The Speakeasy of Golf Courses

By Steve Proctor

The history of Gleneagles Golf Course — the municipal gem celebrating its 50th birthday in 2012 — can be traced through the evolution of its opening hole, a devilish little par four that was recently redesigned and yet goes by the moniker of Old Number One.

When the course opened on Feb. 2, 1962, after a classic San Francisco political battle that raged for decades, it was the most expensive 9-hole course ever built. The tab exceeded $500,000, and that didn’t include the cost of the land in McLaren Park.

 The 9-hole layout, slashed into the side of a hill, was designed by Jack Fleming, a noted course architect who had worked with the legendary Alister MacKenzie on fabled Cypress Point Country Club, Sharp Park and designed numerous California tracks, among them the layout at Sharon Heights Country Club in Menlo Park.

Opening day at McLaren Park Golf Course.  After decades of political hurdles the golf course opens with pomp and circumstance.  Mayor George Christopher and Recreation and Parks President Walter Haas preside at the first tee. February 1, 1962, photo by Doherty/S.F. Examiner

Opening day at McLaren Park Golf Course.  After decades of political hurdles the golf course opens with pomp and circumstance.  Mayor George Christopher and Recreation and Parks President Walter Haas preside at the first tee. February 1, 1962, photo by Doherty/S.F. Examiner

Fleming’s design for the first hole at Gleneagles set the tone for the course. From the tee, players hit into a narrow fairway that was lined on both sides by trees or brush, tilted rakishly from left to right and curved gently downhill and to the right as it approached a tiny, undulating green.

Art Rosenbaum, editor and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sporting Green, was in the first foursome to play the course. He understood right away the difficulties presented by the course’s uneven lies and tricky greens, not to mention the often-fierce winds at McLaren Park.

“It is not true,” Rosenbaum wrote with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “that the par players at McLaren will need a mercury-bubble level, an anemometer, an altimeter and one leg shorter than the other, though these might lend aid and birdies to the situation.”

Rosenbaum didn’t own up to a score, writing: “I am proud to say that all of us were one under. That is, we finished at exactly 1:59, one minute under two hours.”

Not surprisingly, given the challenge it presented, the course attracted a hardy brand of golfers who were justly feared when money or trophies were on the line.

In 1965, four members of the golf club at McLaren Park Golf Course, as it was then known, finished first in their flights of the storied San Francisco City Championship, the oldest continuously operated municipal golf championship in the nation.

Sadly, in the two decades following its heralded opening, the course experienced hard times. Constant problems with drainage and crimes common to the tough neighborhoods surrounding the course diminished play as losses piled up for the city.

Mayor George Christopher christens the course with the first tee shot.  February 1, 1962 Photo: Doherty/S.F. Examiner

Mayor George Christopher christens the course with the first tee shot.  February 1, 1962 Photo: Doherty/S.F. Examiner

In 1980, having lost $77,000 the previous year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors launched the next era in the course’s history by leasing it to Erik de Lambert, a former commercial photographer and maitre d’hotel at the Mark Hopkins.

“We’re going to try to create a genuine Scottish golf course feeling,” de Lambert proclaimed when he signed the lease. “We want an entirely new image.”

De Lambert, a formidable golfer who had once threatened the course record at McLaren, launched an impressive array of improvements — starting with a lofty new name, Gleneagles International Golf Course, after his favorite track in Scotland.

He built a second tee box for every hole, making it possible to play Gleneagles as 18. He sprinkled new hazards throughout the course. He improved drainage and conditions, especially those dastardly greens. And he opened as Scottish-style pub he dubbed Old Peculiar’s.

But perhaps most notably, he redesigned the course’s opening hole. He abandoned the green Fleming had designed — which was beset by drainage issues and didn’t get sufficient sunlight — and built another carved into a hill on the left side of the hole.

It was a wickedly difficult green — an elevated, narrow, two-tiered affair that presented a perilous approach shot that could just as easily carom into disaster as nestle close to the cup, particularly when the hole was located on the upper level.

During de Lambert’s era, which saw significant increases in play and a revival of membership in the course’s golf club, that opening hole came to define the new Gleneagles — an insanely difficult, yet irresistible challenge for genuine golfers.

“This course is seven or eight shots harder than almost any public course,” de Lambert proudly told the Chronicle.

Given its reputation as the toughest course in the city, Gleneagles attracted top-name golfers when they came to town for tournaments, among them one of the game’s all-time greats, Lee Trevino, according to a 1984 column by the Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius, then writing for the Sporting Green..

“He fired a 71 the first time around, and then, after he got to know the course a little, he fired a 73,” Nevius wrote.

Trevino “didn’t like it,” de Lambert acknowledged. “But he did say he could putt here.”
            An effort to reach the golf legend and have him recount his two trips around the course met this response from his publicist: “Lee Trevino responded back that he is not interested in scheduling and interview and does not remember Gleneagles.” Perhaps, as with so many golfers humbled by this unforgiving muni, the round was best forgotten.

Nearly 25 years into his stewardship of the course, de Lambert decided it was time to bow out. In December 2004, the city turned to a new group of leaseholders led by Tom Hsieh, a political consultant who had grown up playing Gleneagles and understood the course’s history and culture.

 Hsieh and his partners launched their own effort to spruce up Gleneagles, reseeding fairways and tee boxes, working to rehabilitate the course’s aging greens, improving irrigation, buying new mowers and equipment for maintaining the course, trimming trees to let in more light and air, and repairing the clubhouse and bathrooms — a tab that added up to more than $300,000.

            The rugged little course continued to hold a special place in the hearts of golfing cognoscenti.

 In 2006, author Anthony Pioppi included a chapter on Gleneagles in his book, “To the Nines,” placing it in a pantheon of 9-hole gems alongside Donald Ross’ Rolling Rock Club, Alister MaKenzie’s Northwood and The Dunes Club in Michigan, which Mike Keiser built before taking on the project that would become his legacy, the Bandon Dunes resort in Oregon. Fittingly, Pioppi headlined his chapter, “Wanted: True Golfers.”

           In February 2010, Gleneagles received another rare honor for a municipal course. Golf World magazine rated it among the nation’s Top 20 nine-hole courses.

            Not surprisingly, the course continued to attract prominent figures in the world of golf, among them Kay Cockerill, a reporter for the Golf Channel and two-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur. In an interview, Cockerill said she had always “heard about the little gem on the edge of town” and got her first chance to play it when Gleneagles became involved with San Francisco’s First Tee program, where serves on the board of directors.

“When I played it, I was really amazed at what a good golf course it was,” said Cockerill. “It was rough around the edges, but it harkened back to what golf is really about.”

And then disaster struck.

In July 2010, a combination of age, turf management issues and insect infestation destroyed the fabled greens of Gleneagles. With play off 70 percent, San Francisco’s hidden gem was months away from closing for good.

            His back to the wall, Hsieh sent out a plea for help and it caught the attention of the man who would become the savior of Gleneagles — Thomas Bastis, greenskeeper at nearby California Golf Club, perennially ranked as one of America’s Top 50 classic courses.

Bastis surveyed the damage at Gleneagles, then sat down with Hsieh and gave him the plain truth: Gleneagles’ only hope was to tear up and replace its greens, an expensive proposition for a course on the financial edge in the best of times.

 “At first I was in denial,” Hsieh recalled in an interview with TurfNet Media Network. “But within a few days I realized it was either follow that course of action or close up shop by winter.”

Bastis recommended that in building new greens — including a new practice area — the course switch from the Poa annua that had been in place for 50 years to bentgrass, a faster, smoother surface that would add a new dimension to the already formidable challenge of putting at Gleneagles.

The greenskeeper’s connections and Gleneagles’ reputation as a jewel worth saving encouraged others in the golf community to step up and help by offering steep discounts on construction work and sod for the new greens, or lending equipment to the cause — contributions valued at nearly $100,000.

Bastis and his crew at the Cal Club also donated countless hours to overseeing the work. Among them was George Waters, who worked with noted designer Tom Doak on the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 and served as the consulting architect for the Gleneagles project.

Waters played an integral role in reshaping the greens at Gleneagles to preserve their historic character while simultaneously creating new pin locations and allowing water to run more easily off the putting surfaces, a key to maintaining their health.

 For all he did to save Gleneagles, Bastis was honored as TurfNet’s Superintendent of the Year for 2010, recognition he richly deserved. Dozens of Gleneagles regulars wrote letters supporting this nomination with glowing praise like this from long-time player Brian Scott:

“To save a municipal golf course and accept no compensation, it doesn’t get any nobler than that.”

But even with volunteer work from Bastis’ crew and the good-neighbor discounts he arranged, when the renovation was over Hsieh and his partners had sunk another $140,000 into Gleneagles.

 “I could’ve walked away this time and given it back to the city, or I could double down and invest in the future” Hsieh told TurfNet. “That’s our goal — to keep this course open for another 10 years.”

Fittingly, the highlight of the renovation involved the first hole, the one that has so defined the history and evolution of Gleneagles. Hsieh wanted to abandon the de Lambert’s hillside green — one many players viewed as gimmicky and unfair — and restore the hole to its original configuration by rebuilding the putting surface Jack Fleming had designed in 1962.

The idea had been on Hsieh’s mind since he took over the golf course. In 2005, just months into his tenure, he’d surveyed the old first green with a USGA course designer who was visiting Gleneagles and noticed that it’s outlines — even the green’s old drainage system — were still discernible beneath the overgrowth and debris that had accumulated over two decades.

As the old greens were being torn up, Hsieh called Bastis and asked for a price to build a new green on No. 1. Bastis gave him a quote of $25,000 and, intrigued by the idea of restoring the course’s historic architecture, agreed to put a considerable amount of his personal time and effort into the recreation.

Given the drainage issues that had prompted de Lambert to move the green decades ago, Bastis and Hsieh knew this new green would require special attention. Under the putting surface they installed a herringbone pattern of drainage tubes, gravel and a six-inch sand cap, and around the green they removed dead or fallen trees to let in the sunlight.

By October, the renovation was done and the verdict was in. While the greens were newly planted and would need to grow in, it was clear from the way the bentgrass surfaces played that Gleneagles’ diabolically difficult greens were back and might soon prove more difficult than ever.

 Even so, the unquestioned highlight of the restoration was the return of Old Number One, now the firmest green on the course.

In the spirit of Gleneagles, Hsieh insisted that Waters shape the green to create a steep slope from left to right that provides perilous pin locations. When played as a par 4 — it becomes a par 5 for the second nine — Old Number One has proved to be among the most challenging holes on the course, featuring a daunting approach shot that only the best players can hold on the postage-stamp green.

With the new greens maturing  — and the first hole once again setting the tone for a round at Gleneagles — Hsieh says play has picked up and, more important, that a new generation of golfers is finding its way to the little course on the hill. Membership in the Gleneagles Golf Club is at 142 players and growing and its twice-monthly tournaments routinely draw full fields, dominated as always by the first-rate players for which the course has always been legendary.

“It is crucial to public golf that municipal tracks like Gleneagles not only survive but thrive,” Hsieh said. “Gleneagles now has that chance.”

Steve Proctor is past president of the Gleneagles Golf Club, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and an author.