2004: Reno

By Chris Lewis

Stateline, Nev.

Not long ago, a hot-shooting craps player followed a wee-hours, $15,000 run with an early morning round at Edgewood-Tahoe, the comeliest golf course in the Sierra Nevadas. A showoff, he insisted on marking his ball with a $5,000 chip. But between the ninth green and the 10th tee, the chip disappeared. After an hour on their hands and knees, he and his playing partners (whose pockets, of course, were thoroughly searched) concluded that it had been dropped, sank into the greenside rough and buried in the earth.

Blame it on post-streak delirium. Or on sleep deprivation. But it wouldn’t be wrong to attribute his gaffe to playing in one of the most distracting settings in golf.

Like the half-dozen other layouts surrounding Lake Tahoe, Edgewood is a naturalist’s dream. Majestic stands of ponderosa pine dominate the course, and breaks in the trees yield broad views of the Sierra’s perpetually white-capped mountain peaks. Apart from the flagsticks, playing Edgewood is like strolling through an Ansel Adams picture book.

Yet for all its charms, golf in the Reno-Tahoe region has for decades remained an unknown pleasure, its virtues as deeply hidden as that sunken chip. The culprit, of course, has been Las Vegas, its chief competitor for the golf-and-gaming tourism dollar. In the eyes of prospective visitors, Ansel Adams has typically been no match for Steve Wynn and his gilt-and-flash cohorts.

Slowly, that’s beginning to change. In the past three years, Reno-Tahoe golf vacationers have increased by 50 percent, with the regular stream of coastal Californians augmented by club-toters from around the country. It’s not hard to understand why. As a summertime destination, the Reno-Tahoe vs. Las Vegas square-off is a no contest. As opposed to its heat-seared southerly neighbor, Reno’s average summertime high temperature is in the low- to mid-80s, and it’s even cooler up at the lake and in the mountains that flank the city to the west.

Reno-Tahoe also trumps Vegas when it comes to outdoorsy pursuits. Its lakes afford top-tier sailing, windsurfing and water-skiing, and its rivers and streams are home to some of the hungriest fish in North America.

Most importantly, the region offers better golf. Yes, really. Although it boasts fewer courses, you’re never asked to put up with scrubby, target-golf cactus farms. Instead, there’s a variety of layouts, from wide-open high desert 18s to rugged, tree-lined mountain tracks to classic parkland courses. Las Vegas may have one or two flashier venues, but let’s face it: It’s hard to pretend you’re in Britain when it’s 108 degrees, and you’re not going to play Shadow Creek unless you press hundreds into palms the way Roosevelt did dimes. Plus, there’s the attraction of playing at altitude. Who can resist hulking up his or her driving distance by an effortless 10 percent or 20 percent?

About a dozen of the region’s courses, more than enough for a week’s worth of golf, are as much fun as drawing a face card on a doubled-down 11. But four in particular – Edgewood Tahoe, the Dragon at Gold Mountain, Squaw Creek and Coyote Moon – would be among the most highly regarded in the country if they weren’t secreted away in the mountains. Their merits alone make Reno-Tahoe one of the true glory spots in Western golf.

A different kind of buried treasure – namely silver – first attracted settlers to the Sierra Nevadas (and birthed Nevada’s nickname, the Silver State). When that boom went bust, a succession of morally lax enterprises ensured Reno’s economic health. It pioneered all of Nevada’s signature sins: legalized gambling, quickie marriages and divorces, and pay-for-play romance.

The best course in Reno proper is Lake Ridge, a 1979 Robert Trent Jones Jr. parkland design residing 10 easy minutes from the downtown casinos, and even fewer from the airport. A relaxed, homey place, it has a rare knack for making first-time visitors feel like they’re at their home club. It features one of the region’s toughest and most scenic holes, the 239-yard, par-3 15th, which drops 140 feet to an island green.

The truly great golf begins upmountain in the small towns of Truckee and Graeagle, Calif. Each is a formidable ride from Reno (30 and 50 miles, respectively); in fact, they’re comfortably across the California border. Savvy travelers will leave their lodgings in Reno and bunk in locally to ensure making their morning tee-times.

Graeagle is the best place in the region to play 36. Its two most inviting tracks, Whitehawk Ranch and the Dragon at Gold Mountain, are separated by only 10 minutes of roadway.

Whitehawk isn’t mountain golf. The wide-open Dick Bailey design rolls through an expansive meadow, and is one of the most bucolic layouts imaginable. It’s also among today’s rarest animals, a newish course (it’s 6 years old) that’s a joy to walk.

Its partner the Dragon is tucked away in a particularly enchanted portion of the Tahoe National Forest. Its clubhouse was born of blueprints drawn up in 1924 by Frank Lloyd Wright for an ill-fated project in Madison, Wisc. The Dragon’s owners purchased the plans in 1996. The roof they raised reaches skyward with five spires or “teepees” – tributes to Wisconsin’s Chippewa Indians – elaborately studded with brightly colored copper pegs. It may well be the most distinctive clubhouse in all of golf.

In light of that luxury and splendor, the Dragon’s golf course – designed by Robin Nelson, with a helping hand from local resident and LPGA great Patty Sheehan – is something of a shock. Severe from tee through green, it punishes each miscue as dramatically as a mispacked parachute (see related story, page 30).

The town of Truckee is most often associated with the Donner Party, whose winter of 1846 attempt to find a southwest passage to San Francisco ended in a gory fit of cannibalism. Pity they didn’t travel in June or August, when, then as now, nearby waterways teem with trout. And if they’d waited a century and a half, they would have found their path lined with six or seven golf course snack bars.

The region’s course development hotspot, Truckee will add another two or three courses over the next five years. But each will have a hard time bettering Coyote Moon. A miracle of mountain course design, it features big topography changes and lots of lateral movement, but is playable, and eminently enjoyable, for golfers of all skill levels. The fairways, less tightly treed than the Dragon’s, always provide room for misses. And because few greens are elevated, there is usually more than one approach-shot route to the hole.

Like the Dragon, Coyote Moon boasts some spectacular top-of-the-world scenery. But the aesthetics at ground level are more varied. Behind the green on the par-5 12th is an awe-inspiring field of glacial boulders, and on the 16th and 17th holes are crystalline ponds so vividly reflective that they seem fit for a mountain-dwelling Narcissus.

About halfway between Truckee and Lake Tahoe is Squaw Creek. Squaw first gained fame as host of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, and the Olympic cauldron still burns bright just outside the resort entrance. Driving onto the property, it’s easy to see why it was a perfect site for the Games: the valley floor, 400 acres, in entirely encircled by tall, sheer-faced mountains.

In summer, much of that valley floor is occupied by the resort’s Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course. Although relatively short – it maxes out at 6,931 yards – it’s more than a handful. Playing from the tips requires maneuvering your ball between dozens of snow-melt run-off rivulets. From the forward tees, though, the course is a walk in an exceedingly lovely park. The course’s relative uncrowdedness makes it ideal for meandering, late-afternoon rounds with the kids. And if they’re not interested in golf, they’ll be captivated by the hotel’s four-pool “watergarden.” Those pools are put to especially good use on summer evenings. Last year, for example, pint-sized guests and their parents enjoyed an outdoor screening of Disney’s “Finding Nemo” while splashing around in one of them.

Traveling from Squaw to Edgewood, located at Lake Tahoe’s southernmost tip, means taking on Tahoe’s 72-mile circumference. Driving the eastern shore, you’d pass right by Annika Sorenstam’s ski house in Incline Village. But even if you knew she was home, celebrity rubbernecking would in this case be inadvisable. Because Route 89, on the western shore, is not to be missed. Southbound, the road passes along long stretches of beach, then heads into the mountains for breathtaking lake vistas. On the passenger side, the cliff faces are so near that you can literally reach out and touch three small waterfalls. Near Emerald Bay (the filmic locale of the Corleone family compound in The Godfather II), the mountain road turns into a goat path that heads directly toward the lake, about 500 feet up. Nowhere else does a rental car feel so much like a helicopter.

The only problem with those views is that you can’t hit golf shots in their presence. And that, of course, is what Edgewood is for: its final three holes play right along the lake. The balance of the layout is sturdy enough. Built in 1968 by Tom Fazio’s uncle George, it played host to the 1985 US Senior Open to unequivocal rave reviews. Another testament to its challenges and charms: Members at San Francisco’s storied Olympic Club happily play the Edgewood men’s club in an annual home-and-home.

No course is perfect, and Edgewood’s bugbear is a pace-numbing, cartpaths-only rule that can be circumvented only one way: by hiring a caddie. That’s not a bad idea anyway, considering the local knowledge that comes into play, especially when the wind is up. The 18th, a 575-yard par 5, is a monster even in benign conditions. On my most recent trip, I borrowed a playing partner’s nonconforming driver and banged my tee ball out to position A-plus. Yet I still had 250 in to a 5-yard-wide finger of green, bordered on the right side by Lake Tahoe, and on the left by its little cousin, Lake Laimbeer. Attempting to channel that streaky gambler, I gave my 3-wood a mighty thump, but only wound up making Lake Laimbeer one ball richer. If only I’d had a caddie to blame. Then again, if I’d taken one, I’d probably have told him to stay at the turn to try to dig up that lost chip. I’ll have to find some way to pay for a return visit.

– Chris Lewis is a free-lance writer from Los Angeles.

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