Saturday, January 28, 2006

San Francisco and Olympic Golf Clubs

San Francisco Golf Club (#27 in the world) is a traditional golf club. Designed early in the career of A.W. Tillinghast, many consider it his best. Personally, I think his best is actually Bethpage Black, but San Francisco is a close second.

The City of San Francisco has the reputation of being a very liberal city based on gay rights, environmentalism, etc. However, I always found that beneath the surface, its old money is some of the most conservative in the western world. San Francisco Golf Club is more a reflection of this older, conservative city than the more liberal one most people know. San Francisco Golf Club was proud that it did not let in new members who made their fortunes in technology during the Internet bubble years. It is a bastion of old money conservatism. It is reflective of a type of club that is increasingly scare. Our experience has been that Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are three of the most conservative cities in the U.S. in terms of doing business and still having an old establishment. They may vote left of center, but the old-line, blue-bloods are alive and well and still pulling the strings. I found that S.F.G.C. is a very conservative club along the lines of a Merion or The Country Club. Membership in an elite course such as these still represents something that money can't buy. Any fool could leverage himself to the hilt with a big mortgage, lease a BMW and give the appearance of having arrived. Only the truly elite could get into a club like San Francisco. You have to be nominated by seven members of the establishment. And they will not let in anyone without the proper pedigree. And for good reason. Their traditions are time honored and are to be respected. Why let in some technology genius who would ruin the decorum in the locker room by checking his hand-held email device every 3 minutes.

Belonging to one of these clubs is the ultimate safeguard. You can't rely on your neighborhood any more as anyone can buy a home next to you. The first class cabin on a plane is no longer exclusive with the frequent business travelers taking over. But, to be the Chairman of the admissions committee at an old line club such as San Francisco or Merion or The Country Club and you are a real member of the ruling elite. In Great Britain, it is easier to tell someone's class by their education, title and accent. Not so in the U.S. With the equal opportunity movement, a Harvard or Yale pedigree is no longer a shorthand way to see if someone is like you. To find the true landed gentry in this country, check the membership lists at the most elite of clubs in Boston, San Francisco or Philadelphia.

Like the city itself, the golf course is near perfection. Everything about it. It's understated demeanor, the bartender who has been there for forty years. If the sign of a good club is the integrity of its locker room and sense of tradition, then San Francisco, like the city itself is world class. Gentleman who will always ask you for a game if you are waiting near the first tee.

With one of the hardest admissions policies, you have to make an application just to get the go ahead to fill out an admissions application. While there for the day we heard a story where an existing member's wife applies for membership and was rejected. Guess how much longer he remained a member?

As to the golf course, you get a sense of its greatness standing on the putting green or first tee; perched above the wide fairway with massive bunkers strategically placed throughout. The golf course is actually hemmed in by the city so doesn't have necessarily dramatic views. What it does have is ample room to drive the golf ball. Unlike many Tillinghast designs that have become overgrown, San Francisco is not hemmed in by trees. The terrain is used imaginatively, not straight up and down and there are many subtle, challenging dogleg holes. You can see the fairway and thus, you can view the real majesty of Tillinghast's skills, his ability to use bunkers strategically and with a sense of beauty.

Especially compared to nearby Olympic Club (#39 in the world), San Francisco shines. I find the Olympic Lake course to be near-impossible to play for a non-scratch player. The trees are grown in too tight, it is built on the side of a mountain and the greens are too fast. It is hard to get an even lie. You have to be able to hit a draw and a fade at will. Personally, I don't have the ability to fade a two iron and land it softly on the green. Beyond that, I find Olympic, like its California neighbor to the south Riviera to be too large and corporate and lacking the charm of San Francisco. It doesn't have a clubby feel given the size of its membership with two courses. It feels more like an athletic club. San Francisco, on the other hand just feels privileged and more genuine.

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