It was the summer of Two Thousand Sixteen. I had arrived just a few months earlier. Curiosity reached its peak, and I decided to call a meeting between myself and this old man. Perhaps to introduce myself to him, but mostly so that he could introduce himself to me. This was no ordinary old man – for he was well over one hundred years of age. I took an early afternoon trip from the Inner Richmond to the edge of the continent to meet him. As with most golfers, he was there already – prompt, if nothing else. His garb a bit outdated, but his style was undeniable. He greeted me with nothing more than a quick handshake, and set me off on my own to explore, with very little direction – I don’t remember quite clearly, but perhaps he offered words like “That way.” and extended an arm and a semi-bent finger towards the first. As I set my bag down, the salty air and fog were creeping across the property. I thought back to something my father shared with me years ago – something John F. Kennedy once said. “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back to whence we came.”
With eucalyptus trees abound and the Golden Gates not far across the Eighteenth fairway to my right, my maiden navigation was slightly misleading. My boldness was rewarded only temporarily, as I now reflect upon the naïve approach I took that day. With a cautious long iron off the first tee, though, I soon realized that just because it’s called the fairway, doesn’t mean it’s always fair. He defended his first green with a tree that resembled a bouncer or doorman – you will not go through me, perhaps you might find a difference entrance, but in all likelihood you will pay five to get in. The second hole quickly showed me it’s endless routes from tee to green – I would have no idea if I chose a suitable one that day, but I moved to the outer three holes unscathed. Numbers three, four, and five, reside on their own plot of land – he unofficially deemed these holes special by placing them far beyond the obvious municipal boundaries of the city. The three holes shared no similarities, yet they belonged together like a pair of old sneakers on the front porch. He presented me with a par three that I could only describe as ‘golfy’, with various options over and around an encroaching tree, set into a majestic corner of the property. Four and Five were four-shotters that went in opposite directions. The tee shot on four could be hit with a half-dozen clubs, while the tee shot on five was a driver every time out. I knew this much.
Onward he said. But where do I go from here? Back inward towards the city, I found myself near a museum within the art gallery I was already walking upon. Around this world class building I walked, hoping to somehow stumble upon the next tee box. Around the corner he led me, and sure enough, there was the niftiest little par four you’ll ever see. The museum to my left, the off-white hue of the city residences set deep on the horizon, and a razor sharp dogleg, all of which made me realize that there was an abundance of knowledge to be gained here. I walked away from the sixth green, through a narrow path next to the blackberry bushes, down to the seventh tee. With eclectic Clement Street paralleling the right side of this blind tee shot, there was very obvious danger here. The chain-linked fence that separated the golf hole from the city street, was not an eyesore, but a welcomed sight. A feature that seemed to be something like a signature at many municipal courses. And the seventh green – oh, the seventh green – what just happened on that putt?
The eight hole was a gift from the old man. Not because it was easy, or spectacular, but because it was a hole that seemed familiar – classical by design, and classical within my own memory bank – a downhill mid-iron shot, with a pair of bunkers framing the entrance. Passing through the eighth, I found remnants of old practice cages and nets that the he must have offered to his players many years ago. My attention was quickly drawn to an uphill tunnel, tier upon tier, a steady climb. Here my ignorance was bliss, as a long straight driver would only happen this one time, until further wisdom was gained. The tenth, was the old man’s trick up his sleeve. A short par four, framed by the museum, likely guarded by coyote dens, but merely a driver away. I took the cautious route, because I did not know if the man was hiding any surprises around the corner. It wasn’t until recently until I learned what opportunities he offers here. As I walked off the tenth tee, I did a double-take – pausing for a moment, absorbing the pacific coastline view that this vista offered – Ocean Beach and the Outer Sunset District right there before me. The Eleventh offers similar rewards, should similar risks be taken. The old man’s skin was weathered on this hole – bumps and bruises from years of exposure to this unique climate which he lived in – I may have hit the tee shot, but at some point, he took control of the ball and determined its fate. A good shot at the eleventh is heavily rewarded nonetheless.
Twelve is the first of a trio of back nine monsters that the old man hurled my way. Playing steadily uphill, to a multi-tiered green, this may be the most fierce resistance on the land. A shake of my head as I walked off the upper tier of the putting surface was the only thing I could think to do. I placed my putter back into my carry bag and made a short turn up the hill. Suddenly I was sitting on the top of the golf course. From the thirteenth tee you saw it all – the old man’s Sea, the headlands far across the Bay, the Gates, and even deep into the downtown Financial District. Looking through a pair of goal posts, over a valley, outward towards the top of a hill, with salt water to my left, and the city by the bay out ahead. I will forever be eager to reach this point on this course. As we moved to fourteen, the demand for precision is high. The old man badly fools me as I look at the scorecard yardage. The fifteenth, much like the eighth, makes me feel like I’ve been here before – though the old man continues to present hidden perils that I know will take time to mitigate.
Finally, I’ve reached the place that I learned is sometimes called “the holes where good rounds go to die.” Back to back par threes that seemed longer than some of the par fours. The old man doesn’t want you to coast into his clubhouse. He wants you to earn your nourishments. He wants you to remember that both a long driver and a short pitch shot with a wedge both count as one stroke on the scorecard. He doesn’t want you to fear him, but he does want your respect. After all, look at what he just provided to you for the past three and a half hours. Finally, back across the road, and up a slight rise, is the 18th tee box. The old man asks for one more ounce of fortitude from you. One more moment of focus and commitment. Show any signs of doubt, and he will make your culmination difficult. You may be picturing this old man now – perhaps in tattered clothing – with gray hair – and leathery skin – maybe like a ship captain. And as FDR said, a Smooth Sea never made a Skilled Sailor. In the city by the bay, I’m slowly learning to be a skilled sailor. The waters are cold, the winds are often high, the fairways are uneven, and the lies are tricky. This old man, has welcomed me, but also asked that I pay my dues – the history here is storied, the ground is hallowed. This isn’t a story about the layout of the golf course, but a story about the spirit and soul that resides within it.
A pleasure to meet you, Lincoln Park <hat tip>.