Why Does San Francisco Have So Many Golf Courses?

We at the Scratch Pad are big fans of the Priceonomics blog – a great source for well-written articles about data, economics, and business. They recently tackled the notion of golf courses per capita, and we were excited to share their post.

When this author moved to San Francisco, he was surprised to stumble on multiple golf courses. First a jog revealed the Golden Gate Park Golf Course. Bike rides along the Pacific coast led to the discovery of several more. Internet searches produced a final tally: nine courses in the city plus one more outside city limits that is under the city’s jurisdiction.

San Francisco’s golf courses are not located in the middle of downtown, but their existence remains jarring. The gold rush created San Francisco, but now the land itself is a treasure. The city is home to the country’s most expensive real estate market. Developers have started building “micro-apartments” to meet the insatiable demand for housing; in contrast, golf is a greedy hoarder of land. Eighteen hole golf courses occupy 100-200 acres and host a daily maximum of 200 to 400 golfers. At San Francisco’s current level of population density — which is low compared to cities like Manila and Mumbai but the highest of any major American city after New York — one hundred acres could provide housing for over 2,600 people.

Count is not perfect as some clubs may have multiple courses, and some courses are only 9 or 12 holes. As cities vary by size and density, this count is not the final word on an urban golf index. Help check our count by looking at the source data here.

Yet San Francisco is not exceptional. As the above chart shows, all of America’s large, densely populated cities have a significant number of golf courses. And if one includes courses just outside city limits in areas that are home to significant numbers of people who work and socialize in those cities, the number rises significantly. At a time when America’s wealthiest and most dynamic cities are so starved for space that low income residents are being pushed out, why are these cities home to so many golf courses?

Don’t Blame the Monopoly Man

This author’s look at how golf courses became prevalent in San Francisco, where Priceonomics is located, revealed a few answers — none of them shady deals that gave land to golf course developers instead of subsidized housing.

One simple reason for the prevalence of golf courses in such a dense city is simple inertia. Only two San Francisco golf courses were built after World War II; the rest were all originally constructed in the 19th or early 20th century in parts of San Francisco still being developed out of sand dunes. In 1895, for example, civilians received permission from the military to build the Presidio Golf Course on what was then an isolated military base. When two private clubs bought land for golf courses around Lake Merced in the 1920s, San Francisco’s population was 500,000 (compared to 825,000 today) and the lake mostly farmland and coastal military installations.

But the key to understanding San Francisco’s abundance of golf courses is noting that of its nine golf courses and clubs, the majority are public. The Recreation and Parks Department manages five courses (plus one more in nearby Pacifica), and while the Presidio Golf Club is private, it is located on public land and is open to the public.

So, San Francisco is not full of golf courses because made men shell out to play golf on America’s most valuable real estate. (After all, wealthy San Franciscans have nice cars they can drive to other courses.) Rather, San Francisco is full of golf courses because the city decided to devote green space to golf. As a result, playing 18 holes a few miles from downtown is relatively affordable; prices at the city’s public courses range from $22 to $66 for a resident. Writing about a group playing 18 holes at one public golf course, an SF Weekly journalist describes them as “a semiretired bookkeeper who plays in a blues band… a retired Oakland International Airport manager, and a construction foreman.”

A public affairs official at the Parks Department did not return our request for comment at the time of publication, but we can deduce a few reasons why San Francisco manages so many golf courses.

One is that golfers are a large and particularly vocal group. Before Parks and Rec makes any changes to a park, it seeks public comment. A 2008 report on San Francisco’s public golf courses estimated the number of city resident golfers at 81,050 (pdf), and those golfers seem to follow a national trend in which golfers have higher-than-average incomes and therefore more often mobilize to protect their interests. When the city hosted debate over changes to its golf courses in 2008, a blog post urged soccer players to attend meetings and demand more fields noting, “Only two people from our large and growing soccer community have attended the past meetings, while 80+ golfers made their voices heard.” This is especially true when wealthy families live across from a golf course and don’t take kindly to the idea of a neighboring course turning into a soccer field or events center.

Although we did not track down evidence of this as a motivating factor in San Francisco, one factor that has historically led towns and cities to build public golf courses is to generate revenue. In Landscape Architecture Magazine, Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue write that golfing advocates could argue that golf courses were “a worthwhile public investment that subsidized a system’s other parks through green fees.” People can’t picnic or jog through public golf courses like they would other urban, green spaces; building golf courses in city parks essentially allows cash-constrained cities to cheat by building cash generating businesses and classifying it as public green space. Or, more generously, courses support the system by generating revenue for parks that everyone can use.

The $3 Million Golf Subsidy

The only problem is that for years, especially in San Francisco, public golf courses have drained the city’s coffers rather than replenished them. The aforementioned study, conducted by a consulting company hired by the city in response to criticism, noted that the city subsidized golf by $1.5 million a year. That was in 2008, and without policy changes, the report estimated that subsidy to increase to $3 million. It’s unclear whether that $3 million understates the subsidy by failing to include multimillion dollar course renovations.

San Francisco’s courses face the same problems that have hit golf courses across the country. In step with the real estate boom, America saw a surge of interest in golf and the building of many new courses. Between the recession and a bubble created by too much enthusiasm in the financial prospects of golf clubs, however, many courses aren’t getting that many golfers. As of 2008, only one of the courses managed by SF Park and Rec operated over 50% capacity. Public courses across the country are similarly under capacity and losingmoney.

The consultants’ report concluded that San Francisco’s public golf courses are poorly managed (they operate under several management models, but most are publicly run), and that they could earn the city money if leased to private management under 10-15 year contracts. Some local press responded that similar outsourcing arrangements failed to significantly increase profits when tried elsewhere; others dislike that private management would fire the current public employees and hire seasonal workers at lower wages. Most problematic is the fact that the report imagines private management investing millions to improve the courses so that they can compete with private ones. Large renovations would be funded with higher rates, which would make the courses expensive to use and a truly inaccessible part of the park system.

Should We Care?

San Francisco’s golf courses occupy over 700 acres of land, which equates to more than 2% of the real estate in a city with a high-profile anti-eviction and anti-gentrification movement where the building of any new building is bitterly contested.

But the city’s public golf courses could not be swapped out for condos or subsidized housing. Despite the seeming incongruence, San Francisco’s golf courses, which are mostly public and located in city parks, seem more relevant to battles over the use of green space than gentrification battles. The courses’ opponents are joggers, community gardeners, and soccer parents who want to transform public golf courses into jogging paths, vegetable patches, and playing fields.

To the extent that the surprising prevalence of golf courses in San Francisco has relevance to the city’s debates over gentrification, it’s likely as a reminder that the city’s small, constrained size — a commonly cited culprit for high rent prices — is not to blame. If San Francisco had the same population density as Manhattan, it could be home to around 3 million residents instead of its current 800,000. But in order to protect San Francisco from change, its residents have consistently voted for zoning laws that prevent developers from building taller commercial and residential buildings — even downtown. Similarly, a great public transport system could allow people to enjoy San Francisco’s employment opportunities and cultural capital while living outside the city limits, but the Bay Area Transport system has not “had a significant upgrade in San Francisco since 1976.”

All the rage over San Francisco’s rent prices and gentrification has failed to notice that 2% of its real estate is taken up by golf courses. That could be an oversight, but more likely it’s a fact that calls attention to what really matters in making the city more affordable.

Why Do Golfers Buy Hole In One Insurance?

A hole-in-one is a rare achievement. The odds of an average golfer shooting a hole-in-one is 12,500 to 1 – no wonder why it makes such a great accomplishment to add to your bucket list. But wait – not if you live in Japan! There, you might be happier to end up with a birdie and not a hole-in-one as an ace may well leave a hole-in-wallet. Find out why as Alex Mayyasi writes for Priceconomics:

The goal of insurance is usually to protect us from life’s least happy circumstances: the loss of a family’s primary breadwinner, the theft of one’s car, the onset of an illness requiring expensive treatment. We buy insurance to protect us from misfortune and the times when lady luck lets us down.

But there is one type of insurance that people buy to protect them from the consequences of unusually good luck: In Japan, the U.K., and, to a lesser extent, around the world, golfers buy insurance to protect themselves from the potentially bankrupting consequences of sinking a hole in one.

The concept of hole in one insurance may baffle the uninitiated, but to many it is a wise precaution as golf tradition holds that anyone who scores a hole in one should buy drinks back at the clubhouse for his playing group — if not everyone present. In Japan, many give extravagant gifts to friends and family after scoring a lucky ace.

In our research, we failed to dig up a definitive account of how the tradition became so entrenched. It likely came out of exuberant golfers buying rounds of drinks for friends and even strangers. Perhaps it was influenced by the idea behind many traditions of someone who experiences a great success humbling him or herself. (In judo, for example, anyone promoted to a higher belt is celebrated by being thrown onto his or her back by everyone else in the room). Clubhouses also likely promoted the tradition as a way to drive up bar tabs, while some speculate that golf courses, which often put up a plaque for holes in one, may have formalized the tradition to discourage golfers from making false claims.

However it happened, the tradition has turned a hole in one into something that is equally celebrated and insured against like a calamity — or at least a micro-calamity. After spending $650 buying the entire clubhouse champagne at England’s South Winchester Golf Club following a hole in one, Paul Neilson told Bloomberg, “I couldn’t afford to go through all that again. I used to have a policy but never got around to renewing it.” Among the stories from Japan, the same article quotes Eiji Yoneda, who was one of 200 people invited on a dinner cruise by someone celebrating a hole in one.

A number of firms offer hole in one insurance, frequently bundled with other services that golfers commonly buy like insurance for golfing equipment or personal liability. (Apparently yelling “Fore!” can’t ward off lawsuits if you hit a ball right at someone.) Golfplan, a U.K. insurer, covers $340 to $510 worth of drinks for hole in one celebrations. (Clubs’ set of rules for validating a hole in one makes it easier to process claims.) When it is sold unbundled, hole in one insurance can be cheap; Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. Ltd offers Japanese golfers hole in one insurance for as little as a $3 premium. Outside of individual policies, golf tournaments also get hole in one insurance so that they can offer huge cash prizes for a hole in one as a marketing promotion — it’s the same type of “prize indemnity” insurance that covers teams when a fan sinks a half court shot or makes a field goal.

In the United States, where the custom is less firmly established, golf forums are filled with debate about what tradition demands. Some clubs have written the tradition into their rules. The New York Times notes that the membership dues at one San Francisco club include covering $250 worth of drinks to celebrate any hole in one, while a similar system at a club in Bremerton, Washington, gives pro shop and food and beverage credit to the lucky golfer — it’s up to him or her to share. Where clubs don’t have set rules, many people suggest only buying drinks for friends and playing partners rather than the entire clubhouse.

Other golfers admit to fearing the wrath of a spouse if they treat the clubhouse, and therefore having agreed with golfing buddies to slip away quietly without telling the clubhouse if anyone scores a hole in one. It’s a rather sad result of the tradition — instead of celebrating a hole in one like the once in a lifetime accomplishment that it is (the odds of getting a hole in one, very roughly, are 12,500 to 1 for an amateur and 7,500 to 1 for a professional), it pushes golfers to slink away like they crashed a golf cart in a sand trap.

In the great American tradition of ignoring tradition, a number of other golfers have decided to ignore the debate entirely (several golfers say they’ll ignore this tradition as it originated when only “the upper classes” played golf) or to put the focus back on the lucky golfer. “If I ever hit an ace I’m going to flip the script on everyone else,” says one golfer. “They should all be buying ME drinks… not the other way around!”

20 Interesting Tee Markers

It’s true that anything small in sports can be branded. In Golf, tee markers are no exceptions. But this form of advertising is cute and not annoying – go through the below list of some interesting tee markers we came across.

Tee markers at the John Deere Classic

Hyundai Classic

Coca-Cola tee markers at The Tour Championship in Atlanta

Friendly's Classic (1995), Crestview C.C., Agawam, Mass

Tee markers at the FedEx St. Jude Classic

Continue reading

Costliest Rulings in Golf – # 4. Juli Inkster Disqualification – 2010 Safeway Classic

Continuing with our series on “Costliest Rulings in Golf”, here is #4 on the list. If you haven’t followed our other posts in this series click here.

Juli Inkster is a legend on the LPGA Tour, with a professional career spanning 29 years to date and 31 LPGA tour wins under her belt.

It’s true that when legends violate a rule it gets more attention – that was the case with this “Hall of Famer” who was three strokes off the lead at the end of the 2nd round at the 2010 Safeway Classic.

During a lengthy wait at the 10th tee, Inkster affixed a weighted donut to her 9-iron and took some practice swings to stay loose. It was a clear violation, but went unnoticed until an email was set to the LPGA by a television viewer. Unfortunately it is illegal to use a training aid during play amd Inkster was disqualified by officials once she was back in the clubhouse.

She later said, “It had no effect on my game whatsoever, but it is what it is. I’m very disappointed.”

For your reference, here is what the rule 14-3/10 says:

14-3/10 Use of Training or Swing Aid During Round

Q. During a round, may a player make a stroke or a practice swing using a club with a weighted headcover or “donut” on it, or use any other device designed as a training or swing aid?
A. No. The player would be using an artificial device to assist him in his play in breach of Rule 14-3, but see also Decision 4-4a/7 for use of a weighted training club.

Scientifically Improve Your Hole-in-One Odds

The odds of a tour professional to hit a hole in one is 1 in 3000. At Augusta International’s par-3 9th hole, 21 aces have been recorded – that’s 50% more than any other hole at Augusta. What enables golfers to have a much higher likelihood of a hole-in-one? Check out this video to learn the secret.

If you’ve had a hole-in-one, MyScorecard will award you a badge to commemorate your achievement! If you record your score on a hole by hole basis, the badge will be given automatically, otherwise email MyScorecard customer service and we’ll ensure we update your profile.

Costliest Rulings in Golf – # 3. Craig Stadler & the Tree: 1987 Andy Williams San Diego Open

Continuing with our series on the Costliest Rulings in Golf, here is yet an another event that can be tagged “a misfortune” in golfing history. In case if you missed our previous post on this series click here.

# 3.  Craig Stadler:1987 San Diego Open

It was 1987 and Craig Stadler (nicknamed “The Walrus”), who was among the third-round leaders, hit his tee shot on the par-4 384 yard 14th hole at the San Diego Open at Torrey Pines. Unfortunately, the ball landed under a low-hanging branch of a large Leyland Cypress tree.

To make his swing easier, Statdler decided to hit his next shot from his knees. In order to do that without staining his expensive pants from the wet grass, he placed a towel under his knees and chipped the shot into the fairway. Little did he knew about the consequences of that.

When the 3rd round highlights were televised in NBC before the Sunday’s final round, the scenes of Stadler kneeling to his shot caught the attention of many viewers. Viewers then flooded the tournament press with phone calls saying it was a violation of PGA rule.

He finished his rounds 4 shots behind George Burns but was later informed by the officials that use of the towel was considered “building” a stance, which is a rules violation. And because he had signed the scorecard for less than the correct score (i.e without two-stroke penalty) on Saturday, he was disqualified from the tournament.

It costed him $37,000 prize money and second place.

Here is what the rule of Golf (13-2) says,

A player must not improve or allow to be improved:

  • the position or lie of his ball,
  • the area of his intended Stance or swing,
  • his Line Of Play or a reasonable extension of that line beyond the Hole, or
  • the area in which he is to drop or place a ball,

  • by any of the following actions:

  • pressing a club on the ground,
  • moving, bending or breaking anything growing or fixed (including immovable Obstructions and objects defining Out Of Bounds),
  • creating or eliminating irregularities of surface,
  • removing or pressing down sand, loose soil, replaced divots or other cut turf placed in position, or
  • removing dew, frost or water.
  • 8 years later when Tom Wilson, a member of the tournament organizing committee, heard the tree was dying by fungus, invited Statdler to do the honours and help cut down. Statdler readily accepted and said  “It’s been eight years. It’s time to put it rest”.

    Costliest Rulings in Golf – # 2. Ian Woosnam at 2001 British Open

    Caddies play a pivotal role in a player’s performance. The great Bobby Jones once said “If I needed advice from my caddie, he’d be hitting the shots and I’d be carrying the bag”. But yes, mistakes do happen and caddies are no exceptions to that. Such was the case in Ian Woosnam and his caddie Myles Byrne, our #2 on the list of the Costliest Rulings in Golf series. If you missed our other entry in this series click here.

    It was a wonderful start for Ian Woosnam at the 2001 British Open – against all expectations he was in contention to win his first open at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s. Tied for the lead with three others, he marched with a lot more confidence into his final 18. He started the round with a birdie (missed a hole-in-hole by a whisker) at the opening par 3.

    The tale then had a sudden twist as something dramatic happened. His caddie, Myles Byrne, came up to him and said, “You’re going to go ballistic” – “We’ve got two drivers in the bag” as he pointed out the extra driver. That meant Woosnam was carrying 15 clubs, which indeed is a two-stroke penalty.

    Woosnam responded by throwing the extra club to the ground in disappointment. ‘I give you one job to do and this is what happens,’ he said. As a result of the penalty, Woosnam finished with 71 – four shots behind the winner David Duval, tied for 3rd place.

    Here is what rule of Golf (4-4) says,

    Maximum Of Fourteen Clubs

    The player must not start a stipulated round with more than fourteen clubs. He is limited to the clubs thus selected for that round, except that if he started with fewer than fourteen clubs, he may add any number, provided his total number does not exceed fourteen.

    It costed Ian Woosnam 218,333 pounds and a potential Ryder Cup spot. On the other hand, caddie Byrne lost anywhere from 15 to 20 thousand pounds in caddy earnings.

    Below is the final leaderboard of the 2001 Open:

    Woosnam surprisingly decided not to fire him stating: “It is the biggest mistake he will make in his life. He won’t do it again. He’s a good caddie. I am not going to sack him. He’s a good lad.”

    Ironically, Woosnam did fire his caddie two weeks later when, after a night drinking on the town, Byrne slept in and failed to turn up to tee-time.

    Byrne was last seen lugging bricks, having become a construction worker on a building site in Bray, Ireland, according to writers who cover the European Tour. And Ian Woosnam never came close to the leaderboard again. They never spoke after the split but we hear Woosnam checks with Byrne’s brothers, Brian and Dermot, both European Tour caddies, about him.

    Watch this below video (or click here) that captures the moments in disappointment of Ian Woosnam.

    Costliest Rulings in Golf – # 1. Roberto De Vicenzo:1968 Masters

    Mistakes are a part of human beings. Professional golfers are no exceptions to it when it comes to playing by the rules. Some due to ignorance and some just out of oversight. Unfortunately the history of golf has seen several such instances – at times small mistakes costed some players even a tournament. That said, ignorance is not a bliss, at least in golf. Here is a new series from our Scratch Pad desk covering such instances – Costliest Rulings in Golf.

    # 1.  Roberto De Vicenzo:1968 Masters

    Roberto De Vicenzo is the greatest golfer South America has ever produced with 230 tournaments and 8 PGA tours under his belt. But he is remembered not just for what he won, also for what he lost. Yes, you read that right! History always remembers the winners, 1968 masters tournament is an exception.

    Roberto De Vicenzo was in mid 40s at the 1968 masters and had just won the British Open the same year. He was in complete control of his game at Augusta and shot a magnificent 65 in the final round to tie Bob Goalby for first place. But something dramatic happened then. Tommy Aaron, his playing partner and who kept De Vicenzo’s score, mistakenly put down a four for the 17th hole instead of a birdie three, which was De Vicenzo’s actual score. De Vicenzo didn’t catch the error and signed it. When he did that, he signed for a 66 instead of a 65, handing the 1968 Masters to Bob Goalby by default and settling with a second place.

    Grief-stricken on his mistake, De Vicenzo then uttered what has become one of the most famous quotes in golf, “What a stupid I am!”.

    Below is the final leaderboard of the 1968 masters,

    Here is what rule of Golf (6-6d) says,

    The competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified. If he returns a score for any hole higher than actually taken, the score as returned stands.

    “For me, the Masters hasn’t ended,” De Vicenzo told Golf Digest in a 2006 interview. “Technically, the ending was legal. But there is something missing. The winner hasn’t yet emerged. It lacks an ending. Someday, maybe in another place, it will be decided” he adds.

    De Vicenzo never won another major. Tommy Aaron went on to win the 1973 Masters, where, ironically, he caught a mistake on his scorecard made by his playing partner. Well, that’s a perfect example for learning from the past.