The end of an era at San Geronimo Golf Course

01/11/2018

The penultimate round of golf at the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course before its former owners closed shop began with a chance for a bogie on a long par four. Linksman Alex Franklin, of San Rafael, followed his shot as it landed perfectly in line with the nearby putting green. Now 26, Mr. Franklin has been playing the course since he was in middle school. Today his golfing partner is Ben Sorcher, a friend from Mill Valley and a freshman at Tam High School. 

They’ve known the course would close since the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution in November to authorize its purchase, putting an end to a golfing tradition that began when the course opened in 1967. But that hasn’t stopped wishful thinking.

“Someone should save it,” Mr. Sorcher said. “They should walk in with $5 million cash and throw it down!”

It was the final weekend of golf offered by the course’s owners since 2009: Robert Lee, a managing partner and co-owner along with two silent partners. Mr. Lee’s daughter, Jennifer Kim, has been operating the course as its executive director. She said her father’s first job after immigrating to the United States was working as a caddy there; after some success in real estate, he purchased the course with two partners. 

Ms. Kim said his goal was to eventually buy out the other partners to “carry on the legacy.” After one of the partners became ill, however, the push to sell increased. Ms. Kim said contrary to rumor, the course has been profitable and only operated in the red during winter months.

When the 158-acre property went onto the market last summer, it was quickly met with two interested buyers, one being the county. District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he proposed the idea to Marin County Parks because of the opportunity to preserve it as open space. The other written offer was higher than the county’s, but the buyer eventually backed out.

Recognizing the possibility of losing the property, the county recruited the Trust for Public Land to initially foot the $8.85 million bill, giving the county time to raise funds ($2.5 million of the price will come out of Measure A acquisition funds). There’s still hope an operator will take the lease and allow for continued golf as the county designs its plan over the next two years. 

The last weekend in December served as a wake of sorts for the storied golf course that opened 50 years ago. It was designed by A.V. Macan, a renowned golf course designer who produced dozens of courses throughout the Pacific Northwest and was impressed with the valley’s landscape. Speaking to the Marin Independent Journal in 1963, Mr. Macan said the property was “ideal in every respect. It is a perfectly natural site, a nice gentle terrain with a number of beautiful trees. This course will have a great deal of character and beauty and will be designed as a challenge for golfers of all capabilities.” 

The course would change ownership half a dozen times over its five-decade run. It was fallow for two years in the late 1980s while in between owners. Landscaper Robert Muir Graves renovated it in 1989; he increased the amount of sand traps from 12 to 20 and planted more trees to increase the course’s difficulty. 

The back nine holes were cherished for their access to nature, in particular birds, and the course attracted an array of local and regional golfers—according to Ms. Kim, everyone from “blue collared folks” who could play an afternoon round for $18 to a list of celebrity appearances: Bob Hope, Samuel L. Jackson and various athletes from the San Francisco 49ers, Giants and Golden State Warriors.

The clubhouse was the go-to spot before and after rounds for liquid offerings and chatter, but it also served as a venue for weddings, fundraisers and community events. The Heart of the Valley Gala, which commemorated community members, was held there and the course hosted the annual “Daggie” tournament fundraiser for KWMR.

To commemorate the course’s closure, a final tournament was held on Dec. 29. One hundred and forty-four golfers, a lively mix of a majority adult men, corralled outside the clubhouse before the shotgun start. And even though it was five o’clock only in Europe, that didn’t bar any golfers from enjoying libations and smokes at 9 a.m. 

Bob Farney, of San Rafael, has been golfing here about 75 times a year since 1991. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it closed by economic distress, but I’m very surprised by the Board of Supervisors snatching it up,” he said. (As the golfers gathered for a photo, there was chatter if Supervisor Rodoni was in the audience. “He wasn’t invited!” someone in the back yelled.)

The tournament used a blind bogey scramble format. Organizer Chris Bright, donning a distinctive purple hat embroidered with “San Geronimo National”—the original name of the course—explained the rules. 

Mr. Bright, the assistant general manager, began working for the course over 15 years ago. “I’ve survived three sets of owners and hopefully I’ll get to survive a fourth,” he said.

Requests for proposals to operate the course during the next two years as the county develops its plan for the property will be released after the closure of escrow, expected sometime this week. 

The county, failing to find an operator a first time around, is now offering to pay up $140,000 a year, the amount it said it would pay anyway to maintain the course. Josh Pettit, a former employee of the golf course who owns a golf consulting firm, said he knows of at least two companies that have expressed interest. 

In the meantime, the county has hired former San Geronimo Golf Course staff to maintain the property in a “golf-ready” state.

Dakota Balacqs, of Forest Knolls, stood by the golf carts during the final tournament with a cast on his arm. He brought his drone camera to capture the course, where he first played the game. “My buddies and I used to sneak onto the course over by the Lagunitas School to play a round. You can play six free holes on a good day,” he said. “Talk about beauty: this is the best course in Marin.”

He said when he was at Drake High School a few years ago, golf had little appeal to his peers, but he’s since seen a growth in the number of kids on the greens. 

Unaware of the tournament that day, a father and son from Woodacre were in the clubhouse hoping to grab a tee time, but had to schedule for the following day. Art Anderson from Woodacre said he was worried the property would be transformed into housing, but said he is happy the county is going to “shepherd” it. 

In regard to the lawsuit brought forth by 50 Marin residents against the county last month to halt the purchase on grounds that it violated the California Environmental Quality Act, Mr. Anderson called it a “red herring” and “BS.” 

His son Nate played the course with the Drake golf team, but also remembered it as a venue for teenage tomfoolery. He recalled a time when he and his friends evaded police after a night drinking and hitting balls near the school and how the garage that housed all the carts had a reputation for being easily broken into. “I think that’s what was cool about the golf course: there was a dash of lawlessness going on out here. I’m going to miss it,” he said.

As the tournament came to a close, Nick Whitney, of Inverness Park, finished with a triplet of under-par scores. He remembers when the course was being built (“I thought it looked boring at first, none of the pine trees had gone up,” he said) and is rallying to save it through the lawsuit. He said the course can be difficult, but, overall, it is fair—and its access to nature is unbeatable.

“Particularly on the back 9, there are some pretty holes,” Mr. Whitney said. “On the 14th hole, you look up at the canyon and it’s a pretty green surrounded by hills. It’s just lovely. Most golf courses I grew up playing don’t have that intrinsic beauty of fitting into the land.”