INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - If your game is in the toilet, have I got some solutions for you.
First, find a beautiful course, preferably one you've never played. Hopefully, one where you're so distracted that you won't care what you shoot. Next: Change up your routine. Play a par 3 course. Compete in a team scramble. Find a different foursome where new conversations and new jokes make you laugh at the 9 iron you just sculled into the pond.
Bingo! These scenarios were lifesavers for me on a recent golf trip to Lake Tahoe. The horrible affliction of "golfer's elbow" has derailed my game going back at least six months. I can't swing without pain, and I'm playing poorly. That can suck the joy out of anybody's love of the game.
But I found respite in Lake Tahoe, which I'm sure happens regularly to those lucky enough to be there playing golf. Not only did I "survive" five rounds in three days, but I had the most fun I've had all year on the golf course. While the elbow is slowly getting better, I also think good times helped to mask the pain. Lake Tahoe is the kind of place that fosters healing, mentally and physically. Whether you're in Truckee or tiny Clio, the entire region is beyond beautiful, especially on the golf course. It's the kind of destination you visit down on your luck and leave high on life. I certainly did.
Day 1: A par 3 shootout at Incline Village
My new secret sauce for better golf? Play a team scramble ... on a par 3 course. After driving four hours, I stepped onto the second tee of the Mountain course at Incline Village and proceeded to stiff my first tee shot to four feet. No warm-up. No worries.
The Mountain course at Incline Village isn't your average par 3, either. It's kept in just as good of condition and plays just as tough, yard per yard, as the Championship course farther down the hill. It's a par 58 of 3,527 yards with four par 4s. You swing enough drivers (or fairway woods) to feel like you've played "real" golf. The ROI is a lower score, less money spent and less time spent than a regulation round.
We celebrated my team's victory with dinner inside the clubhouse, where Wild Bill's BBQ makes its own sauces. Exhausted, it was nice to crash so close at the nearby Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino.
Day 2: A 36-hole bender in Truckee
Who says a sequel can't be as good - or better - than the original?
Last year my two-fer in Truckee was pretty good, playing Old Greenwood and Schaffer's Mill in a single day. This year's 36-hole Truckee marathon was equally inspiring: Coyote Moon in the morning, followed by Tahoe Donner in the afternoon.
Like a lot of people, I'm struggling to rank the best of Truckee. Coyote Moon might be the most scenic of the four I've played. It also rates as the most difficult. We played up a tee box, where the longer hitters of our group regularly had eagle putts on par 5s that played short from those tees. Beyond that, most of us struggled to shoot a solid score when faced with so many wild, uneven lies in the fairways. This is untamed mountainous terrain. The drop-shot 13th hole delivers the kind of par 3 you remember the rest of your life.
In between rounds, Smokey's Kitchen served up the rocket fuel necessary for more golf. Any restaurant serving BBQ and milkshakes gets six stars in my book.
Tahoe Donner was a pleasant surprise. I hadn't heard much about it, which isn't unusual given the competition. It's a great track, not as lush as the others, but nearly as interesting at a lower price point. It's tighter than a jail cell (At least from what I'm told). My only complaint would be a few par 4s lack proper tee balance (with the silvers too long and the greens too short). I'd recommend moving up. The pub was hopping with the Stanley Cup finals on the tube, and dinner inside the clubhouse again was excellent.
If you're looking to change up your routine off the course, too, try the unique Cedar House Sport Hotel. The rooms go full-on European, right down to that crazy half-glass entry into the shower. I never understood that design concept. I still like the Cedar House, especially after downing a fresh-baked blueberry muffin at the complimentary breakfast buffet the next morning.
Day 3: Battling a grizzly and a dragon
Nobody likes an hour drive between courses on a golf trip, although this was no ordinary drive. The road from Truckee to Portola might as well have ended in Billings. California cattle country looks just like Montana: Winding roads, open meadows for miles, a mountain backdrop.
The reward for the 5:30 a.m. wakeup call was Grizzly Ranch , a stunning golf course by Bob Cupp, and the hospitality of its cowboy-hat wearing pro, Van Batchelder. Grizzly Ranch in tiny Portola has grown popular with large groups because it feels like an true escape. No homes intrude on the setting.
Make sure to arrive early for some range time. The first six holes are the sharpest teeth. If anybody makes par or better on the 640-yard third hole, I'll personally drive up from the Bay Area to buy them a beer. I've never met a course with such a collection of hard par 5s, including the final hole, where the pin was cut above the manmade water feature. I didn't mind getting mauled because the backcountry is so gorgeous and the air so crisp.
The trip ended like it started - with a team scramble. The reputation of the Dragon at Nakoma Golf Resort in Clio still scares away some golfers. In 2000, architect Robin Nelson designed a course so tough that nobody wanted to play it. After a brief closure, the Dragon was rescued by new owners, who have softened it and restored its one-of-a-kind clubhouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They've spent millions adding a nice 42-room Lodge and new this year, Altitude, a 12,000-square-foot recreation center with a teen game room, bar, small gym with a climbing wall, a children's center, fitness room, 24-seat movie theater and outdoor lap pool and jacuzzi. It's open to lodge guests and residents of the still developing golf community.
I'd recommend playing the Dragon to anyone. It's mega scenic and serene. If you must, play a scramble or move up a tee box or two. You'll still enjoy it, even if your score says otherwise. Dinner afterwards will complete the whole experience.
With three more solid to strong courses nearby, this pocket of California might be the most underrated golf destination in the state. Who needs ocean views and palm trees? Pines and mountains make great playing partners, often at half the cost.