Slump over? Tahoe back on the map

No. 18 at Gray's Crossing

No. 18 at Gray's Crossing

TRUCKEE, Calif. - Almost from the day it opened in 1998, the course had the makings of a dark, medieval legend, with a fearsome reputation and a foreboding name.

“Send me your heroes” was the slogan at The Dragon, a fire-breathing layout that stretched 7,000-plus yards through the Sierra Nevada and tipped out at a slope of 147.

Countless knights in collared shirts drove the hour north from Lake Tahoe to accept the challenge, only to fall meekly on their blades.

It was good sport while it lasted.

But a course can claim only so many victims before no one is left standing with the will to take it on.

As time went by, play at The Dragon slowed, and management disharmony compounded problems. In 2006, a beast that had feasted on a thousand brave foot soldiers – and swallowed at least that many Pro V1s – died a quiet death.

Four years passed.

Then, last summer, like a creature from a fable, The Dragon stirred once more. New owners from Tucson, Ariz., revived the club, and set about refurbishing its reputation. For the 2011 season, they removed trees and bunkers, cleared out underbrush and let the rough grow shaggy in select places to prevent wayward shots from bounding into oblivion.

Though The Dragon still has plenty of teeth and claws – forced carries abound, and ravines loom like Mordor astride many of its fairways – it no longer swipes and gnashes with the same fury.

According to general manager Jim Mitchell, the new motto for the course might as well be “Tame The Dragon” because average players now have a fighting chance.

“We’re not a pasture, and we never will be,” Mitchell says. “But if you stay within your ability and don’t feel like you need to hit driver on every hole, you’re going to find it to be a very fair test.”

Modest green fees testify to the fact that The Dragon has awakened to a world transformed. Having enjoyed a golf boom in the early 2000s, the Tahoe region then endured a bust that left behind a glut of A-list courses. In the new economy, public tracks have bent over backward to accommodate all comers, while a number of private courses, feeling the squeeze, have availed themselves to limited public play.

Take Gray’s Crossing and Schaffer’s Mill, both in Truckee, the high-elevation city near Lake Tahoe that is home to a Murderer’s Row of marquee layouts. The former, a Peter Jacobsen/Jim Hardy design, launched as members-only in 2007 but morphed into a resort course in 2010, operated in conjunction with its sister track, Old Greenwood, a Jack Nicklaus layout 10 minutes away. Last year, the slick greens and sylvan fairways at Gray’s Crossing welcomed 14,000 rounds of outside play.

At Schaffer’s Mill, meanwhile, the gates also have opened, albeit just a crack. When it debuted four years ago, the club, then known as Timilick, preserved its pristine grounds for a handful of members, who counted themselves among the lucky few. Johnny Miller and

Jim Harbottle dreamed up the layout, and it’s an alpine stunner: a mountain course that doesn’t feel as if it were built by a yeti or a yak.

The front nine curls through a pine-shaded valley before rising on the backside into thinner air. The vistas are astounding, with snow-capped peaks ringing the horizon, like an Ansel Adams catalog sprung to life. Though several holes reach dramatic altitudes, elevation changes are handled with aplomb. When the course shifts up or downhill, it does so with good reason, as on the par-4 17th, which plummets from the tee to a canted fairway and features a testy approach over a lake.

In architectural terms, the club could not have done much better. Its timing, however, couldn’t have been worse. Launched just before the downturn, Timilick failed to muster the necessary members. The club fell into receivership and was acquired by new owners, who changed its name to Schaffer’s Mill – honoring a 19th-century Truckee lumberman – and spruced up the property’s unfinished amenities.

In its current incarnation, Schaffer’s Mill allows public play every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (through September) – a limited window that may not stay open long. As membership increases, tee times for the public will decrease, until Schaffer’s Mill can go back to being a private club.

How quickly this will happen depends largely on the market. But, says Ben Keilholtz of Blue Star Resort & Golf, which manages the club, “If you’re not a member, I wouldn’t make any plans here for 2013.”

From its epicenter around Truckee, the Sierra golf explosion (and sub-sequent contraction) rippled north across the mountains into Plumas County, where established courses such as Whitehawk Ranch and Graeagle lie within a short shot of tenuously timed newcomers such as Grizzly Ranch, another private club that has been forced to adapt to a stingy climate.

Opened in 2005, Grizzly Ranch reached its peak with 106 members, but that number has since dwindled by a little more than half. In 2008, public play was welcomed every afternoon; in 2009, that access was expanded to any time after 10 a.m.

Despite increased public play, the rollicking Bob Cupp layout remains a tranquil place, where deer sightings are more common than encounters with other foursomes. Bobcats and black bears make cameos, too. Though housing is central to the Grizzly Ranch plan, what little has been built stands far from the fairways, leaving the course to twist and turn through an unspoiled landscape of cedar trees and ponderosa pines.

“It’s the full mountain experience,” says general manager Rob Young.

A similar claim could be made about The Dragon, a 15-minute drive from Grizzly Ranch. Its distinctive clubhouse, with a roof that rises into conical peaks, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, while its distinctive course was designed by Robin Nelson, whose most sadistic brushstrokes have been erased.

On the vertiginous, par-5 first hole, for instance, a narrow chute of trees that guards the green has been widened on the right, allowing for a layup when there once appeared to be none. On the par-3 fifth, a thread-the-needle test with a ravine on the left and bunkers on the right, a fronting bunker has been removed, while on the par-4 12th, a funhouse green has been replaced with a more-reasonable two-tiered surface.

In the course of 18 holes here, you’re still bound to get some flesh wounds. But the pleasure of the round far outweighs its pain. Gone are the days when The Dragon beckoned heroes. All it wants now are enthusiastic golfers.

The legend has died, and it has been replaced by something real.

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

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