Changes Afoot in Tahoe Area

By: Blaine Newnham

Everything about the courses - the dramatic settings, the graceful designs, the impeccable conditions - say private club. And, indeed, they were.

We are talking about the boom for golfers that has come out of the real-estate bust, especially in California and specifically in the gorgeous High Sierra area between the town of Truckee and the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Courses you could only read about, dream about, are now open to the public. And there can't be a more competitive golf market anywhere.

Truckee is a town of only 13,000 residents, once a truck and railroad stop just this side of where the Donner Party stalled trying to cross the Sierra. It is now a high-energy, high-altitude tourist destination, and within literally a 10-minute drive there are eight golf courses, all but a couple built in the past seven or eight years, most intended to be the centerpieces of real estate developments. And private.

Gray's Crossing opened with much pomp three years ago with its designer, Peter Jacobsen, on hand. But then so was its director of fitness and wellness, Annika Sorenstam. Lots were selling for $500,000, golf club memberships $150,000. The developers were so eager to get the lots on line that they used sod to blanket the golf course, not grass seed.

This summer, after bankruptcy and a corporate restructuring, Gray's Crossing became a public resort course with green fees ranging from $120-$180 a round. Jacobsen and Jim Hardy did a wonderful job making the course a throwback with link-style run-ups and a few drive-able par 4s. The finishing holes are memorable.

Gray's Crossing is wedded to Old Greenwood, both operated by Tahoe Mountain Club. And both are now open to the public. Old Greenwood is the inviting-instead-of-intimidating Jack Nicklaus design located across Interstate 80. With a large, mountain-lodge clubhouse and $2 million cabins adjoining some of the fairways, Old Greenwood is definitely top-of-the-line resort material.

Also in a new post-bankruptcy partnership with them is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the slopes at Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort.

Deals abound and amenities are immense in this neck of the woods. A couple miles away, clustered together, are three more splendid courses, including the new John Harbottle-designed Timilick Golf Club. Timilick is similar to Gray's Crossing but with more interesting terrain and sumptuous views.

Timilick hasn't officially gone public. But with only 47 members, the course opens its doors (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) to prospective members (called "promotional" rounds) and just about anyone else who wants to pay $140 or so to play golf. The idea is to bridge the recession with public play and then go private once a clubhouse is built.

Next to Timilick is the very private clubs of Lahontan - a Tom Weiskopf design - and the new Tom Fazio layout at Martis Camp, which has its own family bowling alley and private connection to the ski runs at Northstar.

As one local golf promoter said, "the really rich are still really rich." John Elway and Wayne Gretzky apparently have homes at Martis Camp.

And besides Old Greenwood - which has a golf academy and a spacious practice area, Gray's Crossing and Timilick, there is the now venerable Coyote Moon, the semiprivate Tahoe Donner and the budget-friendly course at Northstar, a Robert Muir Graves design with rounds that top out at $80 in the summer.

Coyote Moon was operated by the Old Greenwood folks until Gray's Crossing opened. Now it is in the hands of Jeff Wilson, a Sacramento-area golf course manager. Wilson talks about Coyote Moon's competitive rates ($145) and the course's spectacular terrain. Unlike the others, Coyote Moon has no housing on the property.

"We are a mountain course," said Wilson. "There is almost nothing like our back nine," which boasts a cascading par-3 that must drop 200 feet to the banks of a high-mountain creek. "We are also trying to operate as efficiently as we can. We don't exactly have a choice."

The pocket around Truckee isn't all the great golf available to visitors. Actually, on Lake Tahoe, is Edgewood Tahoe, host of the annual celebrity tournament, a place you never forget, especially with its final three holes edging up to the lake.

Incline Village has been redone to make it a bit easier, and the course at Squaw Valley - the Resort at Squaw Creek - is stunning. They are all open to the public.

My favorite place in the area is north and west of Truckee, along the Feather River where you feel as if it were still 1950, especially in the town of Graeagle, once a place where they built boxes to house the fruit produced in the valleys below.

The golf courses there are many and varied: the pleasantly gracious Whitehawk Ranch (still my favorite in the Reno area), Plumas Pines, Nakoma, Graeagle Meadows, and Grizzly Ranch.

Whitehawk Ranch is simply a wonderful place to be, where golf and the isolation of the Mohawk Valley come first, where green fees are $125 but drop to $95 in the spring and fall.

Plumas Pines, another throwback, is making it with its food, which is clearly among the best in the area. After 1 p.m., you can play a round of golf and have dinner at Longboards for $99.

Grizzly Ranch is private, but can be played for $99 a round. The Bob Cupp-design is a match for the other high-end golf available in the area - which says something.

Nakoma, the name of a Frank Lloyd Wright clubhouse-design, was formerly called The Dragon and reputed to be the most difficult course anywhere. The course went into bankruptcy with that business model, has been sold and softened, and returned to form by the owners of the Feather River Inn.

Rounds during the week are $60. Just to see the clubhouse, a design that Wright or anyone else ever built, is worth the drive, if not the green fee.

The short season - five months or less - made golf in the Sierra a difficult proposition before the recession. Now it is a matter of hanging on until better times return and real estate again drives the market.

In the meantime, we'll just have to get used to playing where we once couldn't. In about as picturesque a location as you can imagine.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.