Golden Gate Park is Reborn After Jay Blasi Renovation

by Jason Bruno

It was a sunny 61 degree morning in San Francisco on December 4th, where a group of journalists and friends from industry gathered for the soft opening of a Bay Area municipal asset known as Golden Gate Park Golf Course. The crisp coastal air was in sweet rhythm with the melodious rumble of ocean surf just a few hundred yards to the west. Nobody discussed politics, golf ball rollbacks, or which spoiled touring professional had sold out to the highest bidder.

The community of San Francisco has received a splendid makeover, an authentic transformation for the city’s public golfer. Inclusion is the way here – regardless of age, ethnicity, skill level or economic background . . . a links playground set within an iconic public park of historical virtue. A place for those locals to fall in love with a game in a world-class setting that most private clubs could only dream of having. This particular day was a celebration, an unveiling of what will soon be known as the finest 9 hole municipal par 3 course in America.

Course Map

The routing of golf holes on the property remains as it was originally, but the sequence and design of each hole is completely new. Six of the nine holes at Golden Gate Park run in different directions with only the 1st, 5th and 6th in parallel formation. The 1st & 6th move up the hill west to east, while the 5th moves downhill towards the coast.

History:

The course is located on the far northwestern edge of Golden Gate Park just a few dozen steps from the historic Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Gardens. The original Jack Fleming layout opened in 1951 (Fleming’s career includes contributions to several Alister MacKenzie designs including Pasatiempo and Cypress Point). Before the Blasi renovation, the greens were basically flat ovals, with each hole contained within tight corridors.

The Land / Vision

The site at Golden Gate Park Golf Course is comprised of 22 acres of random sand dunes and hollows set beneath majestic Cypress trees that lean just as the coastal winds have directed them to. These towering sentinels are as much a component to the property as the rolling land forms themselves, casting transient shadows across the premises throughout the day. Over the decades, the course lost its way due to a variety of reasons, and rather than go into agronomic specifics, the macro perspective was – the course became overgrown with invasive vegetation and a build up of organic material that led to boggy turf and claustrophobic playing conditions. Safe to say, Fleming’s layout was a diamond in the rough, but who would spearhead the effort to transform it? Inspired by the passion and influence of the late Sandy Tatum, two visionaries emerged. Enter Dan Burke (First Tee San Francisco) and architect Jay Blasi.

When a young Jay Blasi came out to the Bay Area 20 years ago and walked Golden Gate Park, dreams of a reimagined layout filled his mind. Fast forward well over a decade later, when Blasi and Burke met and collaborated on a new junior facility at Harding Park. This alliance proved to be the genesis of Golden Gate’s rebirth.

Blasi and Burke welcome the group to the new Golden Gate Park

When I asked Burke about how he came to the decision to pick Blasi for Golden Gate Park, he didn’t mince words “Jay was fantastic at Harding Park and was the only architect I considered for this project,” Burke said. “He had as much passion to create something special here for the community and First Tee kids as I did . . . easy call.”

The transformation cost of $2.7 million was funded entirely by private donors who wanted to invest in the community asset and the lives of Bay Area youth. “These individuals are keeping Sandy’s spirit alive with their generosity.” The course will reopen under a 15-year lease agreement with the San Francisco Parks & Recreation Dept and the First Tee of San Francisco.  The First Tee has managed the course for the last decade, supporting thousands of Bay Area youth, as well as providing public access play for the diverse demographic of golfers who live and visit San Francisco.

The Architect

Jay Blasi at work on the 6th hole – April 30th, 2023.

To understand the design philosophy of the new Golden Gate Park, it’s best to know the architect. Jay Blasi, a native of Madison, Wisconsin began his passionate pursuit of golf course design as a young boy drawing golf holes on just about anything he could find. One of his first leaps onto the grand stage was as the lead project architect (for RTJ II) at Chambers Bay (host site of the 2010 U.S. Amateur & 2015 U.S. Open). Other notable projects while with RTJ II include: Stanford University Varsity Golf Training Complex and The Patriot in Oklahoma.

Blasi started his design firm (Jay Blasi Design) in Los Gatos, California 2012. In 2014, he completed a restoration and redesign of several holes (in collaboration w/RTJ II) at Sentry World in Wisconsin. A complete redesign of Santa Ana Country Club in Southern California was next, and recently just celebrated the re-opening of his masterful redesign at Lakeside Country Club in Houston, Texas. The project at Golden Gate Park is especially significant and dear to Blasi who has made his home in the Bay Area for over 20 years, and grew up playing municipal golf in the Badger state – his passion for a community asset of this magnitude for the residents of the Bay Area is undeniable . . .

So much so, that Blasi waived his fee for his design services at Golden Gate Park.

Early Stages of the Renovation

Before any ambitious scripting of thought provoking ground contours can be implemented in the field, one must know exactly what type of material they’re working with. Blasi thought there was good sand underneath those existing land forms, but he called upon Josh Lewis to get his assessment and test the sands. Once it was confirmed that just a foot below the surface of the heavy organic layer, those hills and mounds were actually sand dunes from the coastline . . . all systems were go. Next, the team worked tirelessly scraping away and excavating the top layer unveiling the “granules of gold” that were just begging to be shaped into what is there today.

An integral part of any restoration project is assembling a team of Shapers, and Blasi brought in three of the finest in the biz to bring his vision to life – Justin Carlton, Brett Hochstein and Robert Nelson did a superb job of crafting the eye-popping contours, slopes and sand scrapes at Golden Gate Park.

Construction/Playing Surface/Turf Grow-in

Josh Lewis

A major component of any golf course project for the architect is having their own “point guard” to manage different aspects of the operation and specifically deciding what turf varieties will be used for the playing surfaces, and Blasi’s ace card just happened to be one the finest agronomy leaders in the game – Josh Lewis.

Today, Lewis is a partner at Gradoville & Hertzing – a Construction, Project and Agronomic Management company led by three Class A members of the GCSAA with over 90 years experience

Blasi and Lewis met at Chambers Bay (where Lewis was the Superintendent), and the two have the perfect synergy to create special golf venues. Along with Chambers Bay, Lewis’ resume includes stops at some of the finest west coast properties like Pasatiempo, and alongside Ken Nice at Bandon Dunes. With the influence of Lewis, it didn’t take much convincing on what the right turf was for the project. The climate (windy, crisp coastal air, and year-round chilly temperatures) along with ideal sandy terrain, make GGP the exemplary model for “firm n fast” links playing conditions, which meant the ambitious choice of Fine Fescue tees/fairways. 007XL and Macdonald varieties of Bentgrass was the choice for the greens. It wasn’t lost on both Lewis and Blasi that just 12 miles south of Golden Gate Park, Cal Club’s Javier Campos and his team provide some of the finest playing surfaces on earth using similar turf varieties. The contours of this fun and thought provoking design deserved the proper playing surface, and Lewis executed the grow-in to perfection. One height of cut from tee to green gives GGP the bounce and roll that Blasi and Lewis were aiming for, and as an added bonus, the city maintenance crew will have an easier task of maintaining the course as per Lewis’ edict. Fescue also requires far less inputs than other turf varieties, so the city’s desire for sustainability is set up quite well.

Design Overview

Looking west from the central portion of the property, a glorious vista includes glimpses of the Pacific Ocean

Blasi takes you on a thrill ride, featuring a mix of short and medium length par 3’s that use the elevation changes brilliantly, incorporating contours that will stimulate and pull the creative side out of each of us. Perhaps, the most brilliant part of the design is his use of a central ridge, the largest dune on the property – where he continually takes you to and from throughout the journey. Thanks to the careful removal of unhealthy and invasive foliage, the walkabout at GGP has an intimate feel, but not tight or claustrophobic. The experience is plentiful of coastal breezes, and sunlight that dances through the towering Cypress trees. Chasing the sun at GGP is as good a way to end a day as I can think of.

Read on below, as we detail each hole design and offer up some insider notes . . .

Course Images/Hole Specifics & Insider Notes*

Hole 1

Beginning with the uphill 1st, this mid-length par3 offers an opportunity for an Ace right out of the gate (Jack Steffens did just that on his first swing of the day during our afternoon round). This green shares the same surface as part of a double green with the 4th.

*What may well go down in lore as “Steffens Slope”, the 1st green features a subtle rise to a central plateau that also acts as a backboard – feeding the ball back into the front portion of this double green. Steffens made his first Ace in 55 years of playing golf on his initial swing of the day, right in front of architect Jay Blasi . . . instant legend status achieved.

Jay’s diagram of the double green at both the 1st & 4th holes illustrates the elongated surface where the GGP adventure takes flight. A lengthy plateau in the middle informally bisects and influences the tee shot on both greens.

Hole 2

2nd green hydroseed phase – July 3rd, 2023

Same perspective, five months later. A short wedge shot that plays downhill into the woods to a green featuring a diagonal plateau that has room for a few challenging hole locations.

The tee here is the highest point on the property, this central ridge serves as a focal point, not only as the giant dune that several holes play into and off of, but also as a communal gathering spot to socialize with fellow golfers on your way to the 2nd, 5th & 7th tees.

*The first Ace in the history of the new course happened on a hole located on the plateau (December 2nd, 2023 by K.C Murphy), Blasi witnessed this one as well.

Hole 3

3rd hole ready for hydroseed – July 3rd, 2023

The 3rd is another mid-length one shotter that wraps right to left inside the eastern perimeter of the property to a green complex that features a steep hillside slope that pitches back down to a funnel shaped putting surface. A deep hollow on the right will collect shots off the false edge making for a challenging par save.

*A public walking path in the woods beside the 3rd hole is a really cool reminder that you are in a public park.

Hole 4

4th hole – Reverse view from the greenside hill back to the tee (ready for hydroseed – July ’23) . . .
The bowl, This view looks back towards the 1st, take note of the steep false front.
Identical view, finished product . . . note the miniature 4 ft flagstick – photo Josh Lewis

Although the orientation of the diagram appears upside down, it represents the view from the top left side of the bowl looking back towards the 1st hole (that you see in the photo above).

*The edge of the plateau on the right side of the green is far more subtle as a side board, but does offer another approach to bring the ball back into the bowl.

Hole 5

5th tee view – July ’23

The 5th and the 6th (on the left) run parallel to each other sharing the same center positioned portion of the property bisected by specimen Cypress trees and fantastic sand scrapes, but these two are not identical twins by any means. The 5th sweeps right to left back down the ridge towards the clubhouse (west) to a deep rectangular green with several possible hole locations. A sizable “Fairway Wave” short of the green will feed everything on. The slope on the right is another worthy option of working the tee shot back down towards the shortgrass.

Check the wind here, this hole is an absolute sleeper in the routing that will “eat your lunch” if you fail to execute off the tee.

*See the architect notes (above) – the blade of the windmill just over the left edge of the clubhouse is your target.

Hole 6

Close up view of the large dune and the sandy blowout waste bunker at the 6th as it takes shape back in July.

The 6th goes back up towards the ridge to a green complex that features a massive waste bunker that is an absolutely stunning visual. Any shot into the center of this mid-length par 3 will suffice. The sand scrape on the right is an aesthetic depth perception feature, but is not nearly as close to the green as it appears from the tee.

Reverse view of the 6th hole from the top of the large dune

*The green complex continued to evolve (as do most) during the construction and shaping process, the sandy waste area on the left actually wraps in front of the left corner of the green. This green is much larger than it appears from the tee.

Hole 7

View of the downhill 7th, grow-in stage – July 3rd, 2023

As you turn towards home for the final trio of holes, Blasi cranks up the sense of adventure here at the 7th. Several different perspectives around this horseshoe shaped green that resembles Raynor’s 9th at Fox Chapel (commonly referred to as his version of “Lion’s Mouth”). Whatever you refer to it as, Blasi’s version will keep you engaged.

*There’s an often used phrase at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida – “Greens Visited”, because rarely does the golf ball remain on the putting surfaces there. The 7th at GGP is far more fun then the Ross collection in Florida, but the saying rings true on this green as well. “Bennett’s Bunker” is the only formal one of it’s kind on the course, and actually may be an easier recovery spot then some of the Fine Fescue surrounds at this horseshoe shaped surface that dictates – enter on the left, be repelled on the right.

Hole 8

The 8th takes shape during our first site visit – April 30th, 2023
Great things come in small packages”, the shortest hole on Blasi’s reimagined layout comes here at the 8th (about 100 yards), downhill to a shallow oblong putting surface. This shorty will be the favorite of many. Note the hole location with the flag just peaking through the shadow, just left of the Cypress tree. The 8th offers the option to play the hole by air or by land – wedge or flatstick? Vibes of the 13th at Bandon Preserve here.

*This is another that evolved quite a bit in the field, with a few tweaks from what’s on the conceptual diagram. In the photo above the drawing, you can see the waste area comes past the tree and closer to the green. Blasi also brought a kicker slope behind the far right side of the green, a “backboard” if you will. If the hole is located back right, take dead aim at “Blasi’s Backboard” and watch it drizzle back to the target. The author did just that upon being instructed to, and the architect witnessed his third Ace drop on his new course.

Hole 9

9th tee view – April 30th, 2023
9th tee view – December 4th 2023
This view of the green and hillside at the 9th shows the steep feeder slope on the right.

Reverse view of the 9th green

The green complex at the 9th features multiple slopes and contours that feed the ball back to hole.

*The 9th is a mid-length fantastic finisher that may require your best swing of the day to walkoff with birdie, win your match, or post the score you desire. As an added bonus, it’s the closest hole to the California coastline (the equivalent of a smoked Rory McIlroy drive to the west of you).After putting out here, It’s likely your first thought will be – let’s go back around again. And with that feeling – Golf Wins. . . .

Parting Thoughts

Dan Burke summed it all up during the event on December 4th, “Jay’s services here have transformed what was an old nine-holer that had great bones, into what it is today . . . a 5 year-old girl learning the sport and an 80 year-old retired guy who wants to play golf everyday . . . to elite players, the course will be fun for everybody,” Burke said. “Getting feedback from this small collective, and hearing the word fun out of everyone’s mouth, that to me is a testament to what Jay has created. We are very thankful to have him be a big part of it.”

I don’t think it’s a hot take to project, that one day, a Bay Area youngster who grows up learning the game and goes on to travel the globe playing golf – may come to the realization that they actually grew up playing one of the finest and most fun short courses in the world. Cheers to Dan Burke, Jay Blasi and Josh Lewis on the creation of a new happy place for public access golfers.

When the course opens officially to the public in early ’24, locals will pay around $25 to play, while visitors pay about $50.

More on our personal experience playing the new GGP and the three holes where some new history was made – and other highlights coming soon on the experience of “Playing the Best 9 hole Muni in America” in our Bruno’s Blog section.

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