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Hickland? Try golfland: Reno-Lake Tahoe Sierra region defies stereotypes with fun

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

GRAEAGLE, Calif. -- If Vito -- Tony's fatally-outed, leather-clad captain from "The Sopranos" -- had been in Las Vegas rather than New Jersey, he would have ended up here. And he'd probably still be alive.

Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club
Dr. Mac does his thing at Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club.
Whitehawk Ranch Golf ClubEdgewood golf courseMoody's BistroReno-Lake Tahoe golf

Little Graeagle -- population 2,000 summer, 800 winter, give or take whoever stepped outside town to buy groceries -- might not have Johnny Cakes served by a volunteer fireman. But it does have one of the best little pie cafes you'll find anywhere. It's in one of the little red buildings in the town center and is run by a guy with a white beard in a blue plaid shirt who screams out to be made a "Twin Peaks" character.

Of course, he also makes pies and soups so good that a few bikers on hardcore Harleys have called ahead to reserve their orders on this late Saturday morning. You don't want to be fighting these guys for that last piece of boysenberry.

Welcome to Graeagle. You'd better be walking. It takes exactly 32 seconds to drive right through the entire downtown. If you hit traffic.

So why are you here? Why would a mobster on the run find happiness in this hamlet in the high sierras about 50 minutes from the California-Nevada border?

The golf, stupid. It has to be the golf. Graeagle has six golf courses in an eight-mile radius. Consider that all of Plumas County only has eight people per square mile and the equation takes on new meaning. As in: Who died and made Bill Murray mayor?

Plumas County is the kind of place where the newspaper guy moonlights as a Mac computer troubleshooter. His name's Kevin Mallory and he hands you a business card that identifies him as "Dr Mac" — after unleashing one of the most ornate preshot routines you've ever seen. Think Swan Lake.

This is just part of the California sophistication that awaits you in Plumas County. And it's only the tip of the putter in a towering tree, snowy mountain peak view natureland that stretches the gamut from the older school neon of Reno (still 100 percent better than Atlantic City!) to a town along the Tahoe River called Truckee that has a restaurant with a manager straight from Manhattan gastronomical palace Picholine and a tiny stage that Paul McCartney performs on once every year. Yes, that Paul McCartney.

There are 45 courses in a 90-minute drive radius in the region. And the surprises along the way don't stop at Sir Paul on the Moody's Bistro mike.

It turns out that the area that self congratulatory Los Angeles snobs -- and even more annoying Las Vegas braggarts -- regard as Hickland isn't so much. Well, at least not all the time.

Phil Weidinger, public relations director for Golf The High Sierra, recreates the story of going into the Mohawk bar one night (it's in legendary Plumas) and having a revealing conversation with the bartender.

"Where you from?" the drink man asked.

"Tahoe," Weidinger replied.

Long pause. "Heard of it," Mohawk's barkeep shot back.

Tahoe is about 50 miles from the Mohawk. And to certain Plumas residents, it's apparently several worlds away. As the mullets fly.

"It used to be a hick town," Dayton Valley Golf Club General Manager Jim Kepler said of his own high sierra area. "It's still a hick town. Only now people have teeth. When we moved here, we had no people with teeth playing."

How can you not love a golf destination where the PR chief cracks on the area's rep and the golf pro tops him?

This high sierra zone is as far removed from a haughty, exaggeratedly self important spot as you can get. In other words, unlike any "golf destination" you've ever known.

The no-attitude attitude carries over to the courses themselves too. Playing golf in Reno-Lake Tahoe is more relaxed than your typical run of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones tracks.

All the big-name designers are here. The marshals, who believe they're endowed with the powers of a state trooper because their golf cart has a sign on it, are not.

"It has a hidden hometown feel to it," Plumas Pines Golf Resort Head Professional Brandon Bowling said. "It's about kicking your feet up on the lake basin."

And not falling in if you're some city slicker. From like Tahoe.

The Unexpected rules

The lounge at the Peppermill Casino's steak house is deader than Elvis on a Monday night. Yet Eva, a beautiful blonde from Poland with a long slit up her black dress, is bewitching four golfers with stories of her journeys over. Eva isn't pimping for a tip in the calculating, practiced way of a Vegas cocktail waitress either.

"We'll see how it works out," Eva laughs when one of the golfers notices her sparkly engagement ring. It's the kind of line that sends many a 50-year-old heart aflutter. Or something aflutter.

Up in the room -- where a golfer's chance of bringing Eva roughly correlate to the odds of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals winning baseball's World Series -- the motif is pure over-the-top glitz. Christmas-bulb like white lights run along the black walls. The Jacuzzi tub is even deeper black and you better believe mirrors surround it.

Yet, this is the rare hotel room anywhere where you'd like to spend an extra night. Of course, then you'd miss Dr. Mac's attempt to rile up the geese on one of Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club's picturesque par 3s. "I was attacked by geese once," Mallory solemnly states. "When I was a little boy."

Then, Mallory instantly transforms back into Dr. Mac and thrusts his head forward and his butt out, flapping his arms in a perfect mimic of the geese's gait. Dr. Mac gets close enough to the baby birds to draw loud hisses from the mothers.

"Uh-oh," Mallory said.

Yes, even Vito wouldn't get bored here on a golf escape. How could you? Unless they run out of boysenberry.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Folksy

    Jenny Garment wrote on: Aug 2, 2006

    Quit trying to be a folksy writer and write about golf courses. You can't compete with big boy writers for real golf magazines.


  • Graeagle golfing is the BEST!

    Kevin Mallory wrote on: Jun 14, 2006

    Hey Chris, it was great golfing with you at Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club! Looking forward to showing you some more fantastic preshot routines next year right here in the prime golf destination of Plumas County, California. See you next year!
    Kevin Mallory aka "Dr Mac" also known as "The Goose"


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