FOR GOLFERS ENAMORED more of geographical setting than the number on their scorecard, there’s nothing like striking a ball amid the scenery of a national park. Fortunately, in the Golden State of California, Mother Nature has gifted us with three such venues, each with its own distinct terrestrial splendor. As the National Park Service turns 100 this year, it makes sense to celebrate the centennial by getting out on the links.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Imagine the prospect of surplus land in San Francisco — a fantasy in today’s real estate scene. Yet in the late 1800s some undeveloped acreage, primarily sand dunes on the Presidio army base overlooking the gateway to San Francisco Bay, caught the eye of visionary civilians who had formed the San Francisco Golf and Country Club. They gained permission to create a nine-hole golf course in 1895.
For nearly a century, use of the Presidio Golf Club, expanded to 18 holes in 1910, was restricted to military officers and the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. Then in 1994, the base was decommissioned and the land incorporated into the NPS’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Following a $5 million refurbishing, the 6,477-yard hilly layout has since been testing golfers with a formidable training ground for honing uphill, sidehill and downhill shot-making skills around rows of mature eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees lining the fairways. Golfers also face hurdles from swirling winds and thick fog rushing in off the Pacific.
By the time your last putt drops, you might feel you’ve undergone golf’s version of boot camp, although having San Francisco as a backdrop certainly eases the pain.
Yosemite National Park
Landscaped into Yosemite National Park’s 1,189 square miles of dramatic wildlands, alongside Highway 41 next to the Merced River and four miles from the south entrance, the nine-hole Wawona Golf Course became the first golf course at a national park when it opened in 1918.
Assuredly, the Scottish-born naturalist and explorer John Muir never envisioned fairways and greens when blazing trails with his hiking stick in the late 1860s. But with the Victorian-era Wawona Hotel (1876) attracting tourists to the nearby Mariposa giant sequoia grove, San Francisco’s Walter G. Favarque was commissioned to design the 3,011-yard par-35 course to augment the area’s appeal.
It’s “surreal” operating a golf course shaded by Ponderosa pine, incense cedars and some of the oldest and tallest redwoods on earth, golf shop manager Joe Edgecomb admits. “Golfers are surprised by the difficulty of the course, and the few complaints we get from players expecting a championship layout do not understand the challenges we face inside a national park.” Here, “if you replace or improve something,” he explains, “it must be historically accurate to the way it was 100 years ago, and it almost takes an act of Congress to get something approved.”
Wawona Golf Course might just be the best place to see your tax dollars at work on one of the country’s grandest stages.
With golfers trying to keep their total score under the year-round average temperature, Furnace Creek might be considered the course from hell. With its location some 300 miles east of Los Angeles in Death Valley National Park, where temperatures often sizzle well into triple digits, a comparison to Hades might not be that far off.
“People perspire out here unknowingly because sweat evaporates very quickly, so it’s vital to remain hydrated,” says Kip Freeman, head golf professional who, smartly, has a summer job elsewhere.
Climate aside, the 6,236-yard, 18-hole Furnace Creek Golf Course offers players a considerable reward: the guarantee of being able to record their lowest score ever. Resting at 214 feet below sea level against a backdrop of the rugged, often snowcapped Panamint Range, this is the lowest-elevation course on the planet, reason alone to qualify for any golfer’s bucket list.
The course has been drawing duffers since 1927, when date palm farmers planted three holes for entertainment, and grew to 18 holes in 1968; a complete renovation in 1997 raised it into the resort-style leagues.
First-timers expecting parched fairways are quickly surprised to find lush landscape, thanks to an ample underground water source keeping the recycled irrigation systems flowing. The front nine provides generous landing areas and a few water features; then, after you steer your cart up the wooden ramp to a drivethrough full-service bar/restaurant, the back nine challenges you with palm and tamarisk trees, along with, you guessed it, plenty of sand.
And remember, don’t get too upset after scoring an eight on a hole — you just made a snowman in the desert.