Friday, February 16, 2007

No dancing fountains. No Siegfried and Roy. No fake Roman centurions or Parisian boulevardiers parading around the casino floors.

When it comes to spectacle, Reno breaks no banks. That's the reason most people think of it simply as that gambling town in Nevada that's not Las Vegas.

But Reno's not without its charms. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who required craps tables full of sedatives to withstand Vegas's sensory onslaught, once described Reno as a "mom and pop shop."

He meant it as a compliment: Reno has always been homey and hospitable. That's why the slogan "Biggest Little City in the World" is emblazoned on the arch overhanging Virginia Street, downtown Reno's main drag.

Reno's relaxed, neighborly feel isn't its only advantage. Compared to its more brightly-lit southern neighbor 450 miles away, it's refreshingly undercrowded.

Its climate is easily more agreeable, especially in summertime, when it's vastly cooler, and actually provides some humidity along with its air.

It also possesses an attraction the likes of which most other vacation destinations can only dream about: nearby Lake Tahoe, with 72 miles of shoreline, is a four-season paradise for all kinds of recreation, from swimming to boating to skiing.

Perhaps most important to the golf-and-gaming traveler is the fact that clubs has recently become Reno's favorite suit.

Since the mid-1980s, the sixty miles surrounding Reno (and encompassing Lake Tahoe) have sprouted 35 or so new courses.

They include linksy, high desert eighteens, densely-pined mountain layouts, and everything in between. There are specimen from all the top designers, as well as some of the country's brightest new architectural stars.

As a bonus, greens fees are relatively low, reinforcing Reno's longstanding reputation for affordable getaways. For the best bargains, scan the courses' and casinos' websites, as well as the region's golf tourism clearinghouse, www.golfthehighsierra.com.

If golfing in the greater Reno-Tahoe area has a downside, it's driving -- you'll do plenty of it. Many of its best new courses, located west of the city along old Sierra mountain passes near Truckee and Graeagle, are an hour or so away. And it takes just as long to drive up to the lake to play the region's old standbys, Incline Village and Edgewood at Tahoe.

A cynic might even say that the dash on a map connecting Reno and Tahoe actually represents fifty miles of folded-up blacktop. But for visitors willing to make the automotive commitment, the pairing makes for one of the best golf destinations in the West.

In the immediate Reno vicinity, there are a number of courses entertaining enough to satisfy any short-term visitor.

Wolf Run, home course for the University of Nevada-Reno golf team, is fun and birdie-friendly, and boasts a neat gimmick: a bet-settling par-three, 100-yard 19th hole shaped like the paw of the college mascot.

Red Hawk, a newish Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design on the high desert tableland a few miles northeast of the city, features lots of topographic and visual movement, and couples brutal par-threes with birdieable par fives.

The most inviting local track, though, is Lake Ridge. Ten traffic-free minutes from downtown, the 1971 Trent Jones, Sr. layout is the course of choice for duffers in town for a quick visit (or to play a concert, for instance -- the day I visited, two of the Backstreet Boys were out for a round).

Its coziness and straightforwardness make it an ideal place for the kind of easygoing round where smiles and conversation are more important than posting a number.

That's not to say it's a pushover: many holes demand exact shotmaking, most notably the spectacularly difficult yet breathtaking 15th.

The 239-yard (from the tips) par-three, whose tee box sits close to 130 feet above a squirrelly island green, is also something of a golf landmark: built in 1972, it predates some more famous cousins like the 14th at Coeur D'Alene and the 17th at Sawgrass.

Standing on the tee of the spectacular par-three 15th at Lake Ridge will get you big views of Reno's casinos, not to mention the city's best golf photo-op.

Carson City, the state capital, is thirty miles south of Reno. The best of its courses is Dayton Valley, a Palmer/Seay design that has hosted the region's PGA Tour Q-School Qualifier for each of the past seven years.

The next best is Genoa Lakes, the kind of attractive, well-maintained, and eminently playable layout you'd play once a week if you lived nearby.

But the region's true glory courses require a trip upmountain-more specifically, into the majestic Sierras flanking the city to its west.

Here reside three distinct golf hotspots: Truckee, Graeagle, and Lake Tahoe itself, each of which boasts at least two courses worthy of a visit.

Because they're far from Reno proper, visiting them requires a little forethought.

Indeed, the best approach may be to pack up, leave Reno, and stay at an hotel closer by, or dedicate at least a full day to one of the three areas and plan a 36-hole field trip.

More practically, it's wise to remember that most mountain courses are open only from May to October.

During the summer months, it's a good idea to phone ahead for reservations, especially at the courses surrounding Lake Tahoe.

Still, that doesn't necessarily mean that summer is the best time to play them. During the so-called shoulder seasons -- the first and last two months of their annual schedules -- these courses are delightfully empty.

Toward autumn, they're also astoundingly beautiful. In late afternoon, the skies paint themselves in rich roses and oranges, and are as spectacular as any of the lights downtown.

Graeagle is the farthest-flung of the three mountain hotspots. But two of the courses there will make the trek well worthwhile.

Five-year-old Whitehawk Ranch has quickly become a favorite among the locals, and it's easy to see why. For mid- to high-handicappers, it's delightfully user-friendly. Fairway landing areas are spacious, and the approaches are unintimidating.

The greens are mildly sloped, and almost impossible to three-putt. The back tees, though, turn it into an entirely different golf course. Easy tee shots suddenly become dicey risk-reward situations, and approaches start to require quick-stopping long-and mid-irons.

Ultimately, Whitehawk's principal charms are aesthetic. Laid out on a rare flattish parcel of upmountain land, the course is a joy to walk, not least because up-and-coming designer Dick Bailey has a gift for building into picturesque natural settings.

Its tree-lined holes wander over and around two ever-present creeks: it's hard to play a shot without one of them gurgling away in the background.

The Dragon at Gold Mountain, Graeagle's other must-play venue, abides by a very different golf philosophy.

Testing from any tee, it may in fact be too much for golfers not at the very top of their games. Many holes require surgically-placed tee balls, and every approach shot on the course is a lip-biter.

Around the pin positions on its exceedingly quick greens are target areas smaller than baby blankets. Only the most exacting iron shots earn genuine birdie chances.

It's impossible to talk about The Dragon without mentioning its clubhouse, one of the most appealing and interesting structures in Western golf.

Frank Lloyd Wright drew up its blueprints in 1924 for the Nakoma Country Club in Madison, Wisconsin, but they were never put to use. The Dragon's owners bought the plans and erected the building in 1996.

Conceptualized as a tribute to Wisconsin's Chippewa Indians, it features five teepee-like spires, studded with color-tinted copper pegs. Lloyd Wright also designed the interiors, as well as everything from the carpets to the restaurant dishware to the furniture upholstery.

The course perpetuates his vision; beautiful Taleisan style houses overlook most of the fairways.

Truckee, south of Graeagle and about fifty miles west of Reno, is best known for its proximity to the last encampment of the ill-fated Donner Party.

Happily, there are far more pleasant things to think about these days when stopping in town.

Two of them are the scenic Coyote Moon and Tahoe-Donner courses.

Coyote Moon, a two-year-old track that's also wildly popular among the locals, is one of the best new courses to come along in recent years.

Smartly mapped through towering pines by architect Brad Bell, the immaculately-kept layout is a masterpiece of mountain golf design.

Every hole presents a good deal of visual intimidation, but none, given forethought and focus, is unfair. In fact, they're eminently playable.

Because the holes are routed away from the landscape's abundant gorges and cliffs, there are few forced carries, and misstruck shots don't automatically result in lost balls, as is too often the case on recently-minted mountain courses.

Bell has also done well to avoid, where possible, another bugbear of mountain design, the plateau green.

It's a miracle, on a course with hundreds of feet of elevation change, to be able to roll the ball onto so many greens -- an advantage that will quickly endear the course to both short hitters and seniors.

Coyote Moon is also delightfully scenic. Rocky outcroppings dot the course, most notably behind the green on the par-five 12th.

There you will see, and hopefully not hit, some colossal granite boulders that seem to have tumbled right into the back bunkers. Also keep your eye out for the family of coyotes that lives on this hole, which accounts for the course's unusual name.

The natural element that makes the greatest impression is a lake bordered by the 16th green and 17th tee, whose crystalline waters mirror the often spectacular and dramatic Sierra sky. It's hard to walk around it without pausing for five or ten minutes to marvel at its mesmerizing effects.

Tahoe-Donner, a twenty-five-year-old track with nines designed by Bob Williams and Trent Jones, Sr., is Coyote Moon's evil twin -- it looks quite innocent, but has a devilish knack for mangling even the meanest of mishits.

Tee shots are often hemmed in by thick stands of trees, and while approaches are relatively unintimidating, missing putting surfaces is harshly penalized.

The pine needles and patchy grass typical of its greenside lies make it very difficult to get up and down for par. At few other courses will you be so grateful to land in a bunker as you will be here.

The tee shot on the par-five ninth is easily the region's most difficult. The fairway is banked radically to the left, and is twice as severe as anything at San Francisco's Olympic Club. Prizes ought to be awarded to players who can cut their balls hard enough to hold it.

The courses ringing Lake Tahoe are all a treat to play. The Resort at Squaw Creek is the place to go for visitors -- especially couples -- looking for full-service spa amenities.

But the two that best combine great golf and accessibility from Reno are Incline Village and Edgewood Tahoe, the grande dame of northern Nevada golf.

Incline Village resides a couple of miles from Tahoe's shores, but it still has two of the region's most beautiful courses -- especially in the fall, when its aspens and fire maples light it up in yellow and red.

The Mountain Course here, a par-58 layout by Robert Trent Jones Jr., requires pinpoint accuracy to stay out of the ubiquitous pine trees. Sharpen up your short iron game, since you'll be facing four par fours and 14 par threes, the latter ranging in length from 113 yards to 202 yards.

Yet another 1970s-era Trent Jones, Sr. design, the Championship Course layout is wide open, its fairways cut clear of trees in a manner that would be unthinkable today -- and, judging from Jones's work at Tahoe-Donner, must have also been unusual even back then.

This is a course built for fun. Even high handicappers will get their birdie opportunities, especially on the par fives. Three of them play at less than 490 yards, even from the tips.

Although they play uphill, good drives can be rewarded with mid-irons into the greens, or even short irons. Remember, you're playing at 6,500 feet above ssea level, which means a tee shot that usually carries 260 yards can fly an extra 20 or 30 yards.

From there...well, you do the math. If you haven't recently had reason to bellow "I'm Tiger Woods!" then this is the place to go.

Quick Facts

  Lake Ridge
(800) 815-6966
$40-$90

  Golf Club At Whitehawk Ranch
(800) 332-4295
$75-$115

  The Dragon At Gold Mountain
(800) 368-7786
$120

  Coyote Moon
(530) 587-0886
$135-$145

  Tahoe-Donner
(530) 587-9440
$130

  Incline Village
(888) 236-8725
$120

  Edgewood-Tahoe
(888) 881-8659
$200

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

The Championship Course also offers a stunning view of Lake Tahoe from the elevated tee box on the 15th hole, but the truly sublime lake views make their home at Edgewood Tahoe.

As sturdy as it is scenic, the 1968 George Fazio design has hosted two high-profile national events: the the U.S. Public Links in 1980 and the U.S. Senior Open in 1985.

It's also the annual site of the Celebrity Players Tour Championship (the small canyons sprinkled between the trees may just be Charles Barkley's divots.) Former Pittsburgh Penguin center Dan Quinn will be the defending champion at this year's event, scheduled to be held July 19th through the 21st.

Since 1992, Tom Fazio, who apprenticed here under his uncle George, has been tweaking the course to make it more natural-looking. This has included replacing railroad ties with rocks and boulders. He has also changed the length of some holes, and remodeled the greens on others.

This season's most notable changes will be new back tees on the fourth and 14th. On the whole, it remains a course that can be enjoyed by golfers of all skill levels, but is hard to score on.

Edgewood Tahoe's most obvious claim to fame is its finishing trio of holes, each of which ranks among the most scenic in the Western United States.

The tough par-five 16th starts inland, with a tee shot directly into the face of a mid-fairway pine; even a drive that swings neatly around it leaves a long second shot to a lakeside green that's subject to swirling breezes.

The 17th, a 207-yard par-three, plays along the lakeshore is fully exposed; on especially windy days, you may have to start your ball out over a thin strip of beach. The par five 18th, also along the lake, offers one of the better birdie opportunities on the course.

But around the green, there's water everywhere -- Lake Tahoe on the right, and a little brother, Lake Laimbeer, on the left. Edgewood is the kind of place you'll want to play twice. It's especially inviting springtime, before the high-season tourists arrive.

That's also the time of year when the course is at its prettiest, with snow capping the mountains that start climbing heavenward just across the street.

It's a rare treat to play in such a lovely setting -- although the same might be said of many of the region's courses. This above all is what makes you forget Reno's relative lack of glitz and glamor, and makes the Reno-Tahoe area one of Western golf's best bets.

Chris Lewis is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.

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