North Tahoe: Golfing is as good as the views

By Michael Pramik, Contributor

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. -- At 5:30 a.m., the sun has yet to illuminate Squaw Valley's snow-covered peaks. Fog hovers over the golf course at the Resort at Squaw Creek, which is quiet, and waiting. Waiting for the morning's golden floodlight, which turns the mountains into a contrast of light and shadow against a backdrop of true sky blue. The hills surround you, thick with pines or laden with powder.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the golf course here. It's primarily flat, and it's environmentally sensitive and, oh yes, it's got 18 holes. But here in Squaw Valley, where they once played the Olympic Games, you're immersed in a setting so stunning you might go outside only to watch the sun rise. Lake Tahoe's northern sphere, which begins a dozen miles from the lake, trades its watery views for the big picture. Mountainous terrain is everywhere, from the thunder domes at Squaw Valley to the high hills in Donner, where in 1846 a party of settlers gave new meaning to the term "picnic shelter."

North Tahoe's main attraction, not surprisingly, is skiing. But don't overlook the region in the summertime. There's good golf here. Great golf, in fact, perhaps the best in Tahoe. Other outdoor activities abound, including mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding and ballooning. Most of the golf courses are in or near Truckee, Calif., an old logging town with a curious shopping district and several good-quality restaurants. Truckee was named after a Paiute Indian chief who welcomed the first white settlers, led by Elisha Stevens, to cross the Sierras into the Sacramento Valley. That was in 1844, two years before the famed Donner party got stuck at high elevations and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

During the gold rush that began in 1849, Truckee became a passage for miners seeking their fortunes. In the 1860s, thousands of Chinese immigrants were hired to cut through granite when the Transcontinental Railroad came through here. Truckee later became a logging center, with freshly hewed trees extracted by oxen and railroad cars.

It's more than a little ironic, then, given its hardy past, that Truckee is quickly becoming an upscale vacation town. The area is being discovered by high-net-worth retirees and others who have hiked up the cost of real estate, pricing out some locals.

Commercial Row, Truckee's main drag, has several upscale shops and restaurants that juxtapose the 1896 Depot Building, where railroad cars still pass through. You can get Native American jewelry at the White Buffalo, fashion sunglasses at Sierra Shades or trinkets at the Truckee Variety Store, where local legend has it that George "Machine Gun" Kelly was once caught shoplifting. Restaurants like Dragonfly and Cottonwood serve dishes with exotic flair, while OB's Pub is the place to get blackened prime rib.

Attractions include Donner State Park and the Emigrant Trail Museum, which includes a tribute to the Donner party. Squaw Valley is close by, and you're only 12 miles from Lake Tahoe.

Many of the golf courses in north Tahoe reflect the recent gentrification, with greens fees topping $100 during high season. Worth it? If you've got the budget for it, the answer is yes.

Coyote Moon

Start here to experience what mountain golf is all about. Coyote Moon is cut out of the hills of Truckee, near the Donner Pass. It's secluded - there are no home sites on the course. And despite the numerous groves of pine trees, tall hillsides and rock outcroppings, it's not a stifling layout.

Sacramento golf architect Brad Bell, a one-time PGA Tour player and UCLA graduate, inherited a course that had been logged in the mid-90s and designed it to be played by average golfers. Thus, you can poke a drive off the perfect flight path and still have a reasonable shot at the green.

Playability is evident on a four-hole stretch beginning with No. 4. They're all dogleg-lefts - three par-4s and a par-5. Slight draws or drives down the left side can simplify approach shots. But hitting it to the right, even off the fairway, still gives you some chance of hitting the green.

The playable layout is only part of what makes Coyote Moon memorable. The first four holes on the back nine climb up and down mountain foothills, culminating with the marvelous No. 13, a 227-yard par-3 that drops 120 feet from the tee. The green is at the bottom of a tree-covered cliffside with a creek guarding shots hit too far to the right.

Coyote Moon is the first of three Tahoe Mountain Resort courses planned by a Truckee development partnership. Old Greenwood, several miles to the east, will have a Jack Nicklaus signature course and 99 home sites. It is expected to open in 2004. Gray's Crossing, a bit south of Old Greenwood, also will incorporate homes into the layout. Peter Jacobsen's design company is handling that project, which will get under way in 2004.

Coyote Moon's head pro, Dirk Skillicorn, says Coyote Moon will be the least-expensive of the three at $150. It's hard to imagine it will trail much in quality, playability or scenery. The only drawback is the absence of a practice area, although there is a public range a mile or so away.

Northstar at Tahoe

What can one say about the back nine at this course? You could say it's signature Robert Muir Graves, the accomplished architect whose work covers much of the West Coast. Graves is known for squeezing courses into mountainous terrain, and this is a prime example.

You could say the back nine is a great challenge. A playing partner who's a golf writer said it should be bulldozed. It's cut into the mountains near the Northstar ski resort and tests you with blind tee shots that more than once lead to nearly impossible approaches.

An example is No. 10, a short par-4 that requires a long iron to a tree-lined sliver of ground. If you can pull that off you've got a downhill shot to a green fronted by a creek and almost surrounded by trees. There's almost zero room for error.

Ditto on No. 14, a 489-yard par-5 that forces you to hit a blind shot through a chute of pines to a sloped fairway. You've then got a long, downhill shot to a small green that severely penalizes a miss.

The front nine is laid out in the Martis Valley and is thus pretty flat. It' s also nondescript. The course was in pretty dismal shape, too, in early June. Northstar's managers attributed the poor greens to snow rot, a disease that can take six weeks from which to recover. Tahoe had a big snowfall in April, and Northstar does sit 6,000 feet above sea level.

The best advice is to play the back nine at Northstar if you love a challenge, are a masochist or have an uncommon sense of smell. The scent from the abundant pine trees makes the adventure almost worth it. Better yet, go for a walk in a forest.

Resort at Squaw Creek

Before the 1960 Olympic Games were played in Squaw Valley, there was next to nothing here.

Including snow. It wasn't until hours before opening ceremonies in the first televised winter Games that a cold rain turned into a blizzard, dumping enough powder to get things going.

That the Games could even be attempted in such a place was the fantasy of a cocky developer named Alexander Cushing, who dazzled the International Olympic Committee enough to narrowly win the right to hold the even on his resort. Some loved it. Some hated it.

Today, opinions of the 11-year-old course at Resort at Squaw Creek similarly waver.

A decade ago a national golf magazine rated this course among the top 10 public courses in the country. Yet while it's hard to find fault with the gorgeous setting, some don't like Squaw Creek's modest length, lack of elevation changes and target golf style, with wooden bridges spanning protected wetlands.

No. 8 is a prime example. The par-4 is only 338 yards from the back tees, and hitting a driver is folly because the fairway ends about 60 yards from the green, with wetlands nearly surrounding the tiny green. The fairway is similarly isolated. You need about a 100-yard carry to reach it. Duffers undoubtedly will lose a lot of balls at Squaw Creek. But who said golf was easy? And who wants it to be? Bike riding is easy, so is swimming once you learn how. Can't help hitting ground balls off the tee? Maybe it's time to take up bowling.

It's tough to find fault with the resort, a nine-story beauty that leads sits near the foot of one of Squaw Valley's six peaks. The resort has 403 rooms, and nearly half are suites. Visitors are surrounded by mountain peaks as they gaze at meadows, grand strands of pines and the course.

If you start to lose a few balls, just take a deep breath, exhale and enjoy the view. The scenery will restore your blood pressure to a healthy level.

North Tahoe course information

Coyote Moon Golf Course
10685 Northwoods Blvd.
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 587-0886
Architect: Brad Bell
Par: 36-36-72
Yardage: Back: 7,177; Middle: 6,704; Front: 6,211; Women's: 5,022
Rating/slope: Back: 74.1/138; Middle: 71.1/134; Front: 69.1/130; Women's: 68.4/127
Rates: $85-$150

Resort at Squaw Creek
40 Squaw Creek Rd.
Olympia Valley, CA 96146
(530) 581-6637
Opened: 1992
Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Par: 36-35-71
Yardage: Back: 7,001; Middle: 6,453; Front: 6,010; Women's: 5,097
Rating/slope: Back: 72.9/143; Middle: 70.8/139; Front: 69.3/125; Women's: 68.9/127
Rates: $85-$115

Northstar-at-Tahoe Golf Course
P.O. Box 129
Truckee, CA 96160
Opened: 1973
Architect: Robert Muir Graves
Par: 36-36-72
Yardage: Back: 6,897; Middle: 6,365; Front: 6,015; Women's: 5,470
Rating/slope: Back: 72.4/140; Middle: 69.5/133; Front: 68.3/127; Women's: 70.8/136
Rates: $55-$105

For more information:
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority: 800-AT-TAHOE
Golf the High Sierra: 866-931-4653

Michael Pramik, Contributor

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