STATELINE, Nev. -- Usually, when I visit the Reno-Tahoe area for golf, I get in a couple of warm-up rounds before playing one of my favorite courses in the world. This year would be different.
An early press conference for the American Century Championship would be immediately followed by a round for media folks at Edgewood-Tahoe, set, of course, on pristine Lake Tahoe, just east of the Nevada-California border.
This year the weather was absolutely perfect -- high 60s, a few clouds and hardly a breath of wind. The lake was like glass, and as it came into view upon driving into the parking lot, I have to admit I felt a bit giddy.
Perennially ranked among the top 100 public golf courses in the U.S., Edgewood Tahoe is a George Fazio design that opened in 1969 and was renovated in the late 1990s by his nephew, Tom Fazio. With the deep blue water reflecting the snow-capped mountains that surround it, there are few scenes that can rival it.
Play this course from the proper tees (there's 6,200 feet of elevation, so it plays shorter than its advertised yardage), and it won't beat you up. Best of all, Edgewood-Tahoe has one of the best finishing stretches in golf. The 16th, in fact, is one of my favorite par 5s in the world. At 564 yards from the tips, it can be reached by good players in two, but there's a tree in the middle of the fairway and huge, foreboding bunkers in front of and surrounding the green. This is also where the lake reappears in all its glory. And at the next hole, the par-3 17th, the winds off Lake Tahoe can be a big factor.
It's also here where golf fans like to party in boats in mid-July each year to watch the American Century Championship, the preeminent celebrity golf event of the year, featuring dozens of prominent athletes, actors and musicians. Some have serious skills, but the one thing they all have in common is they love Lake Tahoe and really enjoy playing Edgewood-Tahoe
The course has been tweaked a little in recent years. Most notable is a reconfigured ninth hole, a tough dogleg right where the green has been positioned some 50 yards closer to the water. It not only brings the lake more into view, but allows for some new accommodations on the golf course. Still, the playability of the course remains unchanged.
Former NFL quarterback and scratch player Trent Dilfer says Edgewood Tahoe isn't that difficult from a tee or two up from the tips. But play the back tees at more than 7,500 yards, where the design features of this mostly left-to-right course really come into play, and it's a "big boy golf course," Dilfer says.
Charles Barkley simply loves the views -- and the area, for that matter.
"I played some of the best golf courses in the world -- I've been blessed to do that," Barkley said. "I don't think you get much better scenery than you do at Lake Tahoe."
More to Lake Tahoe, of course, than Edgewood Tahoe
While Edgewood-Tahoe holds a special place in my heart, it certainly has a host of competitors in the area.
One of the newest on the scene is the private Clear Creek Tahoe, which really isn't on the lake, but more on the way to Tahoe near Carson City. Carved through a valley in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, this impeccably conditioned Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design is most memorable, especially the greens. Find the wrong part on an approach, and you might putt it off a green, for example. Find the right part, though, and there are certainly birdie opportunities here, including the par-5 finisher, a terrific risk-reward hole that can be reached in two.
Better yet, everything about Clear Creek Tahoe is first rate and as they move toward building membership, it's worth a call to see if you can get a tee time.
On the north side of the lake, I got to revisit an old standard -- the Championship Course at Incline Village. This course has been around for a few decades, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and renovated in 2003. The design is excellent, and it's the only course on the north shore where the lake comes into view on several holes.
Although it's not overly long (just under 7,000 yards from the tips), it's not easy. Placement wins out over power, and I must admit on some of the holes, especially the dogleg-left ninth, the homes and white stakes are a little too close for comfort. But this is a solid golf course that has withstood the competition for years.
Incline Village also features the Mountain Course.
Truckee, California is terrific
After Incline Village, I headed up to Truckee, where there's no shortage of not only world-class golf, but world-class dining and entertainment.
In fact, in a recent article (click here), I choose Truckee as the best little golf destination in the United States, with courses such as Coyote Moon, Tahoe Donner (the original entry here), Gray's Crossing, Old Greenwood and the course I played this time around: Schaffer's Mill.
Opened in 2008 as private Timilick, this beautiful Johnny Miller and John Harbottle design -- with its superior practice facilities, clubhouse and impeccable conditions -- is now open to the public on a limited basis and is a must-play for any avid golfer visiting the area. Schaffer's Mill is really a tale of two golf courses as its outward nine weaves through a meadow and the back nine showcases a mountain look with elevation change up to 400 feet. The par-5 18th, with water coming into play a couple of times, is one of the best finishing holes in the area.
Truckee, however, is about so much more than the golf. It's about the food, the entertainment and the accommodations.
This charming town of 16,000, which doubles as a ski destination in the winter, has all kinds of unique bars and restaurants, many of them upscale enough to satisfy the sophisticated palettes of the type of people who have second homes there. It's hardly pretentious though, as everyone seems to be able to let down their hair.
The scene includes everything from the well established Cottonwood and Moody's Bistro, to the new Fifty-Fifty Brew Co., to Old World Italian at Pianeta Restaurante, to the incredible sushi at the Drunken Monkey.
And while this time around, I stayed at the solid and affordable Donner Lake Village Resort, there is a wide range of hotels to choose from, including the "haunted" Truckee Inn and the ultramodern, Euro-style Cedar House.
Breaking bad at The Dragon
I first played The Dragon at Nakoma Golf Resort & Spa near Clio in the Graegale, Calif. area (which also includes outstanding venues like Grizzly Ranch, Whitehawk Ranch and Plumas Pines) more than a decade ago. Designed by Robin Nelson, it opened in 1998 as one of the hardest golf courses in the world. With its sloping fairways that seem to fall off the edge of the earth, not only do you have to hit the fairways, but shaping the ball into the slopes is also a handy skill to have. Compounding the matter back then were the greens, which were slick, undulated and not easy to hold.
Since then the course has gone through tough times, but the current ownership group has not only brought the course back, but the resort as well.
Those greens have been softened in recent years, but the Dragon still has more bite than just about any course I've ever seen, much less played. I've probably tackled this course a half dozen times and have never come close to breaking 80 as a single-digit handicap. Breaking 90 here is usually my goal, although my playing partner, Director of Golf Jon Jaress provided a great example of how to tame the Dragon, firing a 72 (he once shot a 61 in a pro-am).
More importantly, however, is the setting at The Dragon.
After the round we had a cocktail on the back deck of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse, where you could watch the sunset over hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain. It's a scene that will make you quickly forget the bad shots and remember your victories of the day, beckoning you to return someday to try it all over again.
An outstanding five-course dinner followed, and I realized my trip was winding down. A late-night trek into Reno followed by some time on the gaming floor and a few hours of sleep at the always-entertaining Atlantis, and it was time to head for the airport. Five days of playing some of the best of the West went by too quickly.