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The opening hole at Tilden Park.
In a twist on our usual Muni Mondays series, we bring you Muni Mondays, Superlative Edition, wherein we ask the question: what’s the hardest opening hole in municipal golf?
The par-4 1st at Torrey Pines South deserves consideration. It has been a bear in a pair of U.S. Opens.
Its counterpart at Bethpage Black — yeah, the one with the sign — is no slouch, either, while the opener at Bethpage Red is probably tougher still.
Across the pond, the Old Course at St. Andrews merits mention, not because its 1st hole is long or narrow but because it is the 1st hole at the Old Course—the granddaddy of all munis, nervy ground, as prime a place as any to freeze or flinch.
Surely, there are others, but we haven’t got all day, so let’s cast ballots.
Mark me down for “none of the above.”
My vote goes instead to the opening hole at a sylvan layout in the hills just above the UC Berkeley campus, where Collin Morikawa and Max Homa went to school.
In nearly every way that matters, Tilden Park Golf Course is a welcoming place: friendly staff, modest prices, good burgers and beer. But its par-4 1st is not what you would call a gentle handshake. It’s more like a swift kick in the teeth.
On the scorecard, it measures 410 yards, which tells you next to nothing about how it really plays. To picture that, it helps to have an image of the course itself, a William Bell design that first opened to the public in 1937. The routing runs through a wooded landscape of conifers and eucalyptus on a property shaped like a tilted serving bowl, with one side of its rim steeper and more elevated than the other. The first hole takes on the brunt of that incline, climbing straight from the shadow of the clubhouse to a high point on the course. It’s a big ascent, serious enough that whatever club you’re thinking for your approach, I guarantee you should be thinking more.
One brave group makes the ascent up No. 1 at Tilden Park.
Even then, I’m willing to wager you won’t end up long.
Is it a great hole?
A design nerd wouldn’t say so.
But it serves a crucial purpose, like a rollercoaster chugging up, up, up to put you in position for an entertaining ride.
When I started playing Tilden some 30 years ago, the staff relied on a feedback-crackled PA system to summon groups to the first tee. The loudspeaker announcements were meant to keep things moving. But in my case, they only added to the pressure of an already imposing opening shot. I blame that on a buddy who worked the pro shop, a wise aleck who, anytime he saw me getting ready to hit, would grab the microphone and broadcast this introduction: “Now on the first tee, the reigning California State Amateur champion…”
Sure enough, golfers would rush over from the putting green and parking lot to watch me heel one into the trees.
In those days, one of my regular playing partners was another golf-mad friend, my Berkeley classmate Damon Hack, a sportswriting star-in-the-making who now co-hosts a show on Golf Channel. After decades in the industry, Damon has endured a lifetime’s worth of ribbing about his surname. I’m pretty sure that grief-giving began at Tilden.
“Hack twosome on the tee!” was another of my pro shop buddy’s favorite announcements, with an emphasis on ‘hack’ to underscore his point.
First-hole punishments aside, Tilden always made for a sweet place to spend the day, the air pine-scented, the scenery unspoiled, the tree-lined fairways splashed with dappled light. It also posed a compelling test, with some nifty green complexes and creeks that cut strategically here and there.
A daunting look up Tilden Park’s first.
Though I still live in the area, it’s been a while since I’ve been back to play it, but earlier this week, in a spasm of nostalgia, I rang up my old partner to rehash some history.
“Tilden!” Damon said, when I brought up the topic.
And off we went down memory lane.
We talked about our rounds there, laughed about those cheeky PA introductions, marveled at how quickly so many years had passed.
Time plays tricks, and part of me was doubting my own recollections. Was the 1st hole at Tilden really all that tough? Maybe I was blowing it out of proportion.
“How about that opener?” I asked Damon.
“How could I forget it?” he said, not un-fondly. “Hardest par-7 I ever played.”
This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to email@example.com and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.
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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.
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