The Pinnacle

The 7th at Cal Club. Par 4 - 411 yards
Cal Club

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Can a venerated country club with a golden-age design pedigree be called a comeback story? Anything seems possible these days at California Golf Club of San Francisco—or, as most players know it, the Cal Club. After decades in the shadows of San Francisco Golf Club and the Olympic Club, Cal Club’s small but spirited membership took a leap of faith in 2006 by hiring Kyle Phillips to reimagine the front nine. Among his gems is a short par 4 on top of a hill nobody had thought of using. No. 7 was first met with skepticism, but it just might have turned Cal Club into the coolest club in town.

Cal Club
Art by Thomas Young

What’s your name?

It’s just after 2 p.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and I’ve found a seat at the horseshoe bar that divides the North and South men’s locker rooms at the California Golf Club of San Francisco. Across from me, two gentlemen flow freely between debates on Sand Hills vs. Prairie Dunes and Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers. Behind me sits a different quarterback, former UCLA great Drew Olson, who’s just kicked his shoes off after a casual round of 66. As if I didn’t have enough whiplash, Jeremy Roenick appears seemingly out of nowhere and starts regaling us with tales of his NHL glory days. 

With only 350 proprietary members, it’s nearly impossible to sneak into the Cal Club unnoticed. Each person who walks past the Prohibition-era bar eventually spots my unfamiliar face, and while the golf course might be the best I’ve ever played, these interactions will stick with me the most. At too many haughty clubs, a stranger would be met with a nose-up, squinted-eye look of suspicion. Here, every last person makes it a point to say hello. I’m stunned by how quickly “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” turns into “Can I get you a drink?” and “Tell me about your favorite holes out there.” 

Cal Club
Cal Club
Cal Club

I’d like to say I was surprised, but I’d heard things were different here. My fascination with Cal Club’s burgeoning culture began two years ago while sitting in the backyard of Jesse McCollum, a member of the Broken Tee Society who lives a Bryson 8-iron from Columbia Country Club on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. 

“We’d like to think of ourselves as the Cal Club of the East Coast,” McCollum said. 

“In what way?” I asked, at that point having little knowledge of the club’s inner workings. 

“We don’t want to be stuffy like our neighbors,” he responded, something I took as a dig at Congressional. “We like to have a few drinks and play good golf. We want to be the cool club, like them.” 

Lemons to lemonade

It’s the type of reputation that Al Jamieson could only have dreamed about after joining Cal Club 48 years ago. The Queens-hardened Vietnam vet had just returned home from the war and was despairing over another New York winter when he fell in love with the Bay Area. “I saw people playing golf in January and I haven’t left since,” he tells me after hitting a tight draw off the first tee. Jamieson didn’t know it at the time, but in 1973 he had joined a club headed in the wrong direction. 

For a membership so proud of its golden-age history, its design credits remain murky. Scotsman Willie Locke drew up the original routing in 1924 on a hilly site located, at the time, well south of San Francisco’s city limits. (Today, Cal Club’s address is officially in South San Francisco, a short drive from SFO.) There is no official reason why Locke was replaced only two days into the job, though some say he was undone by his staunch demand to build green complexes smaller than the membership desired. He was replaced by A.V. Macan, an Irishman better known for his work in British Columbia than in California, who was the credited architect when the course opened for play in 1926. The plot thickened just two years later when the club hired another foreign up-and-comer to rethink its bunkering. Most of its sand traps today are the unmistakable work of Alister MacKenzie. 

Cal Club
Creating a new culture took a fresh look at everything at Cal Club, including the seventh hole tee box.

The origin of Cal Club’s slump can be traced back to the mid-1960s, when the city’s construction of Westborough Boulevard wiped out San Bruno Creek and much of the front nine with it. The club was left with 13 of its original holes, and, like so many others during that time, it called on the hottest name in golf for a fix: Robert Trent Jones. The result was the sort of thing that made him famous at the time, but is out of style today: a straight-line march of redundant par 4s that ran parallel to the new road, a splattering of cart paths and even a few man-made ponds—none of which were endemic to Locke, Macan or MacKenzie’s original work. 

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when the renovations were having a trickle-down effect on the membership. The cart paths and sleepy front nine lost the interest of the high-golf-IQ crowd, and the club was no longer attracting Northern California luminaries like former members Eddie Lowery and Ken Venturi. Cal Club had a full-fledged identity crisis on its hands. “When I got here, we just wanted to be third,” Jamieson recalls. “We knew that when you came to San Francisco to play golf, you were going to play SFGC and Olympic. After that, most people just headed straight to Pebble.”

By 2005, the club had a new threat to its already vulnerable membership: roundworms. A total overhaul of the greens would be required, and while many saw a problem, Jamieson recognized an opportunity to revamp the routing and give the club a chance at something of a rebrand. Ten architects submitted proposals to a design committee led by Jamieson, with some traveling to pitch the membership in person (a scene that Jamieson remembers as rowdy and, at times, “scary for [the architects]”). Of the 10, only one suggested building five new holes. And of those holes, it was the par-4 seventh that convinced Jamieson that Kyle Phillips was the man who could save Cal Club.

Cal Club

What goes up

Until he suggested building a golf hole on top of it, few outside of Phillips had ever thought much about the land that members simply referred to as “the hill.” 

“It was quite a controversial hole when we first presented it because no one could really imagine what that ground would look like,” Phillips recalls. “It was full of trees and really a place where you dumped things.” 

But the more Phillips surveyed how best to unclog the front nine, the clearer it became that playing up and across the hill, as opposed to merely around it, would provide multiple solutions to Cal Club’s spatial issues. First and foremost, it would turn the first five holes into four and provide some desperately needed variety to what Jamieson called a “single file” string of par 4s to open the round. And by removing the old seventh and eighth holes, the club would finally have room for a new range—which was then sandwiched between the first hole and the main entrance. While the idea of a range so far away from the clubhouse proved to be a difficult sell for Phillips, it alleviated any concerns of being struck by an errant range ball on the drive into the club. 

Jamieson liked the idea, but asked the obvious question: “If you take us up on top of the hill, how do we get off of it?” To solve that, Phillips cut into the hill and raised the fourth fairway. He then used a piece of the new fairway to create the downhill par-3 eighth hole that now runs perpendicular to No. 4 and transitions seamlessly into the ninth tee. 

Cal Club
Ken Venturi and Eddie Lowery would be proud: Their club is once again a Bay Area golf hot spot.

“There are a lot of architects that build on the land versus into [the] land,” says Phillips, “particularly if they don’t have a natural site. When I don’t have a situation that’s ideal for golf, I’m always trying to make it look like I did, either by turning down or creating landforms you can build golf into.”

With the logistics of such a complex rerouting in place, Phillips was free to create what he wanted in the new No. 7. The result is a stunning risk-reward par 4 with a fairway that turns nearly 90 degrees to the right and a green that’s visible from the elevated tee box. With such a clean look at the green, long hitters are tempted to have a go at it. But drivers beware: Anything that comes up short of the 300-plus-yard carry will find itself at the bottom of a ravine and in danger of a big number. 

Like some of the Bay Area’s best holes, the strategy on No. 7 also depends on the time of day. A heavy morning fog or late-afternoon wind will most likely render the green unreachable, and in that case players are forced to hit something less than driver into the bend of the fairway. From there, they are faced with a treacherous half wedge into a tiny green that slopes hard in all the directions you wish it didn’t, as if it’s dangling above downtown San Francisco. Pro tip: Should you ever encounter a back-right pin, your best bet is to come up short, hit two Tour-level touch shots to get up and down, then sprint down the hill as fast as possible. 

The truest test

The broader effects of Phillips’ renovation within Cal Club’s membership were felt immediately. “When I got here in 2008, we had a four-year waitlist to get out,” says general manager Glenn Smickley. “Now we have a four-year waitlist to get in.”

Just by removing a couple of cart paths and shoring up the transitions from tee to green, the club went from a 70% riding club to 90% walking. Along with the walkers came a flourishing caddie program. Suddenly Cal Club was getting a second look from the Bay Area’s golf lifers and fresh interest from the younger Silicon Valley crowd pouring into the city. But a mountain of applications doesn’t equal a strong culture. Innovative leadership is needed for that—or, in Cal Club’s case, Al Jamieson.

“Al is just a one-off,” says Phillips of the former club president who is now something of an ambassador emeritus. “There’s not a lot of guys like that in a club that everybody looks to. It’s a really unique way he does it. I wouldn’t know how to describe it. It’s something that money can’t buy.” 

Jamieson insists that there’s no secret sauce to the club’s growing reputation for attracting what he simply calls “nice guys.” Potential members are put through a ringer of site visits, committee interviews and, most importantly, preview rounds. After all, there are few better tests of character than 18 holes.

“As far as my 48 years go,” Jamieson says while walking up the 17th fairway, “we’re approaching the pinnacle of Cal Club.” 

All it took was a vision from atop a forgotten hill.