Lake Tahoe: Where the golfing soars

High altitude boosts the drives, while spectacular scenery boosts the spirits.

Destination: Nevada

July 14, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff

The deep blue of Lake Tahoe meets the thin air of the High Sierra at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, and the vistas are, as you might expect, striking. It is the kind of place where a person can contemplate the questions of the ages -- like whether to use a 3-wood or a 5-wood to cover the last 270 yards of this par-5.

Up here, I really am Tiger Woods.

In baseball, they call it the Coors Field effect. The atmospheric resistance to the flight of a projectile diminishes the higher you get above sea level, which explains why it's much easier to hit a home run in Denver than it is in Detroit. It also provides the only explanation for why a paunchy, midlife-crisis-waiting-to-happen can drive a golf ball 310 yards off the tee without the help of a Big Bertha or a Ken Caminiti cocktail.

Golf at altitude.

What a thing.

"People just love that," said Doug Flynn, head golf pro at the Resort at Squaw Creek. "They end up swinging from their shoes, just to go home and say they hit a wedge 150 yards."

The rarefied air at high altitude can add as much as 15 percent to the distance of a solid shot. That turns a 5-iron at sea level into a 7-iron at Squaw Creek's 6,200-foot elevation.

Three years ago, a friend invited me to the Lake Tahoe area for a few days of golf and -- don't tell my wife -- a few nights of gaming. My flight was late, and my buddy informed me that we had 20 minutes to meet our tee time at a pretty public course called Rosewood Lakes.

Trouble was, I had not swung a club in nearly two months and was looking forward to a couple of sessions on the driving range before hitting the links. Instead, it was all I could do to get my spikes on before we were on the first tee.

My first shot, miraculously, was dead solid and it didn't stop rolling until I was an easy wedge from the green. Four hours later, I was celebrating the best round of my life -- by five strokes. Though I didn't play that well again on the trip, I continued to hit the ball longer than ever and returned to Baltimore with enough long-drive stories to bore even my most patient golf partners.

I'm a lousy golfer, so when I recount how I chopped five strokes off my best score, we're only talking about an 87 (though if I had avoided that seven on 17, I would still be strutting around saying, "Yeah, I shoot in the mid-80s.").

My golf threesome at home (I don't have enough friends for a foursome) is so bad that we call ourselves Tres Ochos -- Spanish for Three Eights. One member of the group is so erratic that there's talk of establishing a charity golf tournament just to benefit the people he has injured on the course.

Beautiful courses

The thin air at high altitude isn't going to keep you from shanking the ball into the trees, but the impressive scenery will take the sting out of a tough round. There are dozens of beautiful courses in the area around Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nev., and each has its own perspective on tall pines and snow-capped mountains.

Perhaps the best known course is Edgewood Tahoe, the site of the annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. The course borders the lake and finishes with two shoreline greens that are framed by the crystal blue water and the High Sierra. It's pricey -- the greens fee is $200 with cart and range balls -- but it might be as pretty as Pebble Beach in California at little more than half the price.

Edgewood is a difficult course, but there are even more challenging layouts in the area. The relatively new Dragon at Gold Mountain takes great pride in its reputation as one of the most beguiling courses in the West.

The clubhouse and restaurant complex was built in a Native American motif from blueprints drawn by Frank Lloyd Wright for a similar project that was never completed in Michigan. But don't be fooled by the upscale accommodations. The golf course is not for the faint of heart.

The Resort at Squaw Creek, which doubles as a ski resort in the winter, also can leave you searching the bottom of your golf bag for extra balls, with environmental areas so huge that golfers navigate parts of the course on long wooden cart bridges.

Not every course, however, is unforgiving. Picturesque Coyote Moon, about 30 miles west of Reno in Truckee, Calif., provides all the scenic beauty of the Sierra with a moderately challenging layout and an imaginative landscape that includes huge boulders around several greens.

Coyote Moon also takes advantage of the natural changes in elevation to create some of the most spectacular par-3 holes in the region, though the most dynamic par-3 might be the signature 15th hole at Reno's Lake Ridge Golf Course, which features a view of the Reno skyline from the tee box and a water-locked green nearly 200 feet below.

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