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A Bay Area Public Golf Gem Emerges

The San Francisco Bay Area is well-known among golf aficionados, with exclusive private golf options like the Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, and premium public golf facilities such as Half Moon Bay, Presidio and TPC Harding Park. Still, the southern Peninsula and South Bay region has for years been in need of high-quality, affordable public golf.

Enter Baylands Golf Links, the long-awaited re-imagination of the City of Palo Alto’s municipal golf course.

Baylands is three miles from Stanford University, located in an area of the Silicon Valley where an acre of land can sell for $10 million or more. The layout pays homage to the great links courses of the U.K. and Ireland, with windswept terrain and bold mounding and dunes that now dot a landscape that previously was flat and virtually featureless.

Baylands finally opens to the public this month — the latest chapter in a seven-year saga that has had more than its share of detours. National Golf Foundation Consulting has had a unique perspective on the rebirth, providing strategic and financial studies over the past six years that helped guide the project.

The 3rd hole at Baylands Golf Links, which pays homage to the links courses of the U.K. and Ireland.


The public sector project began in 2011 when the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (SFCJPA), in conjunction with the City of Palo, requested proposals to help plan the re-design of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. The changes were driven by the need to widen San Francisquito Creek and help mitigate flooding in several nearby cities.

Golf course architect Forrest Richardson, ASGCA, was selected from a field of 12 firms, having had extensive experience working in similar environments and with numerous municipalities throughout the western U.S.

Following planning and study with the SFCJPA and city, Richardson presented four options for reconfiguration. Each provided the flood control measures needed along with additional golf improvements in varying degrees of involvement. With significant deferred maintenance across the 18-hole course, Richardson’s team proposed design solutions that ranged in cost from $3 million to $5.5 million.

“The early approaches were baseline in nature,” said Richardson, the principal of Forrest Richardson & Associates. “We set the stage for the city to decide what level of overall course improvement they would approve in addition to relocating golf holes to allow room for a new levee and the wider creek.”

Refining the Designs

In 2012, the SFCJPA, after determining a threshold amount for the basic golf course impacts, assigned the balance of the design contract to the City of Palo Alto. Richardson now could refine the designs and work to determine the extent of course reconfiguration and enhancements.

“Land costs in Palo Alto are extraordinarily high, and you would be hard pressed to find larger parcels of vacant land near the main campuses of Facebook and Google, or within a few miles of Stanford University,” said Richardson.

The changes at Baylands were driven by the need to help mitigate flooding in nearby cities.


This reality set in motion a second look at the city’s options to see what possibilities might exist if the golf course was completely re-designed — and specifically whether it would be possible to set aside some land that could be used for future non-golf recreation needs in the city.

“We expanded the options to include six potential re-designs,” said Richardson. “Eventually we added a final ‘best approach’ plan that affectionately became known as ‘Plan G,’ and this is where we eventually headed.”

Plan G not only incorporated all of the flood control and golf enhancements, but it freed up 10.5 acres of land — potentially valued at $100 million or more on a commercial basis — that the city could earmark for recreation needs.

Richardson prepared refined plans and site concepts, demonstrating how the fully rebuilt course would take on an entirely new and fresh identity.

Also in 2012, the City Council engaged NGF Consulting to study the Peninsula/South Bay golf market and its potential to support a fully re-invented and rebranded 18-hole course in the heart of Silicon Valley — within 20 miles of San Jose and 30 miles of San Francisco. NGF put together 10-year financial potential statements for four different reconfiguration options, including Plan G, which was ultimately determined to be the preferred option from the perspective of both market impact and return-on-investment.

A Delayed Comeback

Following the NGF’s research and analysis, the City Council formally adopted Plan G in late 2013. The design team prepared final plans, obtained permits and began to move forward with one of the larger municipal golf projects in the U.S. over the last decade. However, navigating the State of California and Federal permitting process – one complicated by the relationship with the creek-widening project — resulted in a costly multi-year delay.

In 2016, NGF was brought back in to update pro formas and market position recommendations for Baylands. Projections showed annual play of about 70,000 rounds, and net operating income to the city of more than a $1 million annually once the facility reaches stabilized play. (For context, the former Palo Alto Muni — considered a flat, pedestrian layout by most avid golfers — generated more than 90,000 rounds a year throughout the 1990s and routinely threw off up to $1 million in net operating income to the City in its heyday. Even as recently as Fiscal Year 2011, the course generated NOI to the City of about $800,000).

Baylands Golf Links gives the South Bay region a high-quality, affordable public golf option.


Finally, in the fall of 2016 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued green lights to the city to re-build its golf course and make way for the much-needed flood protection in the community. Concurrently, the State of California issued a Water Quality Control Permit, opening the way for the creation of more wetlands and a golf course that would finally “fit in” within the city’s Baylands Preserve.

Construction commenced immediately after securing permits, in September 2016. Imported topsoil was used to create visual interest and better conditions across the once-flat site and also provided a revenue stream to offset costs, as the municipality was paid by Stanford to haul the dirt away from the campus’s construction projects.

Managed by national golf course operator OB Sports, Baylands Golf Links now offers area golfers a vastly improved experience and new views of San Francisco Bay.

Ultimately, the project provided many benefits, including:

  • Turf reduction of more than 40%
  • Turf replacement with drought-tolerant Paspalum grass
  • Water savings of as much as 50% and less potable water used
  • Importation of 1/2 million cubic yards of topsoil to improve soil quality and drainage, and to provide design interest
  • Creation of more than 10 acres of new wetlands and 35 acres of new native habitat
  • Rebuilding of the entire infrastructure of the course (irrigation, drainage and features)
  • Transformation of the golf asset so it would be compatible and in harmony with the Baylands Preserve in which it is located
  • Creation of a whole new brand, identity and golf experience with a links-style theme

“The design is links in nature, but equal emphasis should be placed on what we did to restore natural habitat, create new wetlands and plant a landscape that matches San Francisco Bay,” says Richardson.

Based on early returns from golfers who have had the good fortune to get a sneak peek of Baylands, it appears that the Bay Area has finally added a new “must-play” public golf destination.

Ed Getherall
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