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No Collared Shirt Required
Dan Bollwinkel

It has been said that to repeat a behavior one knows to be wrong or unproductive while having full knowledge that said behavior is wrong or unproductive is the definition of insanity. My obsession with the game of golf--on and off the course--fits this description to a tee. I know full well that golf courses are the most ridiculous waste of natural resources on the planet and that the game has a steeped history in white, male upper-class domination and exclusivity, but unfortunately I started playing golf before college, and as anyone who plays the game will tell you, once you hit that first good ball, you’re hooked. Seriously, it’s like heroin, and week after week we find ourselves lying to respected colleagues, friends and spouses to sneak away and brave the elements in search of mythical golfing perfection only to fail the vast majority of the time. See: the average golf swing and the above definition of insanity. The esteemed comedian and admitted golfer Lewis Black perhaps puts it best: “Golf is a game for people who don’t hate themselves enough in their daily lives.”

But all that guilt and insanity aside, it must be said that to play golf here in the foggy cultural enclave of the Bay Area can be a diverse, anti-elitist, and ecologically fascinating experience. My cohort and I choose to play courses that are, in our estimation, the kinds of places where CEO’s and doctors and lawyers would rather not set foot. Far from the lavishly maintained fairways and greens of the country clubs and the exclusive roster of historic public courses the greater Bay Area has to offer, these tracks are for working men, women and children: starving students and eccentrics and people who don’t own collared shirts. These courses are bastions of free expression: where one can swagger freely with an open beer, where dozens of dollars and quarters and owed drinks change hands in a gloriously complicated underground economy of wagering; where one can shout obscenities at will and not fear being committed, where man and beast (mostly squirrels) exist side by side in perfect harmony. And judging by the condition some of these courses are typically in, I assure the reader that there are minimal resources being expended to maintain them.

In no particular order, here are my top five Bay Area golf courses where you don’t need a tee time, a collared shirt, or a platinum credit card to have a decent time whacking around the old pill.

Gleneagles Golf Club, South San Francisco:

Okay, so I said in no particular order but that goes for the other four courses. Gleneagles is perhaps the most difficult, most fun, and most eccentric golf course in the country. The great Lee Trevino, himself a Bay Area native, once called it the hardest 9 holes in the world. Regardless, any course where you pay for your round at the bar has got to be fun, and Gleneagles lives up to its reputation. It is actually just nine holes, but with two sets of staggered tees (the front nine and the back nine) Gleneagles gets away with being considered an 18-hole course. Carved through ancient Cypress trees and tilting perpetually toward the Cow Palace, Gleneagles is drenched with an equal measure of marine layer, wind, and character. The fairways are more dirt than grass but the green fees are dirt cheap ($15). Don’t expect anything fancy here: the yardage markers are spray-painted on the trunks of trees and the greens are a bit worn-out but they’re huge and multi-tiered. And the holes are long and tough: rumor has it in more than one way. The fourth, fifth and sixth holes are separated from the infamous Happy Valley Housing Projects by a short barbed wire fence, and I’ve heard rumors for years of unfortunate souls going to look for their ball in the left rough only to lose their wallet at gunpoint. One excited older gentleman on another course once told me of an actual murder on the links at Gleneagles, but I’ve never had an incident (I’m also 6’4”, 245 lbs. of pure muscle and tattooed from head to toe) and I suspect urban legend is thicker than the fog in the branches at an old and storied course like this one.

“The Chuck”: Chuck Corica Golf Complex, Alameda:

“The Chuck” is near and dear to many, many Bay Area golfers. In particular Alameda residents who get to play this sprawling muni as much as they want Monday-Friday with a $115 monthly resident pass. If you live on the “island city,” or can manage to forge an Alameda ID, that’s the best golf deal on the planet. This grants you the privilege of unlimited weekly access to the Earl Fry North 18-hole championship course, the Jack Clark South 18-hole championship course, and the 9-hole MIF Albright par-3 course. If you can’t get a pass you can usually get out for under $30, even on the weekend, and while they have plenty of carts they aren’t really necessary as these tracks are all flat as a pancake and not terribly long.

The greatest thing about the Chuck is the group of longtime regulars that frequent the courses: the friendliest, weirdest and most diverse bunch of people I’ve ever met. I don’t know what some of these folks do for a living but I swear some of them sleep in their cars in the parking lot and subsist off the flora and fauna of the courses: they’re always there. But they’ll play with anyone, they’re used to it; the courses’ proximity to the Oakland International Airport makes it one of the most dropped-in courses in the country. Don’t be surprised if you get invited to a card game after your round. And whatever you do, don’t fall in a water hazard at the Chuck: they’re filled with Bay run-off, mysterious and foul-smelling chemicals, and prehistoric carp the size of Volkswagons; I’ve seen one eat a golf ball. 

Lake Chabot Municipal Golf Course, Oakland:

After shutting down last winter for some much-needed recovery and repair, this bizarre course tucked away in the southeastern hills of Oakland is back and beautiful--rumor has it they finally got their liquor license renewed as well. But the best part is that the rock-bottom prices in place when Chabot was a barren wasteland a couple years ago have stayed the same. Oakland residents play at a discount off the already minimal fees and the good folks in the pro shop will simply tilt their head, wink, and ask if you’re an Oakland resident: Just say yes.

As far as the course goes, it’s a bit like a roller coaster. Just about every hole has major elevation change from tee to green so it’s a hike if you want to walk it but it can be done. The entire course is basically surrounded by woods on all sides as well, so the combination of untamed wilderness and major slopes makes for the jerkiest cart driving experience around. I personally have had several near-death experiences and I’ve witnessed plenty of hair-raising and frankly hilarious mishaps involving cart, driver, clubs and whatever beverages may have contributed to the incident flying through the air in separate directions. When you see a sign that says “carts must remain on path” they mean it at Chabot. They’ll find your body at the bottom of a canyon weeks later if you make a wrong move.

Chabot is infamous for the 18th hole. It’s 668 yards from the tips and it’s basically a 45 degree drop-off straight down after the first 225 yards or so (stay on the cart path!). Once you reach the bottom of the hill, it’s another 100 yards up an even steeper vertical face to the green. Obviously designed by someone with a serious drug problem, the 18th at Chabot is a par 6, which is technically illegal by USGA standards, but this is Oakland, and that’s how we roll. In the summer time when the course is dry and the wind is just right, a perfect drive will go all the way down the hill, so you can tell your friends you hit a 568 yard drive. Tiger’s never even done that.

Lincoln Park, San Francisco:

Lincoln is a bit of an exception to this particular group of courses. It can be a little pricey and even busy, especially on the weekends (tourists) so I definitely recommend a mid-week excursion. Lincoln is what golfers like to call a ‘dog track’, however. That’s a course where the fairways are basically kept in a similar condition to?you guessed it?a dog track. Lincoln is a bit quirky and short and really not all that interesting but it warrants mention for two reasons.

First of all, off a certain hole on the front nine that resides along a certain street you will find from time to time, a sketchy-looking gentleman leaning up against a blue sedan watching you play the hole. Fear not, he is friendly, and in the trunk of that blue sedan is cold beer and used top-of-the-line golf balls sold at a considerable discount than that of the facilities. He will also trade for other desirable things if you happen to be one of those golfers for whom the greenest thing on the course is in your pocket, not on the ground.

Secondly, the 17th hole at Lincoln is one of those holes every golfer should play at least once in his or her life. It’s a relatively short par 3 but it runs along a seaside cliff overlooking a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Baker Beach. One could also theoretically hit golf balls at passing ships from the tee box if they happened to be waiting for the group ahead and had absolutely no sense of decency or environmental awareness. I’m just sayin'.

Willow Park Golf Course, Castro Valley:

This is one of the best kept secrets in all of golf, in my opinion. It’s short, somewhat muddy most of the year, and the greens frequently suck, but there really isn’t a boring hole out here. It seems like all 18 have something bizarre and difficult going on that force players to make shots. Willow Park is also just far enough out there that you feel like you’ve left the Bay Area, but it’s close enough that you’re there in a half hour from Oakland, or 45 minutes from the city and it’s easy to get to off of I-580. But once you’re out there and you realize there’s no cell phone reception it’s as if you’ve stepped back in time 40 years. The immense and typically empty clubhouse and restaurant facilities help; they’re straight out of The Shining.

The course itself is dense with willow and oak trees and it’s designed around a central creek and surrounded on all sides by wooded canyon. I’ve never felt more like I was in a wildlife preserve than on this golf course. Entire families of deer munch on the fairways and wild turkeys frequently emerge from the brush. All this for under $30 to walk, so if you aren’t even a golfer I’d recommend this place for a hike.

I dream of a world where some day I will be able to tell my more erudite acquaintances that I indeed play golf and they won’t look at me as if I just admitted that I enjoy clubbing baby seals or that I like to watch NASCAR. But until that day comes, at least I live here, where I can roam the sacred and profane fairways of these particular courses in relative peace and anonymity. But now that I’ve let the respective cats out of the bag this must be said: respect the locals and their traditions, and for f---‘s sake, hurry up and hit the ball: slow play is bad for everyone.

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