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Public golfing greens may be privatized

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The City’s public golf courses could earn significantly more money if they were turned over to private management, according to a long-awaited study that critics say is based on faulty fiscal and demographic information.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department operates six golf courses, ranging from the carefully manicured Harding Park — which hosts the PGA Tour — to the scruffy Lincoln Park, which boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golfing has declined 50 percent at these courses in the past decade, leading The City’s golf fund — used for golf-related revenues and expenses and managed by the Recreation and Park Department — to lose money or break even, according to the study prepared by Indiana-based PROS Consulting.

Golfers played 130,409 rounds at Harding, Lincoln and Sharp courses in 2006 — down from 210,638 in 2001, according to the report.

Citywide golf revenue in 2007-08 was $12.5 million, the majority earned from admission fees and concessions — up from $8.6 million in 2004-05. Last year’s expenses totaled $12.4 million, according to documents from the Recreation and Park Department.

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Parks advocates say the department entered a financial sand trap in 2001 when it borrowed $4 million from the open-space fund and $12 million in state park bond money destined for other projects and spent it to make Harding PGA-worthy.

“We were sold [the idea] that we’d get the money back, along with interest, so we can benefit other parts of town,” said Nancy Wuerfel, a member of the citizen-based Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee. “We were convinced it was a good deal.”

Instead, the Recreation and Park Department is paying that money back as it can in a 25-year period — and has withheld payment in lean years, such as 2008-09, Wuerfel said.

At the same time, recent golf-fund balance sheets show that the courses can turn a profit. The program earned $52,753 in 2007-08, in a year when use of the fields continued to decline, according to the Recreation and Park Department.

Putting the golf courses — and their maintenance — into private hands could provide the funding for landscape and amenity improvements needed to attract more players, according to the PROS Consulting report.

Isabel Wade, director of the Neighborhood Parks Council and part of a task force assigned to determine the future of city golfing, questioned the likelihood that golfers would come from across the Bay to play here.

“We might attract a few from Sausalito and the Peninsula, but I don’t think people will drive from Fremont — but [the report] didn’t study that data,” Wade said.

However, privatizing could also boost prices. Adult golfers pay $14 to $18 to play at Golden Gate Park, while admission at the Presidio ranges from $45 to $145.

Golfers at Lincoln Park on Sunday said they would like to see many of The City’s courses remain public, in part because the low cost and accessibility attract community members who are just playing for fun.

However, “I bet they could attract more tourism if it was much nicer,” resident Scott Molina said.

Task force members, who were waiting on the PROS report to kick off their own recommendation process, said they’re angry that a meeting scheduled for Sept. 29 may be their last chance to weigh in.

“It seems to me that the discussion on this hasn’t really begun,” member Zach Tuller said.


How city golf courses could change

An independent consultant that recommends leasing out The City's golf courses to private management has also made a number of other recommendations in a report to the Recreation and Park Department:

Lincoln Park
Reduce from 18 holes to nine, add driving range, improve clubhouse and add nature/hospitality center.

Sharp Park
Raise private donations and use the money to redesign the 18-hole course — with protections for endangered species, such as the garter snake.

Harding Park and Fleming courses
Continue with course improvements to make these “signature” golf courses.

Gleneagles Golf Course
Give existing operator a nine-year lease extension in exchange for capital improvements at the course.

Source: PROS Consulting

My story

“They need to get rid of Lincoln Park, build condos and use the money on the other golf courses. This is prime real estate — it’s almost too nice to be a golf course.” – Steve Hoffman, 40, San Francisco

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