Surprises abound at Baylands Golf Links, Palo Alto's newly reconfigured golf course.
Some are still and fragile, like the abandoned goose egg lying on the fairway near the third hole. Others are fleeting and majestic, like the red-tailed hawks and herons that soar above the marshlands.
Most, however, are here by design: The sweeping panorama from the 18th hole overlooks the Bay and allows the visitor to view the East Bay hills and Dumbarton Bridge, while geese waddle and squirrels scatter below.
At the 14th hole, two greens offer the golfer two different playing experiences depending of the day of the week.
Holes 15 and 3 share a "double green" — a reference to the august "Old Course" at St. Andrews, largely considered the "home of golf." The famous Scottish course featured numerous double greens, a common feature for old links-style courses, said Forrest Richardson, whose firm redesigned the course previously known as the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course.
On a recent weekday, the Baylands course felt particularly Scottish, with gray skies overhead and winds whipping through. Typically, links courses are shaped by the seas and the winds, Richardson said. Here, the ground was shaped by the Bay tides.
"A true links course is one that's a seaside course, but it's also windswept and open," he noted.
Scheduled for a late May opening, the golf course overhaul began in 2012 as part of the city's effort to accommodate a flood-control project involving the volatile San Francisquito Creek — an effort that entailed the relocation of a levee onto the course. But rather than pursuing minor adjustments, the City Council decided to go all out and, quite literally, let nature take its course.
For the city and its consultants, the hardest part of rebuilding the golf course was getting to the starting line: Permits took years to obtain because the concurrent flood-control project significantly complicated the environmental-approval process. In June 2016, both projects finally received the green light from the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the City Council approved a construction contract with Wadsworth Golf Construction Company.
Since then, things have proceeded apace. Workers removed 40 percent of the turf at the course and expanded the vegetation and wetlands areas, which today comprise 55 acres. As part of the roughly $10-million project, all 18 holes were reconfigured and a 10.5-acre plot next to the Baylands Athletic Center was set aside for the city's future recreational needs. Hundreds of non-native trees, many of which were dying, were removed and replaced with native species. And nearly half a million cubic yards of soil was brought in from Stanford University — which, fortuitously, was looking to discard its construction dirt — transforming what was once a flat, green expanse into a hilly landscape. The ditches that once populated the course have been extended, reshaped and turned into wetlands, with natural shrubs and grasses.
One goal of the reconfiguration was to make the course look "intriguing, exciting and very natural," Richardson said. Another was to create a fun experience for players of all levels. Some holes have as many as six different tees, allowing players to adjust their distances based on skill level. And nearly all holes have interesting features, like the pair of stone pines at the 18th hole or the "pot bunker" on the 12th.
"The strategy was to weave the holes in and out of these landforms, so you'd have holes in the uphill, you'd have holes in the downhill and holes that play around the landforms, lay across them and alongside them," Richardson said.
The new course can make for a more challenging playing experience, said Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus, who has spent the past six years shepherding the project toward the finish line. The undulating landscape means players will have to adjust to conditions and make more decisions when they come out to play.
"Where it used to be flat and you'd do the same thing every time, now you're going to be hitting in a variety of places," de Geus said.
Ecological goals were just as important as recreational ones, Richardson said. This is, after all, the Baylands, a place where birds always take precedence over birdies and where endangered species such as the elusive salt marsh harvest mouse make their home.
It became evident early in the design process, Richardson said, that the right thing to do was to transform the landscape into something that more closely resembles the Baylands and that enhances the wetlands ecosystems.
Recently, Richardson received a sign that the plan is working when, for the first time, he encountered frogs at the golf course. This, he said, was an indication that the water is clear and that the wetlands are functioning as they should, he said.
"I've spent thousands of hours there and I cannot remember ever hearing a frog," Richardson said. "I'm very enthusiastic to hear them now because that's just a sign that the water is back and the wetlands are back."
While the construction is now complete, the city still has a minor few items on its to-do list before the games can begin: install signs, print scorecards and spruce up the bunkers. It is also looking to bring in a dog that can chase away the gaggles of geese that congregate throughout the course and leave droppings on the fairways.
The next two milestones for the project are scheduled for Monday, when the City Council considers approving a $9-million contract for the new course operator, OB Sports. If approved, OB Sports will take over from the Brad Lozares Golf Shop, which has been operating in the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course for more than three decades. OB Sports — which manages 55 courses, including the Golf Club at Moffett Field — will run the entire operation, including the pro shop and the café.
In addition, the council could authorize on Monday the sale of $9.8 million in bonds to finance the reconstruction. Unlike other major infrastructure projects, such as the public-safety building and the new garages in downtown and California Avenue, the golf course reconfiguration will be financed through golf fees over a period of 30 years.
The city will have to tap into its General Fund for ongoing costs such as staff oversight, water costs (which are expected to total more than $200,000 annually) and utilities. Altogether, these costs are projected to exceed $1 million in fiscal year 2019, which starts on July 1, 2018.
But officials also believe that the course will soon become a money-maker for the city. The course has a revenue target of $3.7 million in the next year, and an outside consultant whom the city hired to review the projections concluded that this is a reasonable expectation.
A new report from the Community Services Department states that starting in 2020, the city anticipates that it will no longer need General Fund subsidies since revenue from the restaurant lease, green fees, driving range and golf shop should be sufficient to cover both the management costs and the additional staff costs.
De Geus said that there is always a risk of things not going as planned: One can't always bank on good weather or a strong economy. There's also plenty of competition from other golf courses along the Peninsula and it's impossible to guarantee that golfers will choose Baylands Links.
The city tried to mitigate its risks by hiring an experienced operator to manage the new course, de Geus said, and by giving the company extra incentives to succeed: The contract includes a bonus for OB Sports if it exceeds its revenue targets. The biggest driver of success, however, is creating a course in the Baylands that will keep players coming back.
"We have to make sure we provide an experience that's exceptional," de Geus said. "That's what we're focused on."