Nestled among the tall eucalypti that populate Visitation Valley's McLaren Park is one of the weirdest and trickiest municipal golf courses you're ever likely to see. It's abutted by housing projects, patronized religiously by a group of local diehards across the socioeconomic strata, and unknown to most of the city. It is, in other words, the most San Francisco of golf courses.
Welcome to Gleneagles, an enchanting little spot notable for its majestic views, abnormal terrain, and paucity of golfers.
An 18-hole course that's built on nine holes (players essentially play the same nine fairways twice, but with different starting points on the second orbit), Gleneagles is known to stymie and frustrate practically any golfer, however skilled, who lacks familiarity with its many idiosyncrasies. Course regulars fondly relate stories of winning money from top-flight players; the course was once described by Lee Trevino — after going for what he'd thought would be a leisurely warm-up to the U.S. Open — as the hardest he had ever played.
"If you land it on the green, it won't stick," says Gleneagles Assistant General Manager Lisa Buster, pointing to the first hole's slanted putting surface during a golf cart tour of the course. Moments later, sure enough, a young golfer lofts his approach to the center of the green, only to have it roll from its perch and down into the rough. "There, see?"
Such an occurrence is typical at a course where puzzling features abound — where shots that veer wide may surface in a clearing while balls driven straight find their way to the shrubs. The grounds slope in all directions, fairways bend sharply, clearings abruptly attenuate, and greens persistently misbehave.
"First time I played here, I remember smoking this ball on the 10th tee," says Dave Townsend, a 10-handicap golfer and eight-year member of the course. "And the guys playing with me said, 'Hit another.' I said, 'No, I smoked that — hit it perfectly.' And they were like, 'Hit another.' ... And I never did find that ball. I shot 103 that day, and I couldn't wait to come back the next week to shoot 105."
Though Gleneagles rarely sees a heavy crowd, it does attract a fiercely loyal group of regulars who spend a lot of time playing golf, and even more time talking about it while they drink at the clubhouse bar. Surrounded by wall-mounted framed newspapers, antlered taxidermy, and assorted golf memorabilia, clubhouse post-gamers do a lot of good-natured shit-talking but also speak glowingly of a culture they describe as accepting and convivial.
"This is a course where a judge can play with a plumber in the same foursome," says Gleneagles general partner Tom Hsieh, who made a late afternoon appearance when he strolled by the clubhouse with his poodle. "There is no status here, other than your ability to play golf — that's what you're judged by." Hsieh, who acquired the lease to Gleneagles in 2004, doesn't comment on the course's financial picture, except to say that he is committed to keeping it open. He says it is leased from San Francisco but, unlike other public courses, receives no money from the city's general fund.
While developments near golf courses more typically involve condos, the neighborhood that abuts Gleneagles' western edge paints a somewhat grittier picture: the notoriously rough Sunnydale housing projects, which border the golf course on several of its holes and mark the only slice of the outside world that golfers ever glimpse from the field of play. (That's part of what makes the course a secret: Gleneagles is otherwise invisible to all passersby; even from the road that winds through McLaren Park, the only visible piece is a narrow clearing in the trees that marks the course's entrance.) A barbed wire fence that stands between the golf course and its neighbors is a reminder that, even where brotherhood is championed, inclusiveness only extends so far.
Nonetheless, there is some intermingling between these neighbors. Regulars say neighborhood kids sometimes address passing golfers from their side of the fence, and will occasionally mosey over to the course to sell golf balls and T-shirts. Hsieh says Gleneagles is closely involved in a local chapter of the First Tee program, a national nonprofit that provides golf equipment and lessons to underprivileged youths. The program uses the course to practice, and the course also hosts barbecues and provides equipment.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Gleneagles' hilltop clubhouse counted among its visitors a doctor, a contractor, a heavy-equipment operator, a retired San Francisco homicide detective, a retired lawyer and two course employees. Topics of conversation ranged from golf to baseball to the bunions on one guy's shoeless foot — caused, naturally, by too much golfing.
Like other municipal courses, Gleneagles draws its share of beginners, but it also brings in high-level players, some of whom grow obsessed with taming its uniquely challenging features. Townsend, for one, says he is a member of the private Sequoyah Country Club in Oakland, but that he rarely plays there because he's addicted to this strange course.
"The people here are what attracts me the most — the hilarity and the stories people tell," Townsend says. "Actually, most of us are pretty serious golfers, but it's not uptight. Once you've played here, you're considered a member."
Notwithstanding this spirit of inclusiveness, daily turnouts at Gleneagles are paltry compared to what most public courses typically see. They say anyone is welcome to play here, but few people — including, it seems, most local golfers — even know where it is, or that it exists.
"We call it the speakeasy of golf — if you can find it, you can play," Hsieh says.