Shooting for the Green

Publication Date: Wednesday Aug 12, 1998

Shooting for the Green

There are lots of new options for golf in the Bay Area, if you're willing to pay the price

by Keith Peters

Playing golf used to be such an uncomplicated sort of thing, just like growing up on the Peninsula in the 1950s and 60s. You could throw your clubs in your dad's car, hitch a ride to the local muni and play all day for a song. Idyllic, or so it seemed. Getting a starting time was a cinch, and thumping down a green fee didn't leave one broke. There was a time, believe it or not, when you could play 18 holes at Pebble Beach for just $15. And you didn't have to be a guest at The Lodge of Pebble Beach. Of course, $15 was a lot in those days. Today, that same round on that same famed Pebble Beach course will run $320. That's nearly $18 per hole, clearly one of the highest rates in all the world. Then again, stay in The Lodge (or the Inn at Spanish Bay) and the green fee is reduced to a mere $245. Needless to say, that princely sum includes a cart. There is no discount for walking, and caddies are extra.

Yes, the price of playing golf has gone up over the years. And it has become even more apparent to the golfing public because of the availability of courses. More than 85 percent of the new facilities that opened last year were daily-fee, municipal, or semi-private (ie., semi-public).

The main reasons for rising green fees are higher land costs and heftier design fees. Such added costs incurred by golf course developers are being passed along to the golfers. Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe now commands $150 per round. Closer to home, Spyglass Hill on the Monterey Peninsula can run $200 for 18 holes, while neighboring Carmel Valley Ranch costs $175 on the weekends. A short drive up the coast will take you to Santa Cruz, where $115 will gets one to the first tee at Pasatiempo Golf Club.

It could be reasoned that one way to get around the apparent high cost of the sport is to join a club. Guess again. A membership at Los Altos Golf & Country Club reportedly runs $300,000, one of the highest in the nation, while one at Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club is still a pricey $150,000. Sharon Heights Country Club is $110,000, Menlo CC runs $60,000-$70,000, while Green Hills in Millbrae is $45,000, as is Lake Merced in Daly City. The Olympic Club in San Francisco is $30,000-$40,000, but members first must join the Downtown Club for $5,000 and then be placed on a waiting list for the Olympic Club. Of course, don't forget the monthly dues at all these private clubs.

The Stanford Golf Club has a membership roll that prospects arguably need to get on when they're born in order to be playing before they retire. Stanford faculty, students and alums, of course, can play there. Then again, an education at The Farm costs more than $120,000 these days.

While exclusivity has its price, one doesn't need a bank loan to play golf these days.

According to Golf Magazine's list of the "Top 100 You Can Play," two of the finest courses in America are daily fee tracks and cost $30 or less to play, while 11 are in the $31-$55 range. In fact, the average weekend green fee, in season (including cart) for all U.S. public courses is just $37.50. By comparison, that same figure for public courses in Hawaii is $85.70. However, don't expect those figures to get any lower.

If the current construction rate of golf courses in America continues, Golf Magazine reports that the 20,000th layout will be built by the year 2008. These courses will not come cheap, because of all the complicating factors that go into building first-class sites.

Palo Alto High graduate Mark Soltau has been around golf courses most of his life, first as the San Francisco Examiner's golf writer and columnist and now as the San Francisco bureau chief for CBS.Sportsline. Soltau, who will be in Washington state to cover the PGA Championships this week, doesn't believe $50 green fees for public courses is out of whack these days.

"For this area? Probably not," said Soltau. "Its become the norm now, because the developers have put so much into the courses. They spend more money now making the course interesting."

Steve Schroeder, the Chief Operations Officer for famed golf architect Robert Trent Jones II in Palo Alto, said industry standards for building a golf course these days is $4.5 to $5 million. That doesn't include land or design costs. That cost, Schroeder said, averages to $250,000-$275,000 per hole.

"Every site is unique," said Schroeder, who grew up in Atherton and earned All-America golf honors at Stanford in 1979. "There are not enough constants to make each site similar ... Land is expensive. It's one of the biggest stumbling blocks to building a course."

That's one reason why it took 30 years to build a new municipal course within the San Jose City limits. That new course is Cinnabar Hills Golf Club, which opens this week and is the first championship-length facility since Shorline Golf Links was built in Mountain View. Just a 45-minute drive from Palo Alto, this 27-hole complex may be unrivaled in Northern California. Located just south of Calero Reservoir on McKean Road, the three distinctive tracks can be summed up in one word: spectacular.

The Canyon nine, for example, is less than 3,300 yards long but offers the twists and turns of a rollercoaster as it follows the contours of the area's rolling terrain. Every club can be used, with accuracy and placement crucial. Elevated tees provide unsurpassed views of the valley. The Lake and Mountain nines are more open and forgiving than the Canyon, but each has its own special qualities. Golfing patrons who tee it up when the course opens Saturday will discover why a sign at the entrance includes the words, "A dream comes true."

This dream, however, didn't come cheap. General Manager Scott Hoyt, who graduated from Woodside High in 1971 and grew up in Menlo Park playing at Sharon Heights Country Club, said the project will cost more than $30 million.

"I don't see how else you can do it," said Hoyt. "I don't see how you can make it inexpensive, not with the cost of everything. It's essentially impossible not to build a golf course that is not upscale. You know how difficult it is to buy land. And we had $2 million in environmental fees. We had Ohlone Indian bones out here, so you had to protect their graveyard."

And there was a rare salamander to protect, as well as wetlands. Since five acres of wetlands was impacted, 11 acres of wetlands was to be created elsewhere on the site. The course was routed to preserve the area's natural beauty.

"There are so many things that go into building a golf course," said Hoyt, who has spent more than 21 years as head pro and general manager at courses throughout the Bay Area.

One thing Hoyt has learned is the importance of a well-drained course. That's why it's costing more than $1 million per hole to make the John Harbottle-designed tract playable throughout the year. Harbottle, by the way, redesigned the greens at Stanford Golf Course.

"All through El Nino, we wouldn't have been shut down one day," he explained. "Our green drain like a sieve. We'll never have a temporary green. We'll never be closed. Golfers can rely on having 18 great holes to play."

And without country club membership prices. Weekday green fees will run $50 with the price going up to $75 on weekends. Add $15 if you want to ride. While that's higher than most muni layouts in the Bay Area, Cinnabar Hills is no ordinary facility. And the folks there are committed to making the experience memorable for their guests.

"The average player who wants that kind of experience, they'll pay an extra $5-$10 for it," Soltau said. "If you give them something for their buck, they'll come back. And tell their friends."

"We know the golfing experience will be great," said Bill Baron, the facility's project manager. Without a shot being fired, local golfers seem to be in agreement. The course takes tee times two weeks in advance each day at 7 a.m., and the place is booked up already. Only 124 players will get a chance to play each day through the month of August. Hoyt wants to keep the number down at the start to make sure everything runs smoothly. He was even pulling weeds by hand last week during a tour of the courses.

"We want to be able to take care of the people who show up," said Hoyt, who had no doubt that the public will respond favorably to Silicon Valley's newest startup company. "This is better quality than any other country club in the area."

There is, however, another local public-access course that believes it ranks among the best new courses in California.

That would be The Course at Wente Vineyards, an 18-hole layout that meanders around vineyards, through canyons of oak, cottonwood and sycamore trees, and up and down the foothills of the Livermore Valley with impressive views of the cliffs of Cresta Blanca. This Greg-Norman designed course can be reached by traveling Highway 680, turning off at Highway 84 and then zipping past the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ruby Ridge to Arroyo Road and turn right. A 45-minute drive from Palo Alto (with little traffic) takes golfers to this upscale facility, which has attracted a devoted following. When the course opened in July, for example, the 50 available tee times for the first day were gone in seven minutes.

"I can honestly say this is our best effort," said Norman, who has 84 pro tour career victories and was the 1995 PGA Player of the Year. "You can go out and play a PGA Tour stop here right now. This, if you don't mind me saying, is one masterpiece of a golf course. I'm extremely proud of it."

A round of golf Monday through Thursday costs $75, while Friday through Sunday goes up to $95. Both prices include a golf cart and range balls. It seems a bit pricey, until one takes in the view of the lush green oasis that features 18 completely unique holes.

"Every shot to the green is framed," said Norman. "There's not a shot here that doesn't have a view."

Norman personally walked the entire course several times to ensure that distances from tee to green were manageable for players of all levels, and that all features represent his design philosophy. The par-72 course can stretch to 6,949 yards or play as short as 4,975 yards, with five different tees available on each dramatic hole. The middle blue tees are a manageable 6,235 yards.

Speaking of dramatic, there's a 250-foot climb in elevation, up a series of eight switcbacks reminiscent of San Francisco's Lombard Street, between the ninth green and 10th tee. On the par-4 18th hole, a creek divides the fairway down the middle. The tee shot requires choosing either the right side, which is shorter but requires a second shot over water, or hitting left--that makes for a longer second shot but not over water.

Everything is resort quality, from the championship course to The Wente Restaurant and Visitors Center. During the summer, visitors can enjoy special Concerts at the Vineyard.

The Livermore Valley also features the 27-hole Poppy Ridge layout, a fabulous facility with three distinctive nines: the Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay. There are hard, rolling fairways, tall rough and lots of traps. And don't forget the strong, afternoon winds that can blow through the valley and make shotmaking all the more difficult. Playing 18 holes here can cost between $35-$55 during the week and $40-$70 on weekends.

If the ocean is more to your liking, Half Moon Bay now provides two courses that may soon rival those on the Monterey Peninsula. The new Ocean Course has joined the original Links Course. The Ocean was designed so golfers could see ocean from every hole. The final three holes--a par-4, par-3 and par-5--are breathtaking postcards for the round. The cost is steep at $95 weekdays and $115 weekends ($85 and $105 for the Links Course), but still less considering what it being charged at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, the Inn at Spanish Bay, and others down the coast.

The golf course boom is far from over. Presently, more than 900 courses are under construction nationwide with 720 scheduled to open this year, according to the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla.

Boulder Ridge, an 18-hole semi-private layout located on a plateau east of Almaden Expressway in southeast San Jose, was to begin construction this spring and cost $11-12 million. And ground was broken in June for the 18-hole Eagle Ridge Golf Course in Gilroy, a layout expected to be ready by the fall of 1999. The project will include 831 single-family homes and be located south of Hecker Pass Road and west of Santa Teresa Boulevard.

Closer to home, Palo Alto Municipal is undergoing a $5 million renovation to better compete with all the new courses springing up. In addition to a new irrigation and drainage system, Muni will have five reconstructed fairways plus eight new greens, bunkers and tees. Fairways will be raised and contoured, eliminating the salt-burned fairways of past summers and the soggy fairways of past winters.

"More and more, you're going to see city courses like Palo Alto Muni remodel, instead of building a new course," Soltau said. "It's cheaper. As long as it's fairly decent terrain, you can upgrade it, mound it . . . it's more feasible."

And necessary.

"They have to, to be competitive," Soltau added. "And they can't raise green fees unless it's a good product."

Even if the cost of green fees goes up, the 42-year-old layout will be a bargain by any standards. It certainly will be a heck of a lot cheaper than the Holy Grail for High Rollers, Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. Once an ultra-exclusive club on the north side of town, Shadown Creek is now open to players willing to pony up $1,000 (yes, that's correct).

The fee includes a tee time for one, caddie, cart, a suite for two at a Mirage resort property and limo transportation to and from the club. The course is a $45 million desert oasis. And you thought Pebble Beach was pricey.

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