Their beloved California muni was dying. They resolved to save it

The owners of Skylinks at Buchanan Fields near San Francisco.

Among many improvements at Buchanan Fields, Micky Dodge (left) and Robett Hollis added a new ball machine.

Josh Sens

“You’ve come on a good day. We finally got a ball machine,” Robett Hollis says.

It’s mid-morning, mid-week at the California muni he helped salvage, and Hollis is sitting in a freshly cleaned-up clubhouse, gazing out the window at the driving range.

In a newly painted stall, an older man in blue jeans is smacking new balls off new mats toward newly installed targets in the near distance. As he hits, a newly repaired vehicle rolls past.

“And look,” Hollis says. “We also got the sand-spreader fixed.” The four-wheeler towing it is finally working, too. 

“That’s three items off the check list. Only twelve-hundred more to go.”

He means that literally. In the six months since he and his buddy, Micky Dodge, took over operations at Skylinks at Buchanan Fields, a flat expanse of green next door to a small airport in the subdivisions east of San Francisco, Hollis has kept a ledger of to-dos. Repair the clubhouse roof. Reopen the restaurant. Renovate the bunkers. Complete the cart paths. The exhaustive spreadsheet speaks to the dizzying demands of running a golf course as well as to the downsides of decades of neglect.

A local institution (most golfers in the area just call it “Buchanan”) with a 9-hole routing designed by Robert Muir Graves, Buchanan Fields has been around for nearly 70 years, the last 20 of which have been rough. For whatever reason (lack of time, money, energy, interest), the prior lease-holders let the place drift into suspended animation. When Hollis and Dodge bought them out, last October, the course had no website and no online bookings. Tee times were taken over a land line and scribbled down in pencil. Buckets of ancient range balls were filled by hand. At a course that catered largely to seniors, there was one working golf cart, a gas-powered buggy from the 1980s; players called in advance to reserve it.

A golfer takes a swing at Skylinks at Buchanan Fields, where big changes are underway. Josh Sens

Still, a group of hard-core customers stayed loyal, Hollis and Dodge among them.

“It was like a bad relationship,” Hollis says. “The worse you felt you were being treated, the more devoted you became.”

In their high school yearbooks, neither Hollis nor Dodge would have been voted “Most Likely to Someday Run a Muni.” A Bay Area native, Dodge, 37, is a certified electrician who worked for years in race-car pit crews. Hollis, 38, is a New Zealander who first came to California in the early 2000s to compete as a professional snowboarder. He founded two businesses in his home country (a media company and a co-working operation) before meeting his now wife, Angela, and settling down in the East Bay.

Connected through family in their early 20s, Hollis and Dodge started playing golf together at Buchanan. As Hollis recounts it, some 15 years ago, they were standing on the par-3 6th hole, clubs and beers in hand, when they said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be cool to own this place someday?”

It wasn’t just the booze talking, because now they do.

When they took the reins, they did so with a self-imposed mandate: “make things 1 percent better every day.” Nearly everywhere they turned, there was room for improvement. The clubhouse needed painting. The mats on the range were curled and tattered. The practice balls looked like archeological finds. The newest piece of machinery was a mower that, Hollis says, “had the equivalent of 387,000 miles on it.” Course conditions were on par with the rest of the place.

Where to start was the question. Good thing they had family involved. Dodge’s mom, Mary, came aboard to work the pro shop and back-of-the-house operations. His dad, Chris, a veteran mechanic, assumed control in the maintenance shed, which was a dystopian warehouse of rusted and rat-gnawed equipment. The first machine he repaired was the range picker, before turning to a graveyard of busted mowers and carts.

A before (left) and after look at Buchanan since the new owners took over. Courtesy photo

Community involvement came in handy, too. Local volunteers dropped by to paint fresh murals in the hitting bays. A longtime regular replaced the cracked glass on the clubhouse door for free.

Hollis and Dodge, meanwhile, busied themselves with incremental progress. They acquired new carts and installed new mats and lights on the range, which now stays open until 10 p.m. They bought 60,000 new range balls, though thousands of them soon went missing, buried in mounds left behind by ground squirrels or lodged inches-deep in rain-softened turf.

“It’s like Whack-a-Mole,” Hollis says. “You knock down one problem, and another pops up.”

With input from consultants, upgrades to the course have been made as well. New markers on the tees, new flags in the cups, a new topdressing program for the greens.

For all the tasks that remain undone, new management’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“I believe in what these guys are doing,” says Scott Jones, a longtime Buchanan golfer who recently signed on as a volunteer marshal. “Already, it’s like night and day.”

But also many moons from being done. Having moved on from the clubhouse, Hollis is now touring the facility on foot. Along with his spread sheet, he keeps a mental checklist. The clubhouse roof is leaky. The restaurant is still closed, with a taco truck filling in for now. The cart path is an interrupted concrete ribbon that services less than half of the course.

Buchanan co-owner Robett Hollis looks on at the range. Josh Sens

As Hollis strolls about, a small plane wings in overhead. The adjacent airport, Hollis notes, is an important neighbor, and plans are in the works to appeal to passengers and pilots with special offers.

“You know, drop by for a burger and beer kind of thing,” Hollis says.

He ambles by the range, where Steve Ross, a dungaree-clad military veteran who’s been playing at Buchanan for 50 years, has just filled a bucket from the new ball machine.

“It used to be mostly old-timers like me out here,” Ross says. “But I can already tell they’re drawing a younger crowd.”

It’s a larger crowd, for sure. The parking lot is packed. The hitting bays are busy.

“We don’t see this as a golf club so much as a community club,” Hollis says. “We know we’re not Pebble Beach. And we’re not trying to be that. We want to be that place where you come by, hits some balls, play nine holes, have a good time with your friends and family. A place where everyone is welcome.”

In the clubhouse, he and Dodge have pasted dozens of Post-it notes on a giant whiteboard, with messages that further document their ambitions. “Fix bunkers.” “Practice sand trap.” “Membership plans.” “Craft local beer and wine.” Not to mention senior discounts. Ladies’ night. Tuesday league play. The list goes on, but they’ve got time.

“We’re here for the long haul,” Hollis says. “This course has been around for 70 years. We want to make sure it stays around for 70 more.”

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