Dawn breaks over a foggy ravine near Lake Merced on the outskirts of San Francisco. Two men stand back to back, pistols in hand. It is Sept. 13, 1859, and the stage is set for one of the last legal duels in the United States. One man will die a martyr, the other labeled a murderer. Decades later, in the same ravine, one of the first visionaries of American golf will create one of the country’s greatest holes: the 189-yard seventh at San Francisco Golf Club.
The gold rush of 1849 had transformed San Francisco from a small port town to a bustling city drunk with ambition. By 1859, it was a boomtown. The population skyrocketed and while a small number of lucky souls became wildly rich, thousands of broken dreams filled the streets. The city still had a frontier roughness to it, which carried into the political arena. Senator David Broderick was an abolitionist, champion of the working class and no stranger to the loose political rules of the day. Judge David S. Terry was a Southerner and an ex–California Supreme Court justice. He was also a knife-carrying, throat-slashing, hot-tempered behemoth of a man who’d fought in two wars by age 15. When Terry was jailed for the throat-slashing event, his old friend Broderick, ever the political puppet master, pulled the strings that facilitated Terry’s release and acquittal. Despite that, both men were wildly ambitious, on opposite sides of the slavery debate and seemed destined for a combustible conclusion.
It was Terry who took the first unsavory run at Broderick when he delivered a divisive speech at a convention accusing the senator’s abolitionist followers of being “personal chattels” of Broderick. That sparked an increasingly vitriolic back-and-forth that led Broderick to call Terry a “damned miserable ingrate,” which pushed Terry to demand satisfaction of Broderick by means of a duel. Broderick accepted.
Both were capable marksmen and familiar with the .58 caliber Belgian pistols selected for this face-off. There was a coin toss, which Broderick won; he chose his preferred side. This gave Terry first choice of the pistols. The men took their paces and were instructed to shoot on the count of three. But at “ONE,” just as Broderick’s right arm began to rise, his gun went off and the bullet landed low, missing Terry by a few feet. The crowd was stunned. Broderick had been foiled by a faulty trigger. At “TWO,” it was Terry who shot, hitting Broderick in the chest. As Broderick fell to the ground, Terry said, “It’s not mortal. I’ve missed by 2 inches to the right.” But the wound proved fatal and Broderick died a few days later, becoming a martyr for his party. The outcry that followed spurred legislators to create laws prohibiting such combat.
Fast-forward to 1915: A.W. Tillinghast—architect, artist, writer and visionary who would become famous for his work at Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Somerset Hills—began his work on San Francisco Golf Club. Inspired by the land and events, he built the Duel Hole. It was the perfect marriage of man and opportunity: Who better to design the hole than this former street-gang member, gambler and bon vivant whose career knew both boom and bust?
The events of 1859 clearly influence the design. The green has two distinct sides: a front and back, each paced off from a ridge. From an elevated tee box, players choose their position and their weapon, take aim at a dangerous target surrounded by bunkers, then pull the trigger. Fallen adversary or the one left standing? This is a man who learned the game from Old Tom Morris and wrote about it like William Butler Yeats. Tillinghast wanted this moment to resonate.
And it does: The pistols from California’s final legal duel still hang prominently in the SFGC clubhouse.