The California Club of San Francisco was once considered to fall into the second tier of San Francisco golf courses behind the likes of San Francisco Golf Club, Olympic Club or Cypress a couple of hours down the road. Originally laid out by Willie Locke, once construction began in 1924, A.V. Macan (Victoria Golf Club, Royal Colwood) came in and is considered the architect of note.
In 1927, Alister MacKenzie was commissioned to redesign all of the bunkers. From that point on, the Cal Club’s reputation started to take off. Known for his exquisite skill set when it came to bunkering, MacKenzie’s touch brought life to the fairways of the Cal Club.
Once again, through the 1960s, yet another golf course architect was brought in to make changes to the course. This time, it was Robert Trent Jones Sr. Most of his changes no longer exist because in 2005, Kyle Phillips was brought in to bring the Cal Club’s golden age architecture back to life. The goal was to make the front nine as good as the back and bring a consistent feel to the golf course. So out went the Jones bunkers, in came some new holes, a gorgeous restoration of the MacKenzie style bunkers and the dramatic flare and stunning visuals of MacKenzie.
Now, the Cal Club may very well be one of the best golf courses in America if not the world.
The routing really sets the Cal Club apart. Taking advantage of some beautiful, tumbling terrain, width off the tee and the lack of rough create strategy and nuance that keep the course fresh and make every hole interesting.
From the 1st hole, a gentle par-5 opener with one of the better green complexes on the course, to the par-3 6th, a golfer would never guess that by the time they reach the green on the mid-length par-3, with its green falling away gently from the tee, that they would have climbed to one of the highest points on the golf course and what must be some 150 feet of elevation change from the 1st tee.
On the entire course, there is not a single weak hole…just strong and stronger holes. Even on holes like the second, a new Phillips hole where the land is less interesting, a great green complex saves the day and turns what would be a somewhat dull hole into a very good one. The 3rd, also a new hole, is a par-4 which begins with an elevated tee-shot, wraps itself around an incredible assembly of bunkers and finishes on a beautiful pushed up green.
The 6th hole is the first of what is a great collection of par-3s — a mid-length three shot hole with a green that falls away from the tee. The bunkers short tell golfers “don’t miss here,” but a closely shaved bank on the back of the green awaits those who go long.
The 7th is another of the new Phillips holes and a stunner. A true cape hole with a hazard that comes into play from both the tee and on the approach, the peninsula like green location is gorgeous and the tee-shot tempts you to cut off more than you can chew.
From 8 to 14, Cal Club may have few competitors in the world. Without going into too much detail, it’s simply a great stretch. The 8th is a beautiful par-3 with an interesting knoll front right bounding golf balls on to the green, the 9th is a bold choice in routing with a blind tee shot up and over a ridge, the 11th is a shorter par-4 sweeping left to a green location that is second to none, 12 is a breathtaking par-3 playing from a tee set beneath the clubhouse to a green set on a ridge line and guarded by some of the more spectacular bunkering on the course and so on.
Saving you the details of a hole by hole description, it’s enough to say that the 11th green isn’t the only thing that’s second to none about the Cal Club…the entire course is more of the same.
Kyle Phillips has done a wonderful job of restoring what was and is one of the best golf courses to be found anywhere. Width, beautiful bunkering, smart and strong routing, a spectacular property and bold greens all add up to one hec of a course — a remarkable example of golden age architecture.