Not even the best players would describe golf as being a simple game, but at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica the pursuit of it has moved well beyond eagles, birdies, pars, or bogies, and into another realm.

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"Any golfer who knows the game will know there was a fairway here," said golf historian Bo Links, as he trudged through the sand and ice plants that separate the course from a salt water wall and the Pacific Ocean. Bo could hardly contain himself while pointing to a map of the original layout designed by Alister MacKenzie. "The eighth ran right through here. See how the sand rises up? Those are the remains of a bunker. I couldn't believe it was still here."

MacKenzie designed Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, and Augusta National, among other famous courses. He is the Rembrandt of golf architects and arguably the best of all time. San Francisco commissioned MacKenzie to design Sharp Park -- which opened in 1932. "This golf course is the equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge in terms of architecture and what it represents. The challenge is to bring it back to its glory."

For now, Bo Links and others face an even more immediate one -- to keep the Sharp Park Golf Course in existence.

Last fall, an environmental group called The Center for Biological Diversity put San Francisco on notice and said it would sue if the city did not actively protect the Red Legged Frog and San Francisco Garter Snake. Both are endangered species.

"The golf course is not compatible with wetlands habitat," spokesman Jeff Miller told us last September, although records and old photographs show that Sharp Park was built originally on sand dunes and a salt marsh.

Miller declined to go on the record for this follow-up story. "You're doing a hit piece," he wrote later, via e-mail. "The San Francisco garter snake and the red legged frog exist there naturally, and existed in healthy numbers before the golf course. I gave you this information for your story, last time, and you chose to ignore it."

"The original name of this area was Salt Valley," said Links. "The frogs and snakes would not be here if not for the work that MacKenzie did. Golf and the environment are not enemies, they're friends."

Lately, it has not felt that way.

San Francisco owns and operates Sharp Park, which sits in San Mateo County. As owner, San Francisco could be liable for damages. One dead frog or snake could cost the city $20,000 in federal fines. That scenario prompted the Board of Supervisors to commission a study that is exploring options. As of mid-August, the report was overdue.

"It's not environmentalist versus golfer, or San Francisco versus Pacifica," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "This is about economics and moving forward to find the effective and responsible course of action, while we are subordinate to federal law."

The Endangered Species Act requires protection, no matter how a species came to an area. San Francisco's options include rebuilding the course, closing it, restoring the salty/brackish wetlands, or giving the land the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

"Why take out a golf course to restore a creature that did not exist there naturally?" ABC7 asked environmentalist Peter Brastow of Nature in The City, last September. "Well, because it exists here now and it is against federal law to kill it," he replied.

"I think it's a land grab," said Pacifica Mayor Julie Lancelle. "This is easy for them to give away. They want to look like they're involved in environmental protection and this is an opportunity to do that."

Public golfers from both San Francisco and San Mateo counties worry about losing their inexpensive place to play. "So now we have a landmark and they want to throw it away?" asked Juanita Mercado. "And for what? It's not even going to help the frogs."

Regardless, that remains debatable. Peter Brastow of Nature In The City supports the suit and prefers to see the course returned to natural conditions. He believes the creatures would survive in brackish water. "It was originally a coastal lagoon, not a salt water marsh," he said.

Nevertheless, not all environmental groups agree. Michael Ferreira, from the Sierra Club of San Mateo said, "The Red Legged Frog and San Francisco Garter Snake are fresh water species. Sometimes people get into advocacy and then the advocacy gets more important than the original idea. I get that feeling here."

Meantime, as San Francisco's politicians await their report and life goes on at Sharp Park -- much as it has for the past 77 years. Birds land, squirrels pose, foxes hunt, and golfers worry about a historic paradise in peril.

"If the city had a studio where DaVinci painted, or Mozart made music, or Michelangelo cut stone, they would never touch it," mused Bo Links. "It's a municipal course built by a master next to the ocean, where you can feel the salt air kiss your cheek while hitting a golf shot. You can't do that anywhere else. We need to preserve it."

STORY: Group sues to protect golf course frog

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