South Tahoe: A little golf, a lot of fun

By Michael Pramik, Contributor

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. -- What beauty is not: Charles Barkley's golf swing.

What beauty is: the place where Barkley and many other athletes display their sometimes frightful contortions every summer. Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course is the heart and soul of Lake Tahoe's golf tableau.

The layout by George Fazio and his nephew, Tom, was the site of July's American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. Sports and entertainment icons including Barkley, Michael Jordan, John Elway and Rush Limbaugh played at Edgewood to raise money for the families of soldiers killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But the star power of these celebrities flickers compared to the setting. The Lake Tahoe region gleams like a Kodachrome postcard, where a sparkling blue lake meets alpine meadows, pine forests and a sandy shoreline to create vistas unlike anywhere else.

If Tahoe is a high-country paradise, then the south shore is its playground. Stretching from Zephyr Cove, Nev., to Emerald Bay State Park in California, and winding south to Meyers, Calif., south Tahoe is a visual feast, from the stunning outdoors scenery to the caged dancers in the nightclub at Harrah's casino.

Within a few miles, you can take a romantic stroll along the beach or climb on a horse for a 1,000-foot trek up a mountain. Take a cruise on the lake in a paddlewheeler, or hover above it in a parasailing harness. Hike to a replica Viking castle, or wager on their NFL namesakes. Hop aboard a ski lift into thin air, or inhale it at Tahoe's only oxygen bar.

And don't forget Edgewood - the only course on the south shore. In fact, other than a couple of municipal tracks in Meyers, Edgewood is the only course in all of south Tahoe. It's a must-play, but budget wisely. It's $200 in high season (plus $20 for a fore caddy, who will locate your ball and give you the distance to the pin).

Edgewood's location accounts for much of its allure. It's in the middle of the action in Stateline, so you can see both casinos and the lake. Edgewood is picturesque, with numerous ponds, small lakes and streams, and tall pine trees that frame many of the holes.

The course layout also has merit. George Fazio designed Edgewood in 1968, and his more renowned nephew, Tom, has updated it several times over the past decade. The U.S. Senior Open was played here in 1985, and the course has been the site of the celebrity tournament since 1990.

If you like holes that lean to the right, you'll love Edgewood. It has eight of them. They begin with No. 3, a long par-5 that forces you to lay up in a narrow strip of grass between a pond and a bunker. Most players will have a medium-to-short iron to an elevated green tucked into a grove of ponderosa pines.

Two holes later, your tee shot on a medium-length par-3 is framed by pine trees and bunkers and has the casinos directly in the background. Just aim for the "C" in "Caesars Palace," and you'll hit the middle of the green. But the true delights at Edgewood are the final three holes. If your power fade hasn't abandoned you and you've got a decent score to that point, steady your concentration. The views along Lake Tahoe can break it in a hurry.

No. 16 is a 564-yard par-5 that not only forces you to negotiate a pine tree in the right portion of the fairway but also guides you by hitting toward Lake Tahoe on your approach.

No. 17 is among the prettiest holes because it's separated from Lake Tahoe on the right by a narrow beach. A local rumor says that when the wind is up you have to aim directly over the water and the wind will carry the ball back to the green. That's a bit much. It's better just to aim for the beach if it's windy.

The final hole is a par-5 that plays about 500 yards from the regular men's tee (add 70 yards for the tips). So it's conceivable to hit it in two, although a lake guards the left side of the green, which again plays close to Lake Tahoe on the right.

The course owners are building a sports bar on top of its pro shop that will have outside seating so you can watch other players fling their balls into the lake.

Or, head for the casinos. Six of them line Lake Tahoe Boulevard just across the Nevada-California border in Stateline, Nev., offering major entertainment to go with the opportunity to make a few bucks. The casinos aren't 4,000-room monstrosities like some in Las Vegas. The biggest is Harvey's, which has 740 rooms.

Rather, gaming here is subdued. That can be a bad thing, like at the sometimes agonizingly slow craps tables. Or good, if you've don't want to spoil the serenity of a relaxing massage at Reflections inside Harrah's. Much of south Tahoe can be described as intimate and funky, unlike the overplayed hand of Las Vegas.

Lake Tahoe Boulevard, a short stretch of U.S. Highway 50 that borders the lake, is packed with inns, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and a few oddities like fortune tellers.

But South Tahoe's compact footprint has a dark side. Rampant growth of small hotels and retail properties led to environmental problems in the 1980s when pollution began to reduce the lake's clarity. As a result, California and the city of South Lake Tahoe initiated a $500 million smart-development process to replace some of the properties with more environmentally friendly alternatives.

A 400-room Embassy Suites opened in 1990 and included generous green space. But it took more than a decade of wrangling with landowners and environmental officials to build the next project: Heavenly Village, which opened in 2002.

"The motivation certainly is economic vitality, but it's also environmental because the properties built in the '60s contributed runoff and erosion," said Bill Chernock, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "The Embassy Suites was an $85 million project, and $15 million was underground in handling erosion."

Heavenly Village includes two Marriott resorts, a shopping center and a gondola that takes riders some 3,000 feet to the Heavenly Ski Resort observation deck with spectacular views of the lake.

An adjacent shopping center has room for three dozen stores, with a theater, ice rink and parking garage planned. In the future, more old inns and other businesses across Lake Tahoe Boulevard will be torn down to extend the village.

There are plenty of inns still around. A gem is Inn by the Lake, a former Ramada Inn that's a couple of miles west of Heavenly Village. Take Lake Tahoe Boulevard west, and it merges into Rt. 89 and points westward toward Emerald Bay.

Whether you rent a boat, don hiking shoes or simply drive, the bay is a great spot to admire Tahoe's beauty, your own golf swing notwithstanding.

Opened: 1968
Architects: George Fazio, Tom Fazio
Par: 36-36-72
Yardage: Back: 7,445; Middle: 6,846, Front: 6,365; Women's: 5,567
Rating/slope: Back: 75.7, 139; Middle: r.3, 132; Front: 70.2, 127; Women's: 71.3, 136.
Fee, including cart: $200 in high season

Michael Pramik, Contributor

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