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It didn't work out so well. In the 1930s, coastal storms washed away the seaside holes and flooded the inland portions of the course. In the 1940s, a massive earthen seawall was constructed to keep Sharp Park dry, but this new level of protection came at a cost: Some of MacKenzie's most picturesque holes were rerouted or destroyed, and the resulting layout — the one that greets golfers today — has been judged inferior by some golf-architecture buffs. In his 2000 book, The Missing Links: America's Greatest Lost Golf Courses and Holes, author Daniel Wexler described the contemporary Sharp as a "vastly altered layout serving mostly to make one wonder if a vintage MacKenzie design ever could have existed upon this site."
Sharp Park has nevertheless become a beloved feature of the Bay Area's recreational landscape over the past 60 years, particularly among the working-class and middle-class golfers who have seen other public courses — including Harding Park, where a nonresident must now shell out $135 for a weekday golf round — turn prohibitively expensive. "It's not just a golf course," says San Mateo resident Stephanie Singer, a regular at Sharp Park who says her mother played the course every Friday for 55 years. "It's our course."
San Francisco resident Robert "Bo" Links, a golfer, lawyer, and amateur golf-course architect who advocates preserving the course in the face of environmental concerns, says that a significant portion of MacKenzie's original design is intact. (According to Greg Ritschy, head pro at Sharp Park, there remain 11 holes that conform to the course's 1932 layout.) "San Francisco has an unbelievable number of golf assets. They're phenomenal properties," Links says. "Sharp is in many ways the most historical of all of them, because of Alister MacKenzie. It's the equivalent of having Michelangelo come in to sculpt David."
Even a cursory tour of Sharp Park reveals that there's something to this way of thinking. Seawall or no, the golf course's beachside setting, elegant cypresses, thickets of marsh reeds, and scenic backdrop of coastal mountains distinguish it from the yellowing fairways and chain-link fences that characterize many municipal courses. The problem is that those with an eye for these particulars — and with a taste for golf in general — have fallen to a fairly small minority in San Francisco.
A city-commissioned 2004 survey by PROS Consulting revealed that golf was near the bottom on a list of San Franciscans' recreational priorities. Only 24 percent professed a need for golf courses, making golf the fourth least-popular activity at city facilities; only baseball, softball, and skateboarding rated worse. (At the top of the list were walking trails, biking trails, pools, and community gardens.)
"Nobody in San Francisco cares about Sharp Park," says environmentalist Brent Plater, executive director of the nonprofit Wild Equity Institute, who has spearheaded the campaign to close the course. "If that golf course were to fall into the ocean tomorrow, nobody would blink an eye."
Plater believes that golf advocates are a tiny but resourceful special-interest group within the city, and have managed to forestall what should be an obvious choice. Closing the golf course and turning it into an outdoor recreation and wildlife area, he says, is a rational decision that will satisfy the greatest number of people. "If Spock were in charge of these things, or the social insects, who deal with these collective problems a little bit better than we do, there's no doubt" that Sharp Park would be shut down, he says.
As a public-relations tool, the image of an insect colony usurping administration of the Sharp Park golf course isn't a strong selling point for restoration plans. But two other types of critter have proven far more effective in rallying environmentalists: the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake. The frog — an underwhelming mud-colored creature that has been successfully invoked to halt development up and down the state — is in a less precarious position than its serpentine predator, the striking, red-banded garter snake, which has been designated an endangered species for more than 40 years and lives only in San Mateo County.
Hard evidence of golf's impact on these species is surprisingly hard to find. A single snake was found killed by a mower at Sharp Park in 2005. A year later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a review of the snake's status, theorizing that chemicals used on golf courses in its habitat range — including Sharp Park — posed a threat, but noted that no environmental toxicology tests confirmed this. Meanwhile, biologists' observations that pumping water from portions of the course to prevent flooding left masses of frogs' eggs to dry out and die have obligated the city, under federal regulations, to let those areas stay flooded in the winter.
The question of what constitutes proper ecological stewardship at Sharp Park is not a simple one. In December, the Board of Supervisors' Government Audit and Oversight Committee heard testimony from Karen Swaim, one of the state's foremost wildlife biologists, to the effect that the existing golf course is not only harmless insofar as the red-legged frog and garter snake are concerned, but is actually necessary to their survival. She argued that Sharp Park's previous incarnation as an artichoke farm built over salty coastal wetlands could not have supported a population of red-legged frogs — which live and breed only in fresh water — and hence would not have attracted the snakes, which feed on them.
She noted that both species were first observed at Sharp Park in the 1940s, after the golf course had been in operation for a decade, and predicted that both would die out at the site if the seawall were removed or breached. "Golf is not what is responsible for the decline of the San Francisco garter snake," Swaim said. "You need to protect the seawall. ... You need to have a freshwater, managed habitat currently for this species ... and that is all there is to it."