Course record: 64 (John Jones)
Playing Gleneagles GC
By Steve Proctor
San Francisco is home to some of the nation’s most storied golf courses. The Olympic Club ranks with the greatest U.S. Open venues. San Francisco Golf Club is an acknowledged masterpiece of revered architect A.W. Tillinghast. Harding Park is a municipal jewel.
But they do not present San Francisco’s greatest test of golf. That distinction is held by Gleneagles Golf Course, a rugged nine-holer, measuring just a shade less than 6,000 yards, that sprawls over a hillside in McLaren Park.
Like a fine single-malt scotch — a specialty in the course’s classic 19th Hole — Gleneagles is an acquired taste.
Not every golfer is comfortable with its location in a tough neighborhood, and while its greens are equal to anyone’s — fast and diabolical — golfers expecting the kind of pristine conditions found at high-end courses are no doubt going to be disappointed.
But Gleneagles holds a special place in the hearts of true golfers. They know that if they can meet its exacting standards, they can go low at any course in the world.
While Gleneagles has just nine holes, it plays as 18 because there are two sets of tee boxes — blue out, yellow in — that can dramatically change the character of a hole.
On the front nine, for instance, No. 5 plays as a short, relatively benign par 4, with a wide landing area in the fairway from which players approach an elevated green guarded by bunkers right and left. On the back nine, it is devilishly difficult. The tee shot is through a narrow opening in the trees, with disaster right and left, and the approach is a dauntingly long one into the prevailing wind.
The reasons Gleneagles presents San Francisco’s most searching test of golf are many. Every fairway is narrow, with both sides lined by trees or thick brush from which recovery is difficult-to-impossible. There are few flat lies on the golf course, and many fairways slope so severely that unless the ball is placed in perfect position — and sometimes even when it is — the shot can roll into unimaginable trouble. Plus, bad lies are as frequent as good ones.
The course is located in an area of San Francisco where the weather is often foggy and cold and usually windy in the afternoon, which makes the course play extraordinarily long. But, by far, the biggest challenge presented by Gleneagles is found on the greens, which were replaced in 2010 and are now the rival of any in the city. They are small, making them difficult targets. They are firm, making it hard to hold a shot. And they are fast and wickedly undulating, making it difficult to sink a putt from any distance.
These features combine to create truly memorable holes.
The sixth is perhaps the most difficult par 5 in Northern California. It is 577 yards long, and plays as a severe dog-leg left that requires two heroic shots to reach the corner, and even then the player is likely to face another 160 yards uphill to a small, severely sloped green that is among the most difficult to putt on the course. The genius of the hole is that the player is sorely tempted, on his second shot, to try and cut the corner by hugging the left side of the fairway — but the penalty for missing is death. The ball rattles among the trees, landing who knows where, and the player is lucky if he escapes with a double bogey.
The par 3 fourth, which plays 162 yards, is similarly challenging. The left side of the hole is wooded, with heavy underbrush, and the right side of the green is guarded by a lone Cypress tree that knocks down or simply swallows up shots. The area between the Cypress and the woods can’t be wider than 25 yards, making it tough to hit this tiny, undulating green.
The ninth is a 442-yard par 5, which sounds like a pushover — until you play it. The fairway, as always, is narrow and lined with trees on both sides. The hole plays severely uphill and into the wind, which means that even though it may measure as a long par four only the stoutest of hitters can reach the green in two.
But what makes the ninth a brute — and a great finishing hole from either tee box — is the green. It is the toughest at Gleneagles, a two-tiered affair that slopes steeply from back to front. On either tier, the player has a landing area of, perhaps, five to ten paces to leave any kind of reasonable putt — and a miss is certain to be a disaster. Land on the top shelf when the hole is on the bottom, and the putt will surely be followed by a chip back onto the green. Land on the bottom with the flag on top and a two-putt is by no means guaranteed.
Given the difficulties, it is not surprising the Gleneagles attracts a peculiar brand of golfers — an array of classic San Francisco characters, many with single-digit handicaps. Nor is it surprising that golfers tend to love or hate Gleneagles. Those who love it are passionate devotees; those who hate it try not to let it haunt their golfing dreams.
Beyond the golf course itself, the prime attraction of Gleneagles is its 19th Hole, a cozy, Scottish-style public house with perhaps the city’s best selection of single-malt Scotch (at ridiculously low prices), a great selection of craft-brewed beers, a large flat-screen TV and a patio that looks out over San Francisco Bay.
Newcomers to the course are often astonished to discover — as they wander aimlessly in search of the pro shop — that the bartender is the person to see about a tee time. And maybe that’s for the best, as the golfer about to take on the toughest test in San Francisco is well advised to fortify himself.
Steve Proctor is past president of the Gleneagles Golf Club, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and an author.