The South Course was dull, flat, soggy, and uninspiring on its best days, and to paraphrase Yogi Berra, nobody wanted to play it anymore — especially when compared to its sibling course in the same Chuck Corica Golf Complex in Alameda, Calif.
While the Billy Bell, 1927-designed North Course remained something special, particularly among locals, the luster of the South had long worn out.
The City of Alameda was changing too, and this was a prime piece of real estate. Local developers had a focused eye on the property for something other than golf, and becoming evident was that if the course was to survive and thrive, a few band-aids weren’t going to fix it.
Most folks probably don’t realize that Alameda sits on an island across the Bay from San Francisco, just adjacent and south of the City of Oakland. Technically, the Alameda city limits encompass two islands, as adjoining Bay Farm Island, is the newer, more upscale part of town — and that’s the locale for the golf complex, now known as Corica Park. Along with the North and South Courses, the facility also includes a nine-hole executive course, and a lighted driving range.
In 1940, the U.S, Navy established the Alameda Naval Air station, which exerted a major influence on the town’s demographics. Not exactly blue collar, nor was it particularly high chic, Alameda has long represented a diverse ethnic population, and that too was represented in the patrons of the city-owned golf courses. The Corica courses were considered an everyman’s operation, highly reflective of the diversity of the local scene.
According to George Kelley, CEO of Greenway Golf, at its peak in the late 1990s, the complex had some 240,000 starts on 45 holes, and was the second busiest muni in the country, next to Torrey Pines.
“Around 2004-05 the City realized they were in trouble and that rounds and revenue weren’t like they used to be,” said Kelly. “So they felt they needed a professional management group.”
The ensuing years saw various political wrangling and contention between factions, until ultimately California-based Greenway Golf was awarded a long-term 25-year lease and management contract with the provisions that it would make stipulated renovations and major improvements.
“Our vision was much greater than our competitor’s,” said Kelly, who explained that the site was at or below sea level. “We had a vision to import dirt and elevate the site anywhere between 3 and 15 feet, and that enabled us to build a brand new South Course, and that’s what we did.”
Originally, the South Course sat at or below level, so over 1.2 million yards of dirt was imported to help elevate the course between 3 and 15 feet. [Photo: Robert Kaufman]
Kelly and his team enlisted the “Open doctor,” Rees Jones, to do the design overhaul for the new South Course, which reopened in June. What the doc did was far more than just a few house calls and related tweaks. This was major surgery. Borrowing heavily from the Australian Sandbelt style, the results are only a notch above spectacular.
“Corica is unlike any golf course you’ve ever seen, you can play it in Ariel fashion or play it on the ground,” said Jones. “We’ve elevated the fairways to really build an old-style Australian course — it’s sand-capped so the ball will bounce in different directions.”
But the vision was really that of Kelly, who once played on the Australian Tour, and his partner, agronomist Marc Logan, who had worked at Royal Melbourne and other Australian courses. They pitched the concept to Jones, who was keen to borrow from the Sandbelt style.
“We’re using an Alex Russell-style design,” said Jones. “Russell was Alister MacKenzie’s designer in Australia, and the bunker style here is his.”
In addition to importing 1.2 million yards of dirt, the Greenway team installed a truly excellent fairway turf, a hybrid of Santa Ana and Bermuda grass, along with new Bentgrass greens that roll like velvet.
“That’s why Bentgrass is far superior to putt on, because it’s smooth,” said Kelly. “Everybody in California thinks Poa annua is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be — if you know what you’re doing, you can maintain Bentgrass indefinitely.”
Well these guys do know what they’re doing, and much like the City of Alameda, which is undergoing its own transformation of sorts, the South Course re-do at Corica Park is a fitting addition.
Barry Salberg, based in the San Francisco Bay area, has written about golf for over two decades. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in virtually every major golf publication, including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Golf for Women, Links, the USGA's Golf Journal, and the NorCal Golf Association's NCGA Golf.