The Dragon at Gold Mountain: Beware of the ravines on Sierra golf's newest winner

By David R. Holland, Contributor

Four months after Mike Deprado played The Dragon at Gold Mountain he could still remember some of the holes.

"I have played more than 400 courses and I rate this course in my top 30 on a par with courses like PGA West, Bay Hill, Crosswater and Caledonia," Deprado said.

"I live in Branchburg, New Jersey, and make my way to the Sierras area about once a year," Deprado continued. "I usually play Twelve Bridges and then drive up to play Whitehawk Ranch. The Dragon was the best I experienced and I';d love to play it again."

The Dragon at Gold Mountain is memorable, no doubt. And when the new Frank Lloyd Wright clubhouse becomes the centerpiece of this unforgettable mountain layout when the Dragon reopens this spring after the snow melts, there will be a flood of golfers converging on owners Peggy and Dariel Garner's stellar development.

The Nakoma Clubhouse was designed in 1923 by Wright for a golf and country club in Madison, Wisconsin, but was never built. This unique building is made up of a series of contrasting octagons, squares and rectangular spaces. It';s a celebration of the American Indian and has five roof spires or tee pees, one soaring 60 feet into the Sierra sky. A gigantic fireplace named "campfire" is just one of many Indian symbols found in the structure.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to The Dragon, which opened a year ago, is all the criticism it';s getting from the golfers around Graeagle. Ask someone on the street about it they will immediately say: "It';s too hard. Most people aren';t going to want to go there, pay their price and spend a day losing a lot of golf balls."

If a golf course draws that much attention, you have to check it out.

Once named "Grizzly" instead of "Dragon", Deprado even said: "This golf course should rank with the best courses in the country. I've played many of the top 100 and this design is unique and challenging. There are many elevated tees with fantastic views. The fees are pricey at $140, but once the course matures I think it will win awards.

"The Dragon is certainly a different look than most traditional courses, but that';s what I liked," Deprado said. "Since it is not traditional I can see where Northern California golf pros might bad-mouth the course, but even months after I can recall many of the holes."

If the starter is sharp, he will give you a precursor to your round on the first tee: "Watch out for the ravines, that';s where the dragons lurk."

From No. 1, The Dragon';s Lookout, a downhill 553-yard par-5, the layout dips and weaves for 7,070 yards. It';s a par 72 with six sets of tees challenging you to keep your mind on the game. The distracting scenery might just cost you.

The Dragon lures you to the brink of deep gorges overlooking the Wild and Scenic Feather River and to vistas of Gold Mountain splendor. In early spring and late fall there are snow-capped peaks and rugged ridges to entice you.

"When I design a course I hope the golfer leaves the 18th green and wants to play it again," said Robin Nelson, who designed The Dragon along with heralded Mauna Lani in Hawaii. "No. 18 at the Dragon is the best I';ve ever been involved with, but it';s just part of including variety, fairness, presentation and challenge. My main idea is to let the site speak for itself, to take whatever the site has and transform it into a golf course, if at all possible.

"This golf course took a long time -- four or five years," Nelson recalled. "We were out there marking every tree -- we really wanted to build an environmentally-sensitive golf course (Audubon Signature). Patty Sheehan, the LPGA veteran, also helped a lot. She was out there walking it with us giving her thoughts and making suggestions."

Named "Enlightenment", No. 18 is a 559-yard par-5 risk-reward offering. The hole aims downhill to a natural saddle, with bunkers framing both sides. Zero in on the large left bunker, and if you clear it, you are set perfectly for the second shot. Now you can lay up safely to the left, or take the risk carrying the three bunkers dotted into the steep slope right. The green sits on a lofty perch in the pines and is well guarded by more bunkers. Judging the right distance from here to the elevated green is tricky."

A succession of three holes, Faith, Hope and Charity, Nos. 4-6, offer awesome views of the Feather River far below and surrounding canyons. Each green seems to be nestled back into the woods and varies in small-to-large size. All have slippery contours and can frustrate any golfer with numerous three-putts.

Faith is a narrow 320-yard par-4 target, demanding tee shot over a deep natural ravine. Go too far left and your ball will fall 200 feet into the Feather River Canyon. Even if you find the middle of the fairway, a flyer over the green on the next shot will give you the same result -- a huge drop to a place wayward golf balls can';t be retrieved.

No. 5, Hope, presents you with a 160-yard, par-3 challenge. From an elevated tee the green is tiny and is perched on the edge of the deep gorge. Deep bunkers guard the right and front. You have to be accurate to par this one.

Dragon Lagoon, No. 10, a par 5 at only 433, has downhill terraced tee boxes with a panorama of the distant mountains and the lagoon in your line of site. This lake, 70 feet below, is reachable for Mr. Woods so you should aim right-center. The approach has trouble everywhere -- water left, pines and bunkers to the right.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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