For a guy with an AARP card and knee replacement surgery in his immediate future, Doug Acton is bursting at the seems with enthusiasm for his latest gig: teaching professional at the Mill Valley Golf Course, our town’s gorgeous, 9-hole, 42-acre, par 33 golfers’ staple that opened for play 103 years ago and has a new lease on life after an infusion of both public and private investment.
Acton is a Santa Venetia native who learned to play golf on the Mill Valley course when he was 15, won the club championship and in 1978 won the Marin Tournament of Champions event, representing Mill Valley. A PGA Class A member, Acton was ranked in the top five in the Northern California Golf Association’s amateur circuit for three years and even went to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
Acton first took the reins in 2010, replacing Steve Yuhas, who retired after 26 years at the course. Acton was the concessionaire, upgrading many of the course facilities. He moved the check-in counter to make room for a larger golf shop in the middle and renovated the upstairs of the shop to make room for a long bar along the window surrounded by some tables and chairs and some flat-panel televisions.
Despite the upgrades and his enthusiasm, Acton left in 2014, as the golf course’s future was unclear with a dwindling user base and city officials unsure if they could justify additional investment while usage lagged. The city trimmed the golf course’s total operating expenses and eliminated the $12,000 annual subsidy of the golf concessionaire. Acton moved on to the Meadow Club in Fairfax.
In the intervening years, just about everything has changed at the Mill Valley Golf Course, and Acton is back. “I left my dream job in Mill Valley for my dream job at Meadow Club in Fairfax and then my dream job in Mill Valley,” he says. “I’m unbelievably fortunate.”
In early 2022, the City Council voted unanimously to approve an agreement with Touchstone Golf, a Bay Area golf course management company whose 40-course portfolio also includes the Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco, Tilden Park Golf Course in Berkeley and Lake Chabot in Oakland.
In addition to approving the agreement, the Council backed a plan to invest $1.7 million in the golf course over the next five years with both public and private capital investment, including $125,000 in private donations and another $575,000 in pending pledges, including support from the Mill Valley Friends of Parks & Recreation. The investments mark a significant boost for a golf course that had been operating at annual deficits of nearly $400,000 in the pre-pandemic years.
The private investment was driven by an ever-growing group of mostly local golfers – many of whom had more time on their hands by working from home during the pandemic and avoiding the commute – who couldn’t bare to see the course’s decline and decided to make the change they wanted to see at the course. Touchstone operates the course under direction from the city and receives a monthly fee of $4,000. If the course turns a profit, the city takes 75% and Touchstone 25%.
The course has been the source of quite a bit of momentum during the pandemic with both an uptick in play as many residents carved out time to hit the links since they were often working from home.
“The golf community stood up,” then-Mayor John McCauley said at the time. “If this golf facility is going to improve, it needs support from the golfing community, and that is happening. It’s been very impressive, and we have a vendor here who is very focused on making it a success, for both the golfer and non-golfer. We’ve got an asset here. This all hangs together very well with the public and private investment.”
Councilman Urban Carmel added that the proposal matches the way Mill Valley has struck public-private partnerships over the years on some of the community’s major assets, including the library, the community center, sports fields and private support for pubic schools.
Touchstone’s management of the site includes food and beverage service, landscape maintenance and course operations. The group also is responsible for personnel, marketing, accounting, payroll and tournaments, according to the city’s staff report. The agreement does not include the management or maintenance of the Mill Valley Golf Clubhouse, which will continue to be managed by the city’s recreation department.
Acton has synced up his impending knee replacement surgery with ongoing upgrades at the course in the aftermath of the onslaught of rain in recent weeks. “It dovetails nicely,” he says. “And there’s a lot of buzz and even exciting additions and improvements on the way.”
“It’s really a pleasure to be back here,” Acton says. “It’s my favorite place to hang. Returning to this course is like reconnecting with an old flame – she’s really got her stuff together and she’s still really cool.”