Muni makeover

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    The par-three fourth hole at the redesigned Baylands Golf Links in Palo Alto, California

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    The par-three fifteenth and par-five third holes share a green

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    The par-four eleventh hole

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    The fourteenth hole has two greens separated by a large mound

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Forrest Richardson has redesigned ritzy Palo Alto’s municipal golf course to incorporate additional flood defence and a substantial reduction in managed turf.

Municipal golf courses, since they first began to emerge around the turn of the twentieth century, have been among the most important tools for spreading the game of golf to new (and especially non-wealthy) audiences. It is, therefore, a little ironic, even peculiar, to think of a municipal course in one of the richest areas on earth, but the Palo Alto Municipal has played an important role in the golfing scene of the San Francisco Bay Area since it opened in 1956.

William P Bell, who built such beautiful bunkers for George Thomas at Riviera and elsewhere, began the layout, working with his son William F Bell. After his father died in 1953, Bell Jr completed the work and the original course opened in 1956. The Palo Alto layout occupies low-lying land close to the San Francisco Bay, separated only from the water by the runway of the Palo Alto airport, and by a small area of foreshore. It’s the sort of land that is of little use for anything but golf – reminiscent, in that, of the linksland of Scotland where the game began.

Several years ago, the City of Palo Alto hired Arizona-based architect Forrest Richardson to oversee a comprehensive rebuild of the muni course, with the goals of improving both playability and sustainability, and also to allow for the expansion of the neighbouring San Francisquito Creek, to boost flood protection.

The redesigned course features 55 acres of native Baylands vegetation and wetlands areas, a 40 per cent reduction of managed turf areas, a 35 per cent reduction of potable water use, an additional 10.5 acres added to the Baylands Athletic Center for future recreational use, and 7.4 acres of land converted into in-stream marshland terrace habitat within an expanded San Francisquito Creek for increased flood protection.

The course, in its previous form, was populated by a significant number of non-native trees, mostly eucalypts. Richardson oversaw the removal of these – and their replacement with 300 new native trees on the course, as well as the protection of 500 naturally-occurring oak saplings in the nearby Pearson Arastradero Preserve. The site was recontoured using a substantial quantity of inert fill (see box) to raise the level of the playing corridors, and to give more movement to the land. Rather like a links, in fact!

Now, we shouldn’t push this analogy too far. Notwithstanding the course’s new name, Baylands Golf Links, it isn’t (a links that is). Apart from anything else, Richardson has grassed the course with platinum paspalum, everywhere except the greens, which are creeping bent. The soil is not sandy and in no sense is this a genuine links ecosystem. But that doesn’t matter; from the golfer’s perspective, he is by the sea, playing in a largely open environment, with cool movement of the ground, and right next to the water.

This linksy feel is most evident at the far end of the course, notably on the par-five thirteenth, which gets closest to the water and furthest away from civilisation. At this point of the course, the ground is suitably lumpy, the fairways are wide and there is a beautifully placed central bunker about thirty yards short of the green (on a short par five of only 510 yards from the back tee). The bunkerless fourteenth, a mid-length par four that begins the journey back to the clubhouse, is another good hole; here, Richardson has built two greens, a lower left one tucked close to a water hazard and a higher right one separated from the other by a large mound (I prefer the left green).

I like too the third hole, a par five with two doglegs, created by bunkers and by native rough. There is something very appealing about dogleg holes where you can see the flag all the way along; perhaps it is the mental strain of being able to see your destination, but having to aim away from it. The hole plays to the left half of a double green (the other half is occupied by the par-three fifteenth) which, in the severity of its cross-slope, has a little hint of the green occupied by the eleventh and seventh at St Andrews – not, by any stretch of the imagination as severe, but just as a tee ball on the Eden hole that leaks right will catch the slope and swing a long way from the hole, so with an approach here.

The routing is complex, governed I guess by a desire to have returning nines and the narrowness of the site near the clubhouse and the entrance. The use of fill is most evident on the tenth and eleventh, where the course borders the creek, and across it the neighbourhood of East Palo Alto. But even here it is not intrusive; a fine job by Richardson and his construction team.

Baylands is not long – 6,680 yards from the back black tees, and is rated for play both from its four sets of tees, and three sets of combos. It is hard to imagine there isn’t a good game for most every golfer out there. All in all, then, the Palo Alto muni looks to be in good shape for its second half century.

The article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.