There may be nothing else like it in American golf — a 114-year-old classic, tree-lined course just 10 minutes from the heart of a major city.
The entire property features 1,500 acres of verdant forest and natural countryside which is virtually sealed away from the metropolitan bustle that surrounds it. Sean Connery once chased the bad guys there in a movie. Teddy Roosevelt drilled his troops there in World War I. It’s the Presidio of San Francisco which for decades was the preeminent military guardian to the West and is now a celebrated National Park. Tucked away on the hillside at its southern boundary is the venerable Presidio Golf Course. For more than a century it has prevailed over earthquakes, world wars, economic depression and the ever-changing city populace just outside its doorstep.
Originally founded by the Spanish, the Presidio was taken over by the U.S. Army in the mid 1800s as spoils of the war with Mexico. By 1895, a group of prominent San Franciscans contracted with the government to privately fund, build and manage a golf course within the Presidio military reservation. Three years later, a Tudor-style clubhouse was built on private land just adjacent to what is now the ninth green. That building and the private Presidio Golf Club remain in full operation to this day. In 1913, a cooperative arrangement—confirmed by the War Department—officially designated the golf course as a shared facility between the U.S. Army and the civilian private club members. Two separate memberships were instituted in a unique marriage. It was not until the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s that control and maintenance of the course was transferred back to the Army.
At its peak, military membership totaled more than 1,500, while the private Presidio Golf Club held some 600 active playing members. Over the past century, the club’s roster has included some of San Francisco’s most eminent citizenry. Names like rock singer Boz Scaggs are intertwined with noted businessmen, doctors, restaurateurs, politicians, bankers and corporate executives.
Perhaps the most celebrated Presidio member however, was legendary baseball figure Joe DiMaggio, who was with the club for more than three decades. His locker, number 150, still remains in place with the DiMaggio nameplate on the front. “We immortalize the locker in his memory,” says Presidio Golf Club General Manager Colleen Daly. For several years DiMaggio had a regular foursome at the Presidio. It was a place to hang with his neighborhood pals, and remained so long after he quit playing. “He hadn’t played golf for many years, just came to see his friends, have lunch, watch television,” says Daly. In later years, when DiMaggio lived mostly in Florida, he still maintained a presence at the Presidio. “Whenever he was in town, it was one of the first places he’d come,” recounts Daly, “It was like a refuge for him.”
And while DiMaggio was perhaps the most famous member, W Lawson Little Jr. is clearly the Presidio’s most accomplished player. His father was an Army surgeon and colonel stationed at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio, and Little honed his game as a teenager on the demanding Presidio track. A Walker Cup team member in 1934, with victories in several international events, Little won back-to-back U.S. and British Amateur Championships in the mid thirties. In 1940, he won the U.S. Open as a professional. In each instance, he credited the Presidio as his home course, and often checked with reporters to verify that it was stated as such in their reporting.
It was in this same era that the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed, and with it, a roadway tunnel leading from the west side of the city to the bridge tollgate. A portion of the golf course is situated directly over the tunnel. And where a normal surface road would have intersected the golf course, the Army played a major hand in influencing the California State Legislature not to cut into the course. Hence, the MacArthur tunnel was created under the surface, where it remains a major thoroughfare to this day.
In 1956 the PGA’s Western Open was held at the Presidio. “We played in the fall and the course gets a little wet,” recalls Bob Rosburg. “And when the wind blows it really blows. I remember it was very difficult.” The winning score for the 72-hole event was only four under par, even with most of the tour’s leading names and famed local amateurs Harvey Ward and Ken Venturi as part of the field. Celebrities Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were also part of the tournament festivities.
The National Park Service assumed management of the Presidio in 1994, and a year later the Army left. The Arnold Palmer Golf Management Company was selected to run the course as a public facility. “It was like the flood gates had opened,” exclaims Presidio Golf Course Head Golf Professional Rob Dugan. “The course became public for the first time in a hundred years—it was incredibly busy.” And despite being a challenging course, the Presidio remains among the most successful daily-fee operations in the Bay Area. Daly estimates that about 10-12 percent of that play continues to be from members of the private Presidio Golf Club. “We have a much smaller membership now,” she admits. “But it is a more intimate membership that really supports the Club.”
And while those club members essentially pay market rate for golf, the two separate entities still co-exist in tandem in a quasi-strategic alliance. The Presidio Golf Course, under the Palmer Management Company, is public, and runs the course with its own clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant, and even has its own logo; all totally separate from that of the private Presidio Golf Club, which is still located on adjacent private land.