive teeing areas allow for three sets of tees, so newbies can play a very short course while from the back of the box better players will have to reach for mid- and perhaps long-irons. Blasi and his project manager, Josh Lewis, created lovely, rustic sandscapes that connect the course visually to the nearby beach, but these areas are situated well behind greens or in other out-of-the-way areas that are unlikely to ensnare many golfers.
In late-April, with half of the holes shaped and irrigation piping in place, it was already apparent that something special was brewing at GGP. “No offense to other facilities around the country,” said Burke, “but from my lens, having a lifetime in the game, this will probably be the best 9-hole par-3 course in America.”
For a three-part video series and a podcast with all of the Golden Gate Park protagonists, go to