Olympic Club’s Lake course: Into the deep

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Sweeping views over San Francisco from the third tee on the Lake course

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Architects Bill Love and Brian Kington added more visual flair while rebuilding bunkers, including at the famous closing hole

  • Lovely Golf Course

    The fearsome front bunker on the fifteenth hole

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

San Francisco’s Olympic Club is one of America’s most famous venues, its huge membership supporting two enormous facilities, in the city centre and overlooking the Pacific a few miles out. Host to major championships including five US Opens, the club’s golf facility, at the Lakeside property, includes 45 holes of golf, the eighteen hole Ocean course, the nine hole Cliffs, which sits on the bluffs over the Pacific, and the crown jewels, the Lake, Olympic’s championship course.

The Lake course’s bunkers define the course, along with the massive trees that dot the property. They are large, highly visible – right in the eyeline all around the golf course, in fact – deep and steep. And, as such, according to general manager Pat Finlen, they have always been a major maintenance priority. San Francisco is a beautiful city, and on a sunny day it is hard to imagine anywhere more idyllic than the Olympic property. But, as anyone who knows the city is well aware, it isn’t always like that: San Francisco is famous for its variable weather, with fog and heavy rain rarely too far away. The city, in fact, has a classic marine climate, with rapid swings from brilliant sunshine to rain.

As such, how to cope with major rain events has always been high on Finlen’s priority list, especially as he is that rare breed, a general manager who was previously the club’s superintendent. Along with Bill Love, Olympic’s long-time consulting golf architect, Finlen and his team – led by director of golf course maintenance Troy Flanagan – first chose Frontier Golf as the contractor for the job, and then looked at a number of bunker line solutions, and eventually settled on the Capillary Concrete product. The timing of the work was driven by preparations for the US Women’s Open, which Olympic will host in 2021.

Love, and his associate Brian Kington, took the opportunity to rebuild the bunkers, to add more visual flair, though the project was more of a touch up in comparison with the major renovation carried out before the US Open of 2012.

The choice of Capillary Concrete was driven by a number of factors, but certainly the product’s ability to cope with the varied weather conditions of the Bay Area was a major one. Also significant, and certainly now very obvious, was its ability to keep sand on extreme slopes. Capillary Concrete boss Martin Sternberg says this ‘allows the golf course architect the creative licence to showcase his craft’, and it’s for sure that Love has pushed this to the limits at Olympic.

Already famous for its deep and steep bunkers, the Lake now has a set of sand hazards that would compare for difficulty with almost any course in the world. The par three fifteenth hole is the best example of this. The club’s website says ‘The extremely deep front bunker is like a Maverick’s wave staring at you, and to avoid this hazard take one extra club. Back of this green is not a bad place to be’. 

This is frankly something of an understatement. Finlen told me that the bunker face had been measured at a slope of 54 degrees, and to be honest, visually at least, this looks like a conservative estimate. It might be the single scariest bunker I have ever seen, and I know that on any future playing visits to Olympic I shall heed the website advice in spades – to the extent of being sorely tempted to hit my driver on this 157 yard hole!

Each Capillary Concrete project receives a custom mix design based on local weather patterns, aggregate, golf course conditions. The product is homogenous and blended at the ready mix plant and brought to the golf course ready to install, so there is minimal variability in the batch.

My biggest concern about the work at Olympic, to be quite frank, lies in its difficulty. To be sure, the club has a reputation as a ‘player’s venue’, and its championship heritage cannot be gainsayed. But not every golfer is a potential US Open contestant, and, to be honest, I would be rather worried about golfers going into that front bunker on 15 and never coming out again! Something tells me that Pat Finlen, Bill Love and their colleagues will not be displeased at that image! 

This article first appeared in issue 49 of Golf Course Architecture

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