On a recent Wednesday afternoon, San Francisco resident Marc Neilson walks after his tee shot between rows of dark cypress trees lining the 400-yard, dogleg-right fairway of the 11th hole at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica. It's overcast, and the wind carries the smell of the sea over a nearby berm that divides Sharp Park from the Pacific shoreline. This 78-year-old municipal course has been dubbed the poor man's Pebble Beach, and — were it not for its relative lack of crowds and poorly mowed greens — it could almost resemble the world-class links 120 miles to the south.
There's something else that separates Sharp Park from its more august counterparts: the golfers. The success of such stars as Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh notwithstanding, many people continue to view golf courses as the province of the rich and white. At Sharp Park, many players are neither. Neilson, who sports a deep tan and a lank mane of silver hair, is a semiretired bookkeeper who plays in a blues band. His companions include a retired Oakland International Airport manager and a construction foreman. The airport manager, Pacifica resident Ralph Hill, is black. "It's really rare for me to come out here and play an all-white foursome," Neilson says, stopping to talk with a reporter. Sharp Park, he adds, is "the last affordable seaside golf in California. Everything else is $75, $100, and up." At Sharp Park, by contrast, a San Francisco resident gets a midweek round for just $20; a nonresident pays $31.
Sharp Park Golf Course, in other words, is remarkably affordable to those who play it. To the city of San Francisco, which owns the course and is responsible for its management and upkeep, it is anything but.
In recent years, the course has been at the center of a roiling environmental debate that has pitted golfers and golf advocates against activists who want to see the course bulldozed and restored to wilderness. The unwitting instigators of this battle have been two creatures that call Sharp Park home: the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog. Both are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and environmentalists have gathered evidence that both have been harmed by careless maintenance operations — lawn-mowing, flood control — at the course.
In December, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission approved an apparent compromise when it adopted a plan that calls for keeping 18 holes of golf at Sharp Park while realigning parts of the course to create more habitat for the frog and snake. Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg triumphantly announced in a Nov. 6 letter to city officials that the endangered species "can not only survive, but also flourish at Sharp Park" without impinging on the activities of golfers. This solution appeased golf advocates even as it frustrated environmental activists, and its wisdom, from the perspective of species conservation, is still in dispute.
However, one of the most important consequences of keeping Sharp Park operating — the financial burden it poses to San Francisco and its taxpayers — wasn't fully explained. According to government records and interviews with officials in San Francisco and San Mateo County, the total minimum investment Sharp Park requires will range from at least $17 million to $23.4 million or higher — roughly twice as much as Rec and Park officials acknowledged in their report. It's a staggering amount, exceeding even the cost of the landmark 2003 renovation of San Francisco's Harding Park, a premier public golf course that last year hosted the prestigious Presidents Cup tournament.
In a time when depleted government coffers are forcing the park department to consider slashing basic services — and when the city as a whole faces a $483 million budget shortfall — is Sharp Park worth it? That depends on whom you ask, but some surprisingly prominent voices have singled it out as a waste of money. In December, $2 million in grants devoted to improving the course's water system was highlighted in a report by Republican Senators John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) on misallocated federal stimulus funds. ("Water Pipeline to a Money-Losing Golf Course," the headline read over the entry.)
Outside funding sources, from the federal government or from public agencies in San Mateo County, might eventually become available to defray the full cost of preserving cheap municipal golf at Sharp Park. To date, however, such income streams have not materialized, and some think San Francisco residents remain uninformed about the full fiscal burden the golf course poses.
"That [Recreation and Park Department] report, even though it was a good first step, it was very incomplete, in my estimation," says Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who has sought to draw attention to the financial realities involved in keeping Sharp Park open. "It did not give a full estimate — not only of the upfront costs, but of the long-term capital costs. People shouldn't be fearful of that discussion."
For several reasons, however, the discussion is a complicated one, involving multiple layers of state and federal government regulations and a hotly contested body of scientific evidence on the fate of Sharp Park's nonhuman inhabitants.
Some believe the city's best course of action is to turn the entire property over to the National Park Service, incorporating it in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; in theory, this option could cost San Francisco taxpayers virtually nothing, since restoration costs would be borne by the federal government. Others think it's time for residents of Pacifica and surrounding San Mateo towns to start pitching in for its upkeep. And, in one particularly interesting twist, at least one scientific expert believes that golf, however much it is reviled by some environmental activists, must be preserved for its ecological benefits — that it is now essential for the survival of the San Francisco garter snake and California red-legged frog.
Questions about this property's future are nothing new. Since it was completed in 1932, Sharp Park has existed, quite literally, in defiance of conditions inhospitable to golf. The holes were designed by renowned British army-surgeon-turned-golf-course-architect Alister MacKenzie, who, after his immigration to the U.S. in the 1920s, made his name by creating such courses as Augusta National in Georgia and Cypress Point in Pebble Beach. At Sharp Park, he intended his design to mimic the natural contours of the shoreline, with some holes laid almost directly along the sea.