SAN JOSE, Calif. - When I'm home - which is all the time these days because of the pandemic - I'm just like every other golfer.
I want to play with my buds on a decent course that doesn't dent the wallet. That's hard to do in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I lived in Michigan, I could find any number of excellent public courses in metro Detroit for less than $50. Since moving west, I've had to expand my budget. Now, anything less than $80 seems like a bargain.
The last six years I've explored the region for the best combination of affordability against the quality of the course. With the 2020 PGA Championship coming to the TPC Harding Park, I'm diving deep into the Bay Area golf scene to identify its best public courses.
I kept this list as tight to the Bay Area as possible: No Napa (Silverado). No Monterey (Pebble & friends). No Santa Cruz (Pasatiempo). I also excluded CordeValle in San Martin (essentially south San Jose) because you have to stay at the Rosewood to play it. My selections are true public green spaces, open to all.
I regret leaving out some intriguing options. Santa Teresa, a county muni that's my home course, is never in bad shape and sports a fun back nine. The nine-hole Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park is a local San Francisco favorite that has had its struggles, unfortunately. Lincoln Park boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
If I stretched my boundaries a bit, I could have gone north to the Links at Bodega Harbor in Bodega Bay or south to San Juan Hills near Hollister. Hiddenbrooke to the east in Vallejo has a decent reputation, but its three most recent reviews as I write this story are two stars or less due to struggling summer conditions, so it didn't make the cut.
Here are my top 10 selections (in no order). Whether you agree or disagree, let us know in the comments below:
TPC Harding Park, San FranciscoTPC Harding Park: A world-class venue for tournament golfThe flag on the 18th green can be seen through the trees at TPC Harding Park. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe TPC Harding Park clubhouse, adjacent to the 18th fairway, is just steps away from the first and 10th tees. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe first hole at TPC Harding Park is a rare par 4 less than 400 yards (395). Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorTPC Harding Park is one of the best municipal golf courses in the country. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe par-3 eighth hole at TPC Harding Park can play as long as 230 yards. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorBunkers bracket the ninth hole, the end of a long par 5 at the TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorNot long after Bethpage Black held the U.S. Open, San Francisco's TPC Harding Park was extensively renovated prior to hosting a WGC event and later a Presidents Cup. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorA large front bunker gathers balls on the par-3 11th hole at TPC Harding Park, host of the 2020 PGA Championship. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 14th at TPC Harding Park follows Lake Merced. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 405-yard 15th at TPC Harding Park bends left after an elevated tee shot. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 175-yard 17th hole at TPC Harding Park is the easiest handicap on the golf course. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe sheer length makes the approach shot to TPC Harding Park's 18th hole one of the key moments of the round. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe setting around Lake Merced -- such as off the 18th -- is what makes TPC Harding Park's back nine so good. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor
TPC Harding Park has its fair share of critics who complain about monotonous holes and the lack of an 'oh wow' moment, but there's no doubting its tournament pedigree. The $16-million renovation in 2002-03 restored its championships chops, leading to a a slew of events: Two World Golf Championships, multiple Charles Schwab Cup Championships, two Presidents Cups (the next in 2026) and this year's PGA. It's always refreshing to watch the pros struggle with Harding Park's rough. It gets me every time.
South course at Corica Park, Alameda
Like Baylands, the 6,874-yard South Course at Corica Park near the Oakland International Airport experienced a rebirth in 2018. Rees Jones teamed up with Greenway Golf - the management team of the 45-hole, city-owned facility - to transform a featureless muni long past its prime into an Australian Sandbelt-themed links. It's playable and interesting, despite little elevation change and almost no water hazards. More than 110 bunkers, many edged with shaggy grass, steer players through the routing. The more affordable North course is in the midst of its own renovation. The Mif Albright par-3 course was modernized in 2014.
Presidio Golf Course, San Francisco
The hilly Presidio Golf Course, part of a national park in the heart of the city, remains one of the best courses shorter than 6,500 yards in the world. Presidio plays longer than its 6,449 yards thanks to the elevation changes and the infamous cold, damp air of San Francisco. A recent bunker renovation improved the look of a playground dating to 1895 as one of the oldest courses west of the Mississippi. Two new accommodations - an inn and a lodge - built within the park since 2012 don't offer golf packages but would still be a great way for golfers to enjoy the sights of San Francisco.
Cinnabar Hills Golf Club, San JoseCinnabar Hills G.C: Hidden holes in Silicon Valley's foothillsThere's a beautiful view of the seventh hole on the Mountain nine from the eighth tee box of the Canyon nine at Cinnabar Hills. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe water lurks left of the seventh green on the Lake nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorFrom the forward tees, a layup is required on the second hole of the Canyon golf course at Cinnabar Hills in San Jose, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 307-yard third hole on the Canyon nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club forces you to lay up for a short wedge into the green. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorOnce you scoot past the large tree in the middle of the fairway, the approach to the fourth green on the Canyon nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club is all uphill. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorIt's a monstrous task to par the 222-yard eighth hole on the Canyon nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe view from the ninth tee of the Canyon nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club looks fabulous. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorA barranca and tree guard the six green on the Lake golf course at Cinnabar Hills in San Jose, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor
Cinnabar Hills would be more well-known if it wasn't hidden in the hills of south San Jose surrounded by so many popular resort destinations. It offers 27 holes of scenic and challenging target golf. Inside the clubhouse is the Lee Brandenburg Historical Golf Museum, home to the largest collection of golf memorabilia west of the Mississippi, including President Eisenhower's green jacket from Augusta National and Walter Hagen's Ryder Cup captain's jacket. The museum, alone, is worth the trip.
The Course at Wente Vineyards, Livermore
It's not a coincidence that Greg Norman, with his own wine label, designed the Course at Wente Vineyards in the heart of Livermore Valley Wine Country for a family-owned winery. Golf pairs well in the rolling hills of the East Bay, although the weather trends hot, dry and windy in summer months. The 7,181-yard routing traverses three distinct topographies - native woodlands, mature vineyards and natural grasslands - to deliver profound vistas and challenging holes. It hosted the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship, part of what was then the Nationwide Tour (now the Korn Ferry), from 2006-08.
Ocean course at Half Moon Bay Golf LinksHalf Moon Bay's Ocean Course: Get a taste of Scotland in northern CaliforniaThe elevated 16th tee of the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links provides a bird's eye view of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorA large hump in front of the first green of the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links repels shots. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorAt 344 yards, the second hole is the shortest par 4 on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorSmall dunes frame the 150-yard third hole on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorA trap gobbles up any errant second shot on the par-5 fourth hole of the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links in California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorTake an extra club to clear the water on the 172-yard seventh hole on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links can look like Scotland at times. Check out the rolling hills beyond the sixth green. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 526-yard eighth hole on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links bends left and finishes at a demanding green. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorGrassy dunes block the opening to the par-5 10th green on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe back nine of the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links -- like the par-3 12th hole -- starts to showcase the Pacific Ocean. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe elevated tee on the par-4 13th hole of the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links drops to well guarded fairway. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorAfter the 15th green, the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links follows the coastal cliffs toward the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorMisses left of the par-3 17th green on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links are doomed. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorAfter a blind tee shot over a cliff, the par-5 18th hole on the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links ends at an elevated green that's tough to hit and hold. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor
Most golfers will likely favor the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay by Arthur Hills over its sister Old Course. There are more ocean views and more scoring opportunities with five par 5s and five par 3s. Although I don't believe it plays all that linksy, the fescue, the pot bunkers, the often gloomy and breezy weather and the bagpiper playing at the hotel Wednesday through Sunday all help to promote that theme.
Plenty of famous players have teed it up on the Ocean Course. Paula Creamer won the LPGA Samsung Golf Championship in 2008. Audemars Piguet, a luxury watch manufacturer, held an event played by Sir Nick Faldo, Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, Louis Oosthuizen, Victor Dubuisson and Bud Cauley in 2015.
Tournament Course at Coyote Creek, Morgan Hill
Coyote Creek is a 36-hole facility designed by Jack Nicklaus in south San Jose near Cinnabar Hills and CordeValle, although its land is calmer, flatter. Its fairways are visible from Highway 101, no doubt a tease for many vacationing golfers en route to Monterey. Its Tournament Course, a host venue for the PGA Tour Champions in 2001-02, is technically "private," although golfers shouldn't have a hard time finding a "public" tee time on the resort's website or through GolfNow. Holes 2 through 8 are located across the highway on hillier terrain. Holes 17 and 18 climax around multiple lakes and man-made waterfalls.
Baylands Golf Links, Palo Alto
Baylands Golf Links, Palo Alto's revived muni run by O.B. Sports, has become a part of my regular playing rotation since reopening in 2018 after a seven-year, $12-million redesign by Forrest Richardson. With five par 5s and five par 3s, and plenty of room to spray it in the ever-present wind, it's a fun walk. Its links characteristics are somewhat mitigated by the Seashore Paspalum turf, a grabby style of grass that doesn't cater to bump-and-run shots.
Old Course at Half Moon Bay
Although I highly recommend a stay and play like the one my family experienced in 2015, golfers don't need room reservations at the fabulous Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay to access either course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. The Old Course is one of Arnold Palmer's first designs. It doglegs throughout a housing development before a spectacular escape to the cliffs for the final two holes. Don't forget to snap a photo on No. 18. With the ocean and five-star hotel in the distance, it's as scenic as any tee box in California.
Sharp Park Golf Course, PacificaSharp Park: A historic walk near San FranciscoA bunker bearing the handiwork of Dr. Alister MacKenzie guards the 14th green at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorDrives that miss the second fairway to the right must contend with this tree at Sharp Park Golf Course near San Francisco. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorDeer feed on the par-3 fifth hole at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe uphill fifth hole of Sharp Park Golf Course sits in a secluded corner of a forest. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe sixth hole at Sharp Park Golf Course tumbles off an elevated tee and bends left to the green. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe seventh hole at Sharp Park Golf Course is another stout par 4. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorTrees crowd the 99-yard wedge shot to the eighth green at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe ninth hole is one of the short par 5s at Sharp Park Golf Course, playing just 471 yards from the tips. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe 10th green at Sharp Park Golf Course sits by the first tee and the clubhouse. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorThe cliffs at Sharp Park Golf Course along the Pacific Ocean are visible from the 12th green. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorFlooding regularly causes problems on the 14th hole at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorWetland and a massive front bunker protect the par-3 15th green at Sharp Park Golf Course near San Francisco. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf AdvisorA seawall blocks the views of the Pacific Ocean from the 16th hole at the Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor
Now that Sharp Park (rates: $51-$56) has resolved its legal fight with environmentalists dating to 2007, it can hopefully move forward toward a brighter future. The 6,382-yard muni, a San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department facility like TPC Harding Park, was designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, but aches for a modernization and better care. Tom Doak and Bay Area local Jay Blasi are working with the city to restore green sizes and other lost MacKenzie features. Sharp Park's setting - first through a forest before moving adjacent to the ocean - is inspiring, even if the experience (poor conditions, slow play) often doesn't keep up its end of the bargain.