Tops of Tahoe

No. 9 at Schaffer’s Mill

Having golfed in the Reno/Tahoe region since 1994, our intrepid resident golf enthusiast sets down his clubs briefly to rate the best 18 the area has to offer.


LAKE TAHOE — As a confessed golfaholic who just completed my annual pilgrimage to the Lake Tahoe area to tee it high and watch it fly in the shadows of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, I present my admittedly subjective list of the 18 Best Holes of the High Sierra.

For the record, I have visited Tahoe and its environs once or twice every summer since 1994, stopping in Reno, Carson City, Truckee, South Tahoe and the Clio-Portola-Graeagle area to renew acquaintances with my favorite courses and explore new tracks near The Lake – a deep-blue water hazard 72 miles in circumference that serves as the epicenter of an increasingly popular golf vacation destination.

On my most recent visit last month, I played nine courses in six days, including two for the first time, to increase my Tahoe-area play list to 42 different courses in a slice of paradise where the sky is always blue, the air always seems crisp and clear, and the natural surroundings are simply breathtaking.

Before unveiling my Best of Tahoe golf, I feel compelled to admit my biases toward golf holes that are challenging, scenic and/or architecturally distinctive. I also have chosen not to include more than two holes from any course, even if more are worthy of my list.

To dispense with the suspense, let’s tee it up at the Best 18 Holes of the High Sierra (in no particular order):

** 1. Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, No. 18: There is no better place to start than the 572-yard, par-5 finishing hole at Edgewood, the crown jewel of Tahoe golf, a George Fazio/Tom Fazio design best known as the venue of the annual American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament. Once you play it, you’ll understand why it lures the likes of Michael Jordan, Tony Romo, John Elway and Michael Phelps to the American Century in Stateline, Nev. No. 18 is a tree-lined, slight dogleg-right par-5 that becomes much more interesting as you near the green. Hit a great drive and you’ll be tempted to go for the green in two, despite a lake guarding the front left side. The picture-postcard setting behind the green, with the waves of Lake Tahoe lapping within earshot and the snow-capped mountains in the background, makes you want to linger. Photos mandatory.
** 2. Edgewood Tahoe, No. 16: In some ways, this tree-lined, 564-yard par-5 is even more spectacular than No. 18. From the tee box, the first thing that grabs your attention is the towering pine in the middle of the fairway, which forces you to try to draw or fade your tee shot around the tree while avoiding the fairway bunkers on each side. Look farther down the fairway and you can see the entire hole, with Lake Tahoe beckoning from behind the green. Only a monstrous drive will dare you to try to reach in two, because bunkers await you right, left and front of the green. Great three-shot par-5 and, in this opinion, gets the nod over the equally popular par-3 17th, which runs along the lake, where boats filled with locals and tourists often hover to watch the action.
** 3. Coyote Moon, No. 13: This 227-yard, downhill par-3 is the signature hole at this Brad Bell-designed course in the historic town of Truckee, Calif. It is one of a dozen great holes on a mountain course distinguished by stately pines, huge granite outcroppings (giant rocks), wildflowers, the scenic Trout Creek – and, best of all, no houses in sight. With nearly a 200-foot drop from tee to green, this breathtaking par-3 plays at least two clubs shorter than the distance, which makes club selection difficult until you play it a few times. As if it’s not intimidating enough, there are greenside bunkers back left and front right – and a greenside creek — to catch tee shots slightly offline. Almost everyone takes a photo from the elevated tee box.
** 4. Coyote Moon, No. 17: If this 472-yard, dogleg-right par-4 was No. 18 instead of the penultimate hole, it would probably be considered the best finishing hole anywhere in the region. From an elevated tee box, you must carry a large water hazard if you try to shorten the dogleg – a 196-yard carry from the whites, 223 yards from the blues and 258 yards from the tips. If you want to make the tee shot less risky, you can bail out short left of the water hazard, but then you’ll have 220 to 250 yards to reach the green. There’s also a tall tree in the left side of the fairway, 120 yards from the green, around which you might have to maneuver your approach shot. Love everything about it, even though I’ve had my share of double-bogeys.
** 5. LakeRidge Golf Course, No. 15: This 237-yard, downhill par-3 is by itself worth the greens fee at this Robert Trent Jones-designed course in the heart of Reno, from which you can see the towering casino hotels in the distance. It features a 140-yard drop from mountain-ridge tee to the island green below, so it also plays much shorter and requires guesswork on the club of choice. Depending on the wind direction, it might be a 4-iron, 5-iron or fairway metal, but it is always fun. And most first-timers hit at least two balls just for the experience of watching the ball soar and, hopefully, drop on the putting surface. This hole makes the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass in Florida seem like a chip shot at a pitch-and-putt.
** 6. Tahoe Donner Golf Course, No. 8: At an altitude of 6,500 feet, this Bob Williams-designed mountain course in Truckee is the Tahoe-area course with the highest elevation. That means you generally can hit one less club on each shot than sea-level courses, except on this 469-yard, downhill, dogleg-right par-4. It will test even a scratch golfer and is a challenge no matter far up you choose to tee it. From the elevated tee box, you need to cut off as much of the dogleg as you can without getting trapped behind the outcropping that juts into the fairway. Then you’ll need to hit a long iron, hybrid or fairway metal to clear a ravine 100 yards from the green and hopefully reach the putting surface in two. Good luck with that.
** 7. Tahoe Donner, No. 1 and No. 18 (tie): Can’t decide whether the opening hole or the finishing hole deserves the distinction as the second-best hole on this course. We’ll call it a dead heat. All you need to know about No. 1, a 459-yard uphill par-4, is that it is also the No. 1 handicap hole. Even from the silver tees (438 yards), it plays like a par-5, with a narrow fairway slanting left to right and a drainage ditch about 150 yards from the two-tiered green, where a two-putt from anywhere is considered an accomplishment. A par feels like a birdie. No. 18 is a 422-yard par-4 that plays severely downhill and makes hitting driver a risk because of the tall grasses, marshy area and pond lurking at the bottom of a fairway you can’t see from the tee box. You’ll likely head to the 19th hole at the clubhouse either muttering or celebrating. A cold one and the best fish taco you’ll ever eat will always make you feel better.
** 8. Grizzly Ranch Club, No. 12 and No. 18 (tie): Whether you’re coming from Truckee or Reno or the Bay Area, it’s a scenic drive on winding two-lane roads to find this magnificent Bob Cupp course that opened in 2005 in the Feather River Valley, in the midst of quiet Plumas County countryside outside the tiny town of Portola, Calif. If you want to get away from it all, this is the place. Stay-and-play packages available in the three Wolf Tree Cabins on site.
Can’t decide which par-5 on the back nine is the better. No. 12 is a three-shot par-5 that might be easier from the back two tee boxes (649 and 621 yards), because the fairway ends about 210 yards from the 611-yard copper tees from which I played. Then you hit over a ravine to a narrow fairway before finishing at a narrow, undulating green. No. 18 is a 570-yard par-5 (527 from the next tee box) on which you can bomb away and then decide whether to attack the water-guarded green. Director of golf, Van Batchelder – he’s the ever-smiling guy in the cowboy hat who runs the place– is the best ambassador any golf course could ever have.
** 9. Old Greenwood, No. 6: This 578-yard, dogleg-left par-5 is the unofficial signature hole at this Jack Nicklaus-designed masterpiece outside of Truckee, which was named after Old Caleb Greenwood, a mountain man who led immigrants across the Sierra Nevada into California many moons ago. It’s a challenging three-shot par-5, with a giant water hazard — reachable with a well-struck driver — that guards the final 225 yards to the green. It takes three accurate shots to reach the long, narrow green. Almost forgot: even if you avoid the water, there are waist-high native grasses that can come into play with an errant shot. Like the rest of the course, it’s as scenic as it is challenging.
** 10. Schaffer’s Mill, No. 9: My favorite hole among many favorites on the best new course in the High Sierra (appropriately No. 9 on Golfweek’s list of Best New Private Courses in 2008) is this monstrous 480-yard par-4. It requires a long uphill blind tee shot to right side of the fairway at the top of the hill, where you can finally see the green below, surrounded left and back by a large ball-gobbling water hazard. This hole starts a long string of memorable holes that makes you thankful that Schaffer’s Mill (formerly called Timilick Tahoe), a John Harbottle-Johnny Miller design, is a private course that now offers limited public play.
** 11. Schaffer’s Mill, No. 18: There is water, water everywhere on this eye-popping, 605-yard par-5 finishing hole, requiring three accurate shots to avoid all of the hazards, including a creek left of the fairway, another that traverses the fairway and a pond on the right side of the fairway that leads to a green guarded on the right by more agua. When you finish this hole, you need to exhale and then head to the long-awaited new clubhouse that was scheduled to open Fourth of July weekend.
** 12. Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club, No. 9: This picturesque hole is the quintessential risk-reward par-4 if played from the three-hawk tees (276 yards) or two-hawk tees (267 yards). Standing on these tee boxes, you can see a lot of trouble – trees to the right of the narrow fairway and water lurking right of the green – but you can also feel the hope and potential exhilaration of reaching the green with an accurate well-struck tee shot. If you lay up, you also have to worry about a creek traversing the middle of the fairway about 80 yards short of the green. This Dick Bailey-designed course is a hidden gem, requiring a winding 39-mile drive from Truckee through farmlands and small towns along Highway 89, but it is one of my all-time favorites, probably because the ball sits up on the fairway as if on a tee.
** 13. Incline Village Championship Course, No. 7: This 407-yard, downhill dogleg-right par-4 is the signature hole at this Robert Trent Jones-designed course on the North Shore. That’s probably why it is pictured on the front of the scorecard, with towering pines framing the photo from an elevated tee box that reveals a view of Lake Tahoe and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Aim for the bunkers about 250 yards away at the end of the fairway; if you lay up short of them, you’ll have a short iron in. If you try to hit it around the corner, you’ll most likely be taking a penalty drop. The course reminds me of Tahoe Donner, with its dramatic elevation changes and fairways lined with towering pines.
** 14. The Dragon at Nakoma Golf Resort, No. 12: Named “Dragon’s Gate,” this 390-yard, dogleg-right par-4 looks innocent enough from the tee, but it plays much harder because it is dramatically uphill. It requires an accurate tee shot through a portal of trees over a ravine to a steeply left-to-right sloped fairway on the way to a steeply back-to-front sloped green – with a false front, to boot. The USGA Golf Journal places it on its list of all-time best golf holes. When it opened, this Robin Nelson-designed course in Clio, Calif., was as difficult as it was breathtakingly beautiful – hence, its motto: “Send Me Your Heroes” – but now The Dragon has been softened under new management and is no longer breathing fire. If you make the drive to play Whitehawk Ranch and/or Grizzly Ranch, make sure you also stop at The Dragon, where the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Nakoma clubhouse is an architectural marvel.
** 15. Resort at Squaw Creek, No. 6: No matter which tee box you choose (210 yards, 176 or 153), this is a diabolical par-3 over water that usually plays directly into the prevailing wind at this links-style Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I pull into the parking lot adjacent to this par-3, jump out of my car, grab an iron from the trunk and try to hit the green before running back to my car. The entire course in Squaw Valley, at the base of the ski runs where the 1960 Winter Olympics were contested, is visually striking because of all the tall native grasses, green and gold, bordering the fairways. But if you don’t bring your “A” game, it could be a long day. A buddy of mine once lost 32 balls in two rounds here. Thankfully, the beverage cart also sells sleeves of golf balls, for emergencies, if you know what I mean.
** 16. The Golf Club at Grays’ Crossing, No. 18: Another golf-course treat in Truckee is the Peter Jacobsen-Jim Hardy layout that opened in 2007 as a private club but now offers public play. The 613-yard, par-5 finishing hole (589 yards from the next box) is a quirky hole with two fairways that can be attacked two different ways. You have to decide whether to cross a tall grass-filled hazard on the second or third shot. I always take the conservative route, by hitting driver and mid-iron down the left side of the fairway before hitting over the junk to try to reach the green. Travis Alley, the head professional, recommends crossing over the hazard on the second shot – though it requires a longer club and, therefore, a more dangerous play – because it gives you a better angle at the narrow green. Now he tells me. There’s always next time.
** 17. Genoa Lakes Golf Club, No. 18, Lakes Course: At sunset or sundown at Genoa Lakes, you’re very likely to encounter dozens of deer grazing on the par-4 17th and par-5 18th at this Peter Jacobsen-John Harbottle III links-style course. As I always say, “Drive for doe, putt for show!” (OK, sorry about that.) Indisputably, the 449-yard, par-4 finishing hole on the Lakes is as challenging as it is breathtaking. On a course where water and lush wetlands come into play on 14 holes, it’s not surprising the 18th requires a long, accurate tee shot over water to a fairway bordered by long grasses before you attack a huge undulating green – with the stately clubhouse and snow-capped mountains beckoning in the backdrop of your approach. Yet another compulsory photo op.
** 18. Carson Valley Golf Course, No. 14: Outside of Nevada’s capital city of Carson City, not many people know about Carson Valley GC, about 15 miles south near Gardnerville. It is the oldest and most mature course in the area and a traditional tree-lined track that winds through century-old cottonwoods and along the Carson River. But one particular large cottonwood commands your attention, because it stands in the middle of the fairway on this 325-yard, dogleg-left par-4. That’s right, you have to play around it or try to hammer a driver over it. Love it, love it, love it.
Your turn to hit.

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