The golf club

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For the better part of a century, San Francisco’s public golf courses have offered players relatively inexpensive rates, belying the view of some that this is an elitist sport incompatible with progressive civic governance. But since a botched revamp of the Harding Park course several years ago, golf operations have landed in the rough, siphoning large sums from city coffers every year. Now Mayor Gavin Newsom and his Recreation and Park Department claim that private businesses would do a better and cheaper job of running three of the city’s most valuable links.

Sup. Jake McGoldrick and other privatization opponents say outsourcing control of the Harding, Fleming, and Lincoln courses would inevitably lead to less access for the general public and higher costs. "A lot of folks don’t realize that the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the St. Francis Yacht Club are public assets that are now run as private membership clubs, elitist things," McGoldrick told the Guardian. "That’s certainly the way this could go."

McGoldrick has called for the formation of a Golf Course Task Force to explore nonprivatization solutions, including converting some of the courses into parks or open space, as the Neighborhood Parks Council has urged. On July 10 the Board of Supervisors will decide between McGoldrick’s plan and Rec and Park’s "hybrid management" resolution, which would award leases of 20 to 30 years for the courses. Political handicappers say the vote could go either way.

In addition to their concerns about prices and accessibility at privately run links, McGoldrick and others have serious reservations about who will run the courses if the mayor’s plan succeeds. No one we spoke with could name potential bidders with any certainty, but if the past is prologue, the choice is likely to involve political cronyism.

Golf advocate Sandy Tatum engineered the deal that turned Harding Park over to the management of Kemper Sports, which has been accused of overspending public funds and turning the course into a huge drain on the city treasury. Kemper also rents space to Tatum’s First Tee program. More recently, another nonprofit started by Tatum and former city attorney Louise Renne initiated and funded a study for Rec and Park that recommended more privatization by turning over courses to entities such as theirs.

The SF Weekly, which has run stories critical of the city’s golf privatization scheme, revealed a 1990s deal that privatized a city-owned course near Burlingame and, in what it deemed a corrupt selection process, handed control of the course to former Willie Brown staffer Tom Isaak.

In 2004, Tom Hsieh, one of Newsom’s key campaign consultants, submitted the sole bid for control of Gleneagles Golf Course in McLaren Park. Neither Hsieh nor his business partner, real estate investor Craig Lipton, had ever run a golf course before winning the contract for Gleneagles. But what really raised eyebrows around City Hall were the terms of the deal. Any lease of more than 10 years would have needed approval by the Board of Supervisors, so Hsieh and Lipton were given a nine-year contract.

"That was a very obvious and blatant end run around the contract requirements of the Board of Supervisors," McGoldrick told us. Hsieh, he went on to say, "is one of the mayor’s good buddies, and he got himself a nice contract out there."

Rec and Park spokesperson Rose Dennis defended the lease agreement with Hsieh, telling us, "At the end of the day, he legally got the concession. It wasn’t like it was put down to a nine[-year contract] to screw anybody. That would suggest a level of sophistication that Rec and Park just doesn’t have."

Reached for comment, Hsieh bristled at the suggestion that he landed the contract because of his ties to the mayor, writing in an e-mail that the mere suggestion was "a scurrilous attack motivated by politics." Hsieh did not answer our repeated requests for information about wage levels at the Gleneagles course and the number of groundskeepers employed there. McGoldrick and sources in the industry assert that one of the main ways private managers would make money from the other courses would be to reduce labor costs.

Sup. Sean Elsbernd, one of the privatization plan’s strongest backers, conceded that some past golf contracts have been "questionable," specifically in the case of Hsieh’s deal. But he said the supervisors would oversee the leasing process this time to avoid cronyism and the kind of spending excesses allegedly committed by Kemper Sports. They would also mandate that new managers continue to employ union employees.

Unlike the city, Elsbernd argued, private businesses could invest large sums of money in rehabilitating the courses, especially Lincoln. "When it gets that kind of [cash] infusion," Elsbernd said, the course "is going to see a turnaround in revenue so that you can actually justify charging higher fees."

That is exactly the kind of scenario privatization foes fear: more exclusive golf courses on public land that raise greens fees beyond ordinary people’s means. "These courses are untapped gold mines," said golf instructor, former pro, and activist Justin Hetsler, who has formed a nonprofit group, Golf San Francisco, to lobby against the mayor’s plan. "But every penny spent at the courses should go back into them, not into someone’s pocket as profit." As for capital improvements, Hetsler, who also works as an accountant, argued, "The courses’ future revenue streams can secure credit for improvements. That does not require privatization."

For McGoldrick, this debate is about far more than golf courses. "I don’t even play golf," he told us. The push to outsource control of the links, he said, reflects a larger philosophical battle about what to do with publicly owned resources. "The mayor is a pro-privatization kind of guy. That’s his MO…. We’re seeing this happen all over the place, not just San Francisco. But for me, it’s just painful to watch city assets [be] given away. It really kicks me in the gut." *