The Golf Course
Golf architect Allister MacKenzie designed many golf courses in California. One of them, Sharp Park Golf Course, is undoubtedly his greatest mistake.
Sharp Park, owned and operated by San Francisco but located in Pacifica, was once the Recreation and Parks Department’s southernmost gem. Rich in both natural and human history, Sharp Park contained a unique back-barrier lagoon, acres of flood-dampening wetlands, and healthy wildlife populations found nowhere else on Earth. The low-point in a large watershed emptying into the Pacific Ocean, Sharp Park contained several natural features critical to water transport and coastal biodiversity, including Sanchez Creek and Laguna Salada, both of which provided food and shelter for endangered species.
But in one of the City’s great acts of hubris, nearly 80 years ago San Francisco radically altered Sharp Park’s natural features by dredging and filling the area to create Sharp Park Golf Course. Designed by celebrated golf architect Allister MacKenzie, the course today is an ecological disaster, an economic failure, and a pockmark on Mackenzie’s otherwise stellar resume.
To create enough dry land for a golf course on the natural wetlands surrounding Laguna Salada, San Francisco dredged and filled the area for 14 months. Despite this extraordinarily lengthy effort, San Francisco’s attempt to reconfigure Sharp Park’s wetlands was not successful. Indeed, the golf course’s ceremonial opening day was delayed twice because of wet playing conditions. The course has struggled with water management and flood control issues ever since, in large part because of the course’s poor design and unfortunate placement.
Normal winter rains flood many areas of Sharp Park, and the Golf Course’s attempts to drain the water kills California red-legged frogs, the largest frog in the West, made famous by Mark Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
But it rapidly became apparent to golf course managers that Sharp Park’s incessant freshwater flooding paled in comparison to the biggest threat caused by MacKenzie’s design. MacKenzie placed several golf links on the beach west of Laguna Salada, and in the process destroyed the coastal storm protection provided by the barrier beach that naturally occurred at the site. The folly of this decision became painfully apparent twice in the ensuing decades, when massive storm surges brought coastal floods nearly to the doorstop of the golf clubhouse. MacKenzie’s coastal links were completely destroyed, and deferred maintenance and the construction of Highway 1 made even more of MacKenzie’s work unrecognizable, and often unplayable.
After the second coastal storm surge, San Francisco began constructing—without the requisite permits—a sea wall to protect the course from further destruction. Ironically, the sea wall made freshwater flooding worse: the sea wall blocked the natural outlet of Sanchez Creek, causing freshwater to flood several links.
In the meantime, frog and snake restoration efforts spurred by the federal Endangered Species Act were bearing fruit on public lands surrounding Sharp Park. Soon it became apparent that water pumps installed by the golf course to transport freshwater across the sea wall were killing red-legged frogs: as the pumps lowered the water levels, frog egg masses became stranded on aquatic vegetation and entire frogs generations were put into jeopardy. Even worse, ongoing operation and maintenance of the golf course itself was killing San Francisco garter snakes: as the snakes basked in the upland areas around Laguna Salada, they’d be run over and killed by lawn mowers.
Sharp Park was also suffering financially. From 2001 to 2006, rounds played at Sharp Park declined by 38% because of substandard playing conditions and poor customer service. Between 2004 and 2008, the City of San Francisco lost between $30,000 and $300,000 every year on Sharp Park, and projections of future loses collectively amount to many millions more. Combined with the millions of dollars of capital improvements needed to return Sharp Park to acceptable playing conditions and the millions more needed to improve habitat conditions for the endangered species present at the site, Sharp Park has become one of San Francisco’s most expensive recreational extravagances.
Some have argued that the best way to improve Sharp Park’s financial condition is to restore Allister MacKenzie’s original design. Putting aside the ecological and financial constraints on such a vision, the MacKenzie’s design is an anachronism in today’s modern game of graphite clubs and advanced ball design. Indeed, public MacKenzie courses as close as Sacramento have been radically redesigned, rather than restored, in order to capture a larger share of the modern golf market.
Furthermore, surveys of San Francisco residents show that the #1 recreational demand is more hiking trails, while golf ranks 16th. This inequity between demand and supply has created an opportunity to reconsider our use of Sharp Park and to request that restoration be pursued so all San Franciscans may enjoy this land.
Created: October 02, 2009 11:33
Last updated: February 09, 2011 22:02