October 22, 2003. Tale of the Dragon - Part 1

By: Jeff Shelley

Among the nicer benefits of being a golf writer are invitations to attend golf course grand openings and junkets to resort areas with fellow writers. In the first category I've been lucky enough to "break in" about 25 new courses - mostly in the Pacific Northwest - over the 20 years I've been writing about golf.

In a couple of instances, I've accompanied beaming owners during the very first rounds on their spanking-new layouts. Particularly memorable was a round with Gene Hooker, the owner of McCormick Woods in Port Orchard, Wash. Gene, I and Alan Wentzel, publisher of the late not so great Back Nine Magazine, were the very first folks to dig divots in the final nine of McCormick Woods (Gene said the course was named after his wife, Therese; "After all, we couldn't call it Hooker Golf Course"). Deer wandered past as we fired balls at infant, flagless greens. The putting surfaces were so soft that incoming shots formed inch-high mini-volcanoes. The impact areas looked like a candle had been inserted then swiftly removed from a freshly-iced birthday cake.

As for the press junkets - called "fam" (short for familiarization) trips for those of us in the travel industry, I haven't been as active in these as with grand openings. Mainly because they involve riding on airplanes, a mode of transportation I'm not too keen on. But I've been on a few - not as many as some writers, some of whom abuse the privilege - including two to Montana, a most felicitous place for golf.

The guts of these Jeff's Journal entries were spawned by Dan Shepherd of Buffalo Communications and Billy Casper Golf, who asked if I was interested in four separate fam trips. Dan's quartet would intrigue any golfer. Three - Louisiana's Audubon Golf Trail, Mississippi's Magnolia Golf Trail, and Gulf Shores, Ala. - are emerging hotspots. The fourth, however, isn't. Yet. Located within the Gold Mountain development near Graeagle, Calif., Dragon Golf Course isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue. Dan had been hyping me up on the place, though, and after some internal hemming and hawing, I said I wanted to take on the Dragon and save Gulf Shores and Myrtle Beach for a later date.

The reason for fam trips is simple: PR companies representing resorts or collective marketing groups fly golf and travel writers to their destinations, house them for several days, wine and dine them, feed them bunches of press releases, brochures and other propoganda, have them play golf and other non-golf activities representative of the area, etc. - all in the hopes us scribes will write something nice about the places.

It makes sense and has been part of the golf business for many years. It's like a salesman wining and dining clients. As an example, my brother sells paper to printers and he's on the go all the time. On one hand, he takes printing reps out to lunches, football games, fishing trips and golf outings. Similarly, paper mills treat him as royalty. A three-day weekend trip to the Midwest - where many of the largest paper mills are based - this September saw Doug watch the Milwaukee Brewers-Chicago Cubs play a baseball game, Notre Dame go against Washington State under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, and the Green Bay Packers battle the Vikings at fabled Lambeau Field. He called me on his cell phone at halftime from Lambeau and was absolutely giddy.

So that's how I found myself arriving midday on a Monday at the Reno (Nev.) airport along with six other folks flown in from around the U.S. Shortly after arrival, I was introduced to my fellow fam trippers: Roger Graves of PGA Magazine and GOLF Magazine; Alan Petersen of San Diego County Golf, LA County Golf, Orange County Golf magazines; Rich Steck and his wife Judy Janofsky of WhereToGoNext.com; Brendan McEvoy of Travelgolf.com and Worldgolf.com; and Dan. Tod Leonard of the San Diego Union-Tribune showed up the next day. Dave Shedloski of Golf World and PGATOUR.com canceled because his daughter got sick. Dan later said our group's attrition rate - one out of the seven invitees didn't make it - was typical of a fam trip.

Within minutes of our arrival in Reno, our group was sitting in a van and being taken to parts unknown. It's funny how things perk up when adventure's in the air. Shepherd had primed us for the vaunted Dragon, and our early conversations drifted that way. We'd heard its owners wanted golf architects Robin Nelson and Mark Miller to design the nastiest course possible. We knew the track boasted a 147 slope rating from the tips, making it one of California's toughest tests. We'd also heard about the Gold Mountain Resort and its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse-restaurant-spa.

The resort is nearly an hour's drive from the Reno airport, so we set about breaking the ice with a familiar subject: golf.