News & Opinion

Former teen stars shine again at Lake Merced 

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Hole No. 7 | Par 4. Named Mackenzie, after Alister Mackenzie, who redesigned Lake Merced in 1929. [Photo: Lake Merced Golf Club]

Lake Merced Golf Club is an unusual situation

DALY CITY, Calif. – Lake Merced Golf Club is an unusual situation. Located within that magical quadrant, just a mile or so inland off the Pacific near the San Francisco-Daly City border, it routinely gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbors Olympic, San Francisco and TPC Harding Park. But make no mistake: Lake Merced also is one of the top courses in California, and clearly one of the upper-echelon private clubs in the West.

But while other clubs of this caliber are often highly exclusive and elite, Lake Merced has an almost century-old mission and tradition of being particularly inclusive, liberal and diverse in its membership. Oh, these folks are well-heeled all right, but they also are keenly representative of the genuine diversity of San Francisco, be it race, religion or lifestyle choice. Local notables of various backgrounds have a long history of membership here  – among them, San Francisco Giants owners and players, a couple of world-renowned chefs and a noted TV actor. As the story goes, the late Ty Cobb, who retired to the Bay Area after his Hall of Fame baseball career, was asked to leave for not paying his bills.

Built in 1922, Lake Merced is very much a product of golf’s Golden Age of architecture; classic tree-lined, dark and lush, and seemingly forever permeated by a bone-chilling coastal air, punctuated by morning and late-afternoon fog, and sometimes vicious cold wind. It can be a brute. But it also has a deep heritage of supporting big-time amateur and professional golf. In 2012, Lake Merced served as the site for the U.S. Girls Junior. In past years, the USGA event launched the careers of Nancy Lopez and Amy Alcott, and it’s where Lexi Thompson and Christina Kim first came to national prominence. Regarded as somewhat of a predictor of future LPGA success, the Girls Junior was primarily an American thing until Inbee Park’s breakthrough victory in 2002. “We were treated so well, it was very professionally done,” Park said. “So that got me dreaming, Yeah, I want to play tournaments like this when I grow up.”

Finalists in the U.S. Girls Junior often graduate to the LPGA, but amateur success doesn't always translate. Certainly no one could have foreseen the phenomenal future stardom of the final four from that 2012 event at Lake Merced.

Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn are former No. 1s in the world rankings, with 22 LPGA victories between them. Minjee Lee, who defeated Alison Lee – they are not related – for the 2012 U.S. Girls Junior at Lake Merced, is a three-time winner on the LPGA. Although Alison Lee has yet to win on tour, she is a former Solheim Cup player who’s spent recent years juggling academics at UCLA with part-time play on the LPGA. 

Now in their early 20s, three out of the four returned to Lake Merced last week for the inaugural LPGA Mediheal Championship. Ko, Jutanugarn and Minjee Lee have established themselves as major figures on the women’s tour. On Sunday, Ko added to her list of accomplishments on the tour when she defeated Lee in a one-hole playoff to win the Mediheal title. In the downstairs lobby at Lake Merced, a wall of framed memorabilia includes a picture of Lee holding the Girls Junior trophy. “This place is always going to be special to me, always close to my heart,” Lee said. “It’s still my favorite course — still as good as I remember it.” 

But an even deeper love affair with Lake Merced has to be that of Lydia Ko, who won the Swinging Skirts LPGA tournament here twice — and also did TV commercials hanging with the Golden State Warriors and hitting golf balls at several of the city’s famed tourist spots.

“I love San Francisco,” she exclaimed on TV after her round on Saturday, some 24 hours before expanding her love affair with the city’s golf scene. “You know I’m a member here, so sometimes I get some friendly member bounces. Coming into the week, I knew that no matter how I was going to play, I was going to have a great time. The members and all the fans have been super supportive. I love coming back here.”

Ko and Minjee Lee keep permanent lockers at Lake Merced. Their sentiments about the course and the club were almost universally echoed by many of their colleagues. “I have good feelings here,” Jutanugarn said. “I like this course. Good memories here.” Alison Lee did not compete last week at Lake Merced, but she holds strong vibes from that U.S. Girls Junior and its aftermath.“It’s great that we’ve all been able to develop and grow together towards accomplishing our goals and dreams,” she said.

Ko, who has gone through swing, caddie and coaching changes in recent years, perhaps sums it up best. “I’m six years older,” she said. “That was one of my first experiences playing in the U.S. Now it’s my fifth year on tour. A lot has changed, but I’m hoping the inner me has not changed that much.” 

Barry Salberg, who is based in the Bay Area, has written about golf for such publications as Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Golfweek and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at salberg@hotmail.com.