Lake Tahoe: Warming trend

LAKE TAHOE, Nev. – The prettiest shots on “The Haney Project,” Golf Channel’s tragi-comic reality show, don’t fly off Charles Barkley’s club face. They appear in the backdrop of the opening credits, as Haney’s hapless student hacks his way around a tree-lined layout, duck-hooking drives into astounded crowds.

Sensitive viewers might avert their eyes if not for the grandeur of the surroundings: the sugar pines straddling pristine fairways; the crystalline waters, ringed by mountains, of the Sierra Nevada’s largest lake.

The scenery comes courtesy of Edgewood-Tahoe Golf Course, a top-flight public course in South Lake Tahoe that plays host to the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, a showcase of famous and infamous swings. Featuring the likes of Barkley, Lawrence Taylor and assorted luminaries who actually manage to get balls airborne, the tournament marks its 20th anniversary this summer. But Edgewood has been a star for twice that long.

When George Fazio (Tom’s uncle) unveiled the course in 1968, he had nature’s majesty working in his favor. What he didn’t have was competition. This mountainous region, which rises along the California-Nevada border, was hard-core ski country. People came to shush and slalom, not to shank and slice. In the summer, there was boating, back-country hiking and blackjack at casinos that overlooked the lake. But if a good walk spoiled was your idea of a wilderness excursion, Edgewood was your destination. Aside from a nearby course in Incline Village, there wasn’t much else.

Fast-forward to the present. Edgewood remains a marquee venue, but the landscape around it has been transformed.

Seizing on the drama of the terrain, architects have carved fresh trails through pine trees, shaped by swales and mounds instead of moguls, and serviced by carts instead of lifts. Conceived by headline names such as Nicklaus and Miller, the layouts are part of a cluster of new courses that stretches from Tahoe to the mountain town of Truckee, Calif., then down into the flats of Reno, where the snow falls lighter and the fairways are playable year-round. Artistic in their designs and postcard-worthy in their settings, the layouts rank among the finest collection of mountain courses in the country. Playing them is proof that the region has achieved what Sir Charles hasn’t: It has gracefully adopted a second sport.

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“My feeling is that when you’re building a mountain course, you don’t have to add a lot of bells and whistles,” said Brad Bell, a former Tour player turned golf architect. “You can find the ‘wow’ factor right there in the land.”

He was alluding to his layout at Coyote Moon, which sits less than a mile from downtown Truckee, in a restful atmosphere of alpine remove. Tucked amid the trees, and untainted by houses, the course, which opened in 2000, feels entirely in sync with its surroundings. With 200 acres at his disposal and no real estate to crowd him, Bell was afforded a rare degree of freedom. Rather than impose himself on the landscape, he opted to roll easily with the terrain.

From the opening hole, a relaxed and reachable uphill par 5, Bell lets the layout lilt, ambling past creeks and rock outcrops, with views of distant peaks that beg for picture-taking from several tees. The sequence of the holes feels natural, unrushed, but their drama – and their difficulty – build on the back nine, with the par-5 12th, which swoops uphill to a green backed by boulders; and the 227-yard 13th, a nose-bleed par 3 that plummets like a bungee jumper, 200-feet plus, to a buckled green fronted by a stone-strewn creek. Club selection, always tricky on steep downhill approaches, is further complicated by the thin air of Truckee, which sits at an altitude of 6,000 feet and adds roughly 10 percent of distance to the average sea-level shot.

“When I was playing on Tour, I wasn’t crazy about those kind of holes because they involved a fair amount of guesswork,” Bell said. “But the land gave me an opportunity to create a memorable moment, and the 13th is one of those holes that people remember, even if they’d rather forget their score.”

On the drive into Truckee along Interstate 80, travelers blur by signs for Donner Pass, a macabre landmark of pioneer hardship. It was here, in winter 1846, that the Donner party, a band of wagoneers on their way to California, became snowbound and so desperate that some members of the group turned to cannibalism. Nowadays, the mountains offer better things to eat.

Downtown Truckee, once a sleepy turnout on the road to somewhere else, has evolved into a tony commercial district, with chic bakeries, trendy burger joints, even a shop that hawks gourmet snacks for dogs. Among the best-loved spots for bipeds is Moody’s Bistro and Lounge, a sophisticated but unpretentious restaurant that occupies what used to be a railroad depot.

The chef and co-owner is Mark Estee, an East Coast transplant who lit out for San Francisco 20 years ago and, unlike the Donners, stopped short in the Sierra of his own free will.

“When I first got here, the region was pretty much a one-trick pony, with a lot of skiing and not much else,” Estee said. “Now it’s a four-season destination, and a lot of that is thanks to golf.”

It was early afternoon, and after wrapping up a round at Coyote Moon, Estee had rumbled across town for a second 18 at Old Greenwood, a stellar design that was christened by Jack Nicklaus in 2004. When the Bear went into the mountains, this is what he built: a demanding layout that curls through a conifer-covered valley, bejeweled with sapphire-colored lakes. Gentle shifts in elevation tilt some of the fairways into subtle bunny slopes, but there’s no goofy stuff, and from the tips, the course is pure black-diamond, a 7,518-yard test with glassy greens and landing areas pinched by water hazards.

Estee, who’d wisely opted for the blue tees, opened bogey-bogey and had no one but himself to blame. Old Greenwood keeps itself in spit-shined condition. Its attentive grooming and upscale amenities, which include a golf academy and stylish modern cabins available for rent, are reminiscent of a private club, which, as it happens, has been an emerging trend around Truckee, too.

The newest arrival is Timilick, a Johnny Miller design that opened last year as member-only but, in a concession to the economic downturn, will be available for “promotional” play this summer – a fancy way of saying that the public can tee it up after 10 a.m. The back-nine alone is worth the $140 green fee – a rollicking stretch with roller-coaster greens and Sierra panoramics that imprint themselves indelibly in your mind.

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If there’s a downside to golf in the Sierra, it’s the short season. Most courses don’t plant their flags until mid-May and remove them several weeks before Thanksgiving, just as skiers start to wax their Rossignols.

It’s then that Reno looms as even more appealing. The self-proclaimed “Biggest Little City in the World” sits at the eastern base of the mountains, a half-hour shot from Truckee and below the snow. Stigmatized for years with a seedy reputation, Reno has grown trendy, a popular new home for uprooted Californians seeking an active, outdoor lifestyle but fed up with the high prices of their former state.

Tour veteran Scott McCarron, a Sacramento native, is the most notable golfer to migrate east over the mountains. He wanted to be closer to his wife’s family, but, his agent told reporters in 2005, Nevada’s income-tax-free status also didn’t hurt.

McCarron plays out of Montreux, a private retreat nestled in the foothills. But Reno is a jackpot for Joe Public, with impressive quality at a modest cost. Among the standouts are Wolf Run, the home course of the University of Nevada’s men’s and women’s golf teams; D’Andrea, a Keith Foster design with beguiling greens and holes that wend their way around high-desert canyons; and the Lakes course at the Resort at Red Hawk, which Robert Trent Jones Jr. shaped through a landscape reminiscent of the frontier West. Think giant cottonwoods, creeks sprouting cattails and flagsticks framed against an endless sky.

Gambling is rarely a good value, and Reno is no exception. But at least the casinos have been upgraded. The Grand Sierra Resort, fresh from $90 million in renovations, now features Charlie Palmer Steak, Reno’s first celebrity restaurant. And the Peppermill, a local icon, recently unveiled a $400 million expansion, with Tuscan-themed suites that provide a soothing setting to sleep off your losses.

Higher up in the Sierra, there’s more golf and gaming where Edgewood’s fairways stretch astride the mini-Vegas Strip of South Lake Tahoe. By his own account, Charles Barkley has indulged here in some epic bouts of blackjack. But word is that he’s trying to give up gambling.

The golf world will be watching to see whether he can break his other bad habits when the celebrity tournament returns to Edgewood in July.

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Spotlight: Lake Tahoe

>> Coyote Moon – 530-587-0886, coyotemoongolf.com

>> D’Andrea – 775-331-6363, dandreagolf.com

>> Edgewood-Tahoe – 775-588-3566, edgewoodtahoe.com

>> Old Greenwood – 530-550-7010, oldgreenwood.com

>> The Resort at Red Hawk – 775-626-6000, resortatredhawk.com

>> Timilick – 530-587-9909, timilick.com

>> White Hawk Ranch – 530-836-0394, golfwhitehawk.com

>> Wolf Run – 775-851-3301, wolfrungolfclub.com

– Josh Sens is a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif.

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