Sharp Elbows

Environmentalists and golfers square off over the future of a pedigreed San Francisco course
May 10, 2009

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Room 263 at San Francisco city hall overflowed last Thursday, forcing the fire marshal to divert a few score of interested parties to a ground-floor conference room with closed-circuit TV screens. Four hours later half the spectators—the golfers—left unhappy. Frog and snake advocates had won another round.

With three ayes and nary a nay, the Government Audit and Oversight committee of the Board of Supervisors had voted that a motion that could lead to the closure of city-owned Sharp Park Golf Course be presented to the full board. Environmentalists want to expand the habitat—on which the course sits—of an endangered species, the San Francisco garter snake, and a threatened one, the California red-legged frog. The ardor of those opposed is heightened by the fact that Sharp Park was designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright of golf-course architects, Alister MacKenzie, who was, moreover, an adopted son of San Francisco, having been based in the Bay Area after emigrating from England.

Sharp Park Golf Course opened in April 1932, eight months before the debut of another MacKenzie gem, Augusta National. Not that Sharp Park reminds you of the home of the Masters: Belying its name, Sharp Park is rough around the edges, ridiculously underfunded by the city and has severe drainage, maintenance and irrigation problems. But several holes bordering the Pacific are breathtaking, and its $24 green fee (for residents, on weekends) attracts a loyal clientele to the poor man's Pebble Beach.

Soon, though, Sharp Park may be a frog pond. "I'm a golfer myself," says Justin Augustine, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the leaders in the fight to decommission Sharp Park. "But no matter how much you love the game, there's no valid reason to elevate golf above the future well-being of an endangered species." On the other hand, the little snake and the big frog wouldn't even be at Sharp Park if the golf course had not been built. A seawall constructed soon after MacKenzie's death in 1934 changed the water in the hazards from brackish to fresh. The San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog are freshwater creatures.

"These people want to destroy golf," says Dave Diller, a former school principal who is the president of the 370-member Sharp Park Golf Club and who has been a golfer there for 45 years. "It's not about protecting the environment at all. They have this perception that all golfers are rich white men, while Sharp Park is completely the opposite. Men, women, children, all races—we're as diverse as anywhere.

"You know, we're hosting the Presidents Cup this year [at another San Francisco muni, Harding Park], and we'll be bragging about how we support public golf," Diller continues. "Will we also say, 'Oh, by the way—we're closing down an Alister MacKenzie course?'"

But the Sharp Park debate is not as simple as greens versus golfers; other parties are being heard from. Although the course is owned and operated by the city of San Francisco, it is located in the southern suburb of Pacifica, whose mayor, Julie Lancelle, darn well wants to keep the course. "There's no reason it couldn't be a golf course and still address the environmental issue," she says. "Golf actually treads very lightly on the environment." Meanwhile, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Ross Mirkarimi wants to turn over the course to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an almost certain precursor to shutting it down, and last week's vote moves that fate one step closer. Yet another supervisor, Sean Elsbernd, has taken the golfers' side and asked the city attorney to investigate making Sharp Park a historical landmark.

The fight literally might stir up a mosquitoes' nest. More frog habitat means more Culicidae, and therefore more West Nile virus, and therefore more spraying. What unforeseen problems may arise in this ecosystem, and who would be responsible for fixing them? And what about the San Francisco garter snake's appetite for the California red-legged frog?

"The two species would coexist," says Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There would not be so many snakes that they would eat away the frogs. That's simply not how it works biologically."

If following the money leads to understanding, San Francisco's recent $16 million investment in refurbishing Harding Park is key to the discussion. Some of that was borrowed from the state and from the city's Open Space fund. Although the available accounting numbers are laughably deceptive, it is plain that recreation budgets have dried up, angering advocates for more hiking trails, dog parks, tai chi areas, and soccer and lacrosse fields. "San Francisco has nine golf courses in our dense city. Surely we could get rid of one money-losing course," Isabel Wade, executive director of the powerful Neighborhood Parks Council, wrote in an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner on April 16, 2007. Three months later an effort to privatize two of San Francisco's municipal courses was rejected by the supervisors.

Wade and the environmentalists are winning, and they're throwing their weight around. In a practice that began about five years ago, whenever the silt-laden ponds at Sharp Park overflow after winter rains, the fairways are not allowed to be pumped dry—because there might be frogs' eggs in the water. And the city may soon hire someone to walk 50 feet in front of the mowers for the rough and fairway to rescue any frogs or snakes that might be in the path of the blades. "They're paying 50 bucks an hour," says Sharp Park president Diller. "I think I'll apply for that job."

The golfers have organized—hastily, and not as well as the environmentalists, who have more practice. The defense of Sharp Park is led by Richard Harris of the two-year-old, 2,000-member San Francisco Public Golf Alliance. "We're all environmentalists here, and there is no point to returning to some primeval condition," says Harris, a San Francisco lawyer. Harris captained the Stanford golf team during the 1967--68 season, when he was a senior and teammate Tom Watson was a freshman. "We don't think it has to be an either-golfer-or-nature-lover situation. We'd be happy to see boardwalks and viewing platforms and other opportunities for nongolfers to view this."

The dispute at Sharp Park is obviously less about animals than attitudes. High-end retailers now send their shoppers out the door with their purchases in plain brown paper bags, and golf to nongolfers may also seem indulgent, even decadent, in a bad economy. Fewer people are playing. Probably we do need to lose some golf courses—but not the ones charging $24. And not the ones designed by Alister MacKenzie.

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"They have this perception that all golfers are rich white men," says Diller, the club president. "Sharp Park is completely the opposite. Men, women, children, all races —we're as diverse as anywhere."

PHOTOPhotograph by GERRY GROPPFROG OF WAR Sharp Park, an Alister MacKenzie design, is home to an endangered species. PHOTOPhotograph by GERRY GROPPLOCAL RULES When Sharp's ponds overflow, fairways are not allowed to be pumped because of frogs' eggs, and workers might be hired to walk in front of mowers to rescue frogs and snakes. PHOTOPhotograph by GERRY GROPP[See caption above] PHOTOKEN LUCAS/VISUALS UNLIMITED/GETTY IMAGES (SNAKE)[See caption above] PHOTOMARC HAYES/U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE/AP (FROG)[See caption above]