Yardage Book No. 13 Lake Merced No. 24

No. 13 at Lake Merced

San Francisco, California. Par 3, 155 yards
Yardage Book No. 13 Lake Merced No. 24

Founding architects 
Willie Locke (1923)
Dr. Alister MacKenzie (1928)

Gil Hanse (2022)

A Famous Miss

I do a lot of pointing and arm waving when describing how golf holes or features should turn out. And even though the vision seems clear to me, my ravings often do not paint enough of a picture for our crew. Years ago, we dubbed our team in the field the Cavemen, but the name is an affectionate joke: They are a wildly talented, sophisticated bunch. Yet sometimes even they can’t understand me. At Lake Merced Golf Club near San Francisco, however, I thought this one had to be easy. It was the famous hole, the one on the cover of magazines and seed advertisements. How could we get this one wrong? In the end, I didn’t even want to count the ways.

Yardage Book No. 13 Lake Merced No. 24

 After years in the permitting process, the team was excited to dig in. The plan was to start in the lowest corner of the property and work our way out from there. More often than not, where we start construction is based on practical matters, such as paths for irrigation, working in the wet areas while the weather is forecasted to be good or where we have good access in case the weather turns bad. At Lake Merced we had to work in phases to keep parts of the course open for member play, and we needed to get this first portion of the property done so we could get the new range open before the rest of the course closed. This meant that the famous hole would be one of our first—no time to get up to speed, to catch our stride. We had to be firing on all cylinders from Day One.

We had to be ready to re-create the landforms that had been altered and even build back some ground that had been completely lost. It wouldn’t be simple, but it was clear to me how to get it done.

How wrong I was.


First, a history lesson: The famous hole originally had been designed by Willie Locke in the first layout of the course in 1923. It was a brute, as was most of the course and the 300-plus bunkers that he built on the property. In a sign of surrender, the membership brought in Dr. Alister MacKenzie in 1928 to soften the course, make it more playable and appealing to the eye. MacKenzie must have fallen in love with the terrain for this hole—the 17th in the original routing—and he built what can only be described as one of the most beautiful par 3s in the world. The hole stayed in play for more than 30 years, until the Bay Area’s continued expansion into the early 1960s called for the construction of Interstate 280 directly through part of the club, and it lost property to the roadway. Robert Muir Graves was later brought in to figure out how to configure the remaining ground into an 18-hole course, and unfortunately the famous hole was sacrificed in an effort to find new golf holes.

None of that stopped Lake Merced from becoming a hub of championship golf. Just a year after opening, it hosted a 36-hole match between reigning U.S. Open champion Gene Sarazen and Open Championship winner Arthur Havers. Sarazen won 3-up and the club never looked back. Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Horton Smith, Tommy Armour, Lawson Little, Paul Runyan, Jimmy Demaret, Ken Venturi, Bobby Clampett and more all came through over the ensuing decades during various pro and city championship events. The club occupies a unique place in history as the site of the only match Tiger Woods lost in his U.S. Junior Amateur career, when he was defeated in the 1990 edition by Dennis Hillman. (Woods went on to win three consecutive Junior Ams.)

It is known today as a home for the women’s game. The club hosted an LPGA event from 2016 to 2021 where major champions Lydia Ko and Sei Young Kim both earned victories.

Despite the club’s success on this level, the membership had been interested in a renovation for several years. We came on board in 2019 and prepared a plan that would restore 14 ½ holes of the MacKenzie routing. I should have suspected the problems we’d run into even back then. We plotted the original 17th hole to be the new 13th, set where the old third, fourth and fifth holes met.

We didn’t even know what to call the thing, so we settled on the wildly descriptive “famous hole” and got to work.

Gil Hanse

When It Rains

The arm waving commenced on my initial visit, and I thought that was enough direction. It was not even close. I spent most of the time when I returned working on the landforms, setting grades and parameters, trying to fit what had been there back into a landscape that no longer supported the original hole. It proved to be much more difficult than any of us had imagined; we found ourselves pushing and pulling earth, staring and pointing, looking over and over again at the images we were using as a guide. It finally dawned on us that we were trying to place the landforms back into an envelope that had been changed by our routing. Instead of the old 18th hole being next, we needed to fit a new par 3 next to the famous hole.

Yardage Book No. 13 Lake Merced No. 24

Shaymus Maley has been with Jim Wagner and me for quite a while now, and he is one of our most trusted and talented lieutenants. I could tell I was testing his patience when I kept insisting the land needed to shift and expand and we had to change the levels. He prides himself on both artistry and efficiency, and I kept blowing up his world. After yet another visit, we finally figured out where to tie into, which unlocked the hole’s design for us to the point where I felt good about letting the team start shaping the bunkers. Tie-ins are architect speak for how we take the preexisting landform and tie in the features of the manufactured golf hole; they are crucial to create a sense of the golf course fitting as seamlessly as possible into the land. One of the great lessons about shaping is you have to define your tie-in point. I always prefer to shape the surrounds to set the tie-in points and then shape the green from outside in. In this case it was reversed, since we needed to get the green set into its cradle, establish that grade and then work the surrounds away from it.

Working to a photo might sound like a cool or even easy way to shape, but it almost paralyzed us. Was the scale correct? Did that tongue come into the bunker that much? From what angle was the photo taken? How tall is that man in the photo, and how much above his head is the rear bunker? We knew this hole would be subjected to more scrutiny than perhaps any other on the course. It was a kind of pressure that we rarely feel. In most of our restorations, we are building from photos but doing it into a landscape that still exists from the original design. At Lake Merced, that landscape was gone, so while the bunker lines and shapes were straightforward, we had to figure out new scales and context for every one. Shaymus, Bret Brennan and Brett Hochstein painstakingly worked through each feature, and finally we felt good about it.

Then the heavens opened.

We got 9 inches of rain in three days, reducing the hole to mud, which meant we had to put the entire thing back together again. We’ve done this long enough to understand that these things happen. It is frustrating and demoralizing, but it always goes back, and frequently even better. Such was the case with this hole, and after a lot of work by our team and the contractor, Heritage Golf Links, we got it stabilized and grassed. I think if I had to answer one more question about the length of the capes on those bunkers, I may have snapped, but I left this project so proud of our team. Outside of having to put in a damn cart path, I believe we took the restoration of this hole to the highest level of detail.

An Opening Ace?

Bringing this hole back to life is one of the joys of my career. The process put the talents of our team to the test, and I believe we succeeded. Then I had to see how we did for myself. 

It is always tough to talk strategy on a par 3. Mostly it’s just “find the target, get the yardage, factor in the conditions and go.” However, the best par 3s provide options by using adjacent slopes, contours or even slopes within the green to move a ball. The famous hole at Lake Merced is no different in that you can take dead aim or you can get a bit more creative with the backboards provided to the left, right and rear of the green. I love how re-creating the original green in a shallow bowl with bunkers raised above the green to the rear and the right could inspire a more aggressive club selection, because the one place you cannot miss is in the rear bunker. Above the green with a delicate shot to a green running away from you is not ideal. But catch the distance right and you can experience the thrill of a tee shot rolling toward the cup. Conversely, the short miss to the right provides a great angle to play up the length and slope of the green, and par should be the worst you make.

And that just gets you on the green. The surface plays with your mind because of its apparent simplicity. With all of the visual elements surrounding the green—sharp fall-offs, uphills and downhills, the sinuous bunkers—it is easy to read too much or too little into the putt. The green is more tilted than it appears from back to front and in from the sides, and it can be confounding to discern. Part of the brilliance of this hole is that the final line of defense appears so benign when it is anything but.

Bringing this hole back to life is one of the joys of my career. The process put the talents of our team to the test, and I believe we succeeded.

Gil Hanse

The first time I played it came during the opening round after the completed renovation. Crazy thoughts ran through my head: What if I aced it on opening day, à la Robert Trent Jones on the fourth at Baltusrol? The status of this hole would be cemented even further. After the ball left my club, for a brief moment I thought the incredible was possible—until I saw it land 15 yards short of the pin, catch the front of the green and roll back. A simple pitch-and-putt and my 3 was secured. No famous feat, but I am convinced many more are yet to come.  

Yardage Book No. 13 Lake Merced No. 24