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FOCUS ON GOLF | T.J. Simers

Beauty and the Beast

Our high-altitude big hitter sprays balls into almost every crevice in the High Sierra

August 14, 2003|T.J. Simers

It had a wonderful, exciting feel to it: "Golf the High Sierra," publicist Phil Weidinger suggested, play 10 extraordinary courses in Reno, Carson City, Graeagle and Lake Tahoe in a span of six days, and enjoy yourself.

Yes, I can honestly say I've never had so much fun looking for lost golf balls -- walking through the woods, peering over the edge of cliffs and comparing the splashes and the ripples that come with finding every creek, pond and river in the California/Nevada area.

It was the perfect getaway for someone who has no interest in spending time on the fairway, and while I remained the high-altitude big hitter taking on all of America to the left and to the right, I begin this tale of woe with the Dragon and its insatiable appetite for new golf balls.

The course was in impeccable condition, a scenic delight, and I hated the place.

"Ah, another great review," said owner Dariel Garner, who took pleasure in hearing such whining.

The Dragon motto: "Send me your heroes." Its mission: To bring most golfers to their knees. Its rate of success: "At the beginning of the year, we said we've had 1,000 professionals play the course, three made par, and one beat the Dragon."

If I wanted to be miserable, I'd go shopping with the wife.

"It is a course designed to bring out the best in a golfer, and the worst," Garner said. "It's meant to bring out the emotion, so that when you are done, you either hate it or love it."

And after you've stormed off the course, sales associate Linda Bowen said, "There are wonderful villas waiting and available for rent -- perfect for the romantic couple with a four-side fireplace, room service, Jacuzzi...."

When I asked, Bowen said they can also be used by married couples.

The Dragon, 50 miles north of Tahoe and Reno on California Highway 89, has the five-spire Nakoma clubhouse -- designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924 -- as if I could really care. I'm still trying to recover from No. 4.

It's a 320-yard, par-four train wreck. The entire left side is a canyon leading down to the Feather River. Across the canyon there is a train trestle, and while it shouldn't come into play, I believe it was the second of the three balls that I hit over the cliff that was heading in that direction when I last saw it.

"Maybe we should put some vending machines up that sell golf balls," Garner said with a laugh, and I've never talked to an owner of a golf course who takes such delight in destroying its clientele. "If you're really aggressive and try to overpower this course, that doesn't work. You don't set out to win here, but play it as it goes.... It's kind of a Zen thing."

I probably should have made like Phil Jackson and never gotten out of the cart.

And how does Garner fare when he plays his own course?

"I like to go to the spa," he said. "I never walk out without a smile on my face."

*

Now everyone knows the Reno/Tahoe area provides gambling opportunities and the chance to throw away money when not skiing, but losing golf balls in some of the most beautiful places in the country is just about as expensive.

"There is an incredible variety of places [to do that]," said Bill Chernock, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "There are full-on desert target courses, high desert to mountain tracks, courses along the lake that play like links, and if your ego doesn't get in the way, every one of the courses is playable from the proper set of tees."

Some vacation -- they want you to bring your wife along, but leave the ego at home. "There are plenty of things here for the women to do if they don't want to play golf," said Weidinger, who left his wife at home. "I take the bride every year on her birthday to Graeagle, and this year we have dinner reservations for the Sardine Lake Resort, which offers a spectacular lake setting."

As you can see, Weidinger can get on your nerves. He likes to wager when he plays golf, although I believe it's against the law in California. He organized this year's Golf the High Sierra Media Tour, because I would imagine he couldn't find anyone else willing to wager with him, and began at Red Hawk's two courses in Sparks, just outside Reno. It's in the middle of nowhere, which means a year from now it will probably be surrounded by houses.

All of the par threes are over water on the Lakes Course, so this isn't the kind of layout for the clumsy, you know, like sports editor Bill Dwyre. In addition to losing his own ball, Dwyre has been known to fall in the water himself, and Red Hawk does not have any lifeguards on duty. If you play with Weidinger and you hit a ball in the water, he will laugh at you. It would be better to play with Dwyre, so you can laugh at him.

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