Nathaniel Y. Downes/Special to The S.F. ExaminerThe Recreation and Park Commission has approved a new nine-year lease contract with Gleneagles Golf Course manager Tom Hsieh

Future uncertain for Gleneagles Golf Course

Tom Hsieh remembers being in his late teens and playing his first round of golf at San Francisco's challenging nine-hole Gleneagles Golf Course. It was 1983, and he immediately realized he had found his “golf home.”

Two decades later, after spending countless mornings playing a round before work, Hsieh became the course's general partner, having taken over the lease in December 2004. Under his nine-year agreement, Hsieh assumed all maintenance responsibilities and paid about 7 percent of the course's revenue, between $35,000 and $40,000 annually, in rent to The City.

But Thursday, that lease is up and, despite more than eight months of negotiations, Hsieh and the Recreation and Park Department, which owns the land, have yet to agree on new terms for the 62-acre course.

“We've asked for what we think are modest improvements to help us do better out here, to have more impact on the community,” Hsieh said Sunday during a party at Gleneagles to thank the community for its support. “And they [Rec and Park] have counteroffered, quite honestly, with less than optimal results.”

Rec and Park contends in a letter to Hsieh last week from General Manager Phil Ginsburg that it has made efforts to compromise and proposed “significant economic improvements” to the lease. The letter also expresses the department's desire for Hsieh to extend the lease.


When Gleneagles Golf Course opened as McLaren Park Golf Course in 1962 overlooking the Sunnydale housing projects, Mayor George Christopher and Rec and Park President Walter Haas symbolically hit the first tee shots down fairway No. 1, according to Hsieh.

“They proclaimed a brand-new beginning for this neighborhood, that this golf course was going to be a catalyst to lift this neighborhood up,” Hsieh said.

Yet that vision never materialized, and The City by the late 1970s partnered with a private operator to run the golf course.

Erik de Lambert, a former commercial photographer and maitre d'hotel at the Mark Hopkins, took over the lease and subsequently launched a massive makeover to the course, even christening it with its current name — in honor of the famed course in Scotland.

After about 25 years of running Gleneagles, de Lambert retired in 2003, leaving the course's future uncertain. That's when Hsieh stepped in and won the bid for the lease.

“At the time, I was very concerned that we wouldn't find a bidder … someone from the community who understands not only this culture up here for golf, but the surrounding neighborhood that we're in,” Hsieh said.

Since then, Hsieh has strived to involve the community through programs such as First Tee in Visitacion Valley that gives underprivileged children a chance to play golf, and a partnership with Friends of McLaren Park to support their efforts to improve the park.

“It's beloved by thousands of people. It is a community center for all walks of life,” Hsieh said of Gleneagles. “There's no pretence. There's no pomp. And it's unique in that way — it's really the face of public golf in San Francisco.”

May Wong, past president of the Geneva-Excelsior Lions Club, said the course has given nearby residents like herself a chance to play a sport they might not otherwise have had access to.

“In this particular area — the Portola, the Excelsior, the Bayview-Hunters Point — we're blue-collar people, we're not country club-type people,” Wong said. “This gives you an opportunity to enjoy a sport with no distinction. It doesn't matter who you are. You pay the fee, you play the course, and you call it a day.”


Gleneagles' lease expired Nov. 30, but Hsieh was allowed to continue operating the golf course on a month-to-month basis, according to Rec and Park officials.

Since then, Hsieh and Rec and Park have been trying to agree on a new lease. Hsieh said he has asked to increase fees, which the department wanted to combine with lease negotiations.

Then in late June, Hsieh was notified by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission that his water rate was going to increase by more than 40 percent.

That prompted Hsieh to give the Rec and Park Department a 30-day notice of his intent to vacate the course if the two did not reach an agreement on the lease.

Hsieh said he wants a “more fair lease” that is similar to the terms of the other five public golf courses owned by San Francisco. Under those terms, The City pays for most equipment and employee salaries, and assumes liability for the land, but The City also receives 100 percent of the greens fees at those courses.

Per his current lease, Hsieh assumes such costs, which he said amount to almost a half-million dollars each year along with other expenses, though his revenue last year was about $450,000.

“We're not making any money,” Hsieh said.

Rec and Park subsequently offered to pay for electrical and sewer utility bills, the golf group's first 12,500 units, or about 9 million gallons, of water and the thousands of dollars in outstanding water bills with SFPUC, among other proposals.

“We have invited [Hsieh] to continue operating the golf course,” Rec and Park spokeswoman Connie Chan said. “However, it is his decision whether or not he wants to continue to do so.”


It doesn't appear the golf course will close for good this week — at least one investment group is interested in taking over the lease.

But if he relinquishes control, Hsieh said he is worried about what's next for something that he calls much more than a golf course.

“If you turn this over to just another golf group that wants to just keep it as a golf course and only as a golf course, you're missing a big community element that this golf course really needs to live up to,” Hsieh said.

Chan confirmed that the door is not closing for good.

“The department is currently exploring options to keep Gleneagles Golf Course activated in case the current operator decides to end his contract with The City,” she said.

Still, it remains to be seen what will happen Thursday morning should someone try to play golf at Gleneagles.

“I think they should call ahead first,” Hsieh said with a sad chuckle.

Document related to this story:

DV.load(“//”, { width: 640, height: 840, sidebar: false, text: false, container: “#DV-viewer-1236375-gleneagles-letter-to-tom-hsieh-07-24-14” }); Gleneagles Letter to Tom Hsieh 07 24 14 (PDF)
Gleneagles Letter to Tom Hsieh 07 24 14 (Text) Bay Area NewsGleneagles Golf CourseneighborhoodsRecreation and Park DepartmentTom Hsieh

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