When I got the invitation, I was certain that the people throwing the party were a desperate lot indeed.
My presence had been requested at an event arranged by the folks who promote the nine public golf courses of the Carson Valley, a gorgeous glade which stretches out under the watchful gaze of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This conglomeration of golf facilities, nicknamed the "Divine Nine", runs the gamut between good-time tracks and true game-testers, and in sum represents what a golf destination should be; something to please every skill level and income bracket.
I re-read the invitation. Somewhere in the primer for golf course promotion, this must be under the heading "BIG MISTAKE": Put a gang of golf writers on a bus from dawn 'til dusk, give them free access to alcohol, have them chop up your area's best golf holes, and hope they something nice to say about it afterwards. To the innocent passerby, I was certain the whole thing would appear to be a prison transfer gone horribly awry.
I accepted the invitation gladly.
MINDEN, NV (Dawn)- Moments removed from Dreamland, and having had barely enough time to gulp down a bagel and a cup of heated caffeine, I ease my sizable frame into the back of a shuttle bus idling outside the Carson Valley Inn.
It's appropriate that our saga should commence at this locale; after all, it was the brainstorm of the Inn's marketing director, Bill Henderson, to haul a motley band of golf scribes through a course-by-course tour of the Divine Nine. We were scheduled to play two holes on each course, thereby completing an eighteen hole circuit - in somewhere around twelve hours.
I notice that Henderson is nowhere to be seen on the hour of departure, however. That's the problem with brainstorms. They tend to rain on everyone else.
Instead, our host for the day's festivities is P.R. guru Phil Weidinger. He makes immediate friends amongst our group of golf scribes by pointing out the location of the beer. It's five minutes after seven in the morning.
At twenty-two minutes after seven, fourteen cranky individuals, still sodden with sleep, pile out of the shuttle bus to invade the day's first course, The Golf Club at Genoa Lakes.
Genoa Lakes, a Harbottle/Jacobsen design, is the best overall facility on the Divine Nine. Measuring a stout 7,263 yards, and having recently undergone an $8 million dollar facelift, this top-flight facility now offers the amenities to match its excellent layout.
We are forced to take our first swings of the day at the toughest closing hole in Northern Nevada, a 449-yd knee-knocker loaded with water and bunkers. We're clearly not up to the challenge. In fact, we seem to be operating on the 25% principle: two of eight in our group hit the fairway, two of eight make par.
This sorry trend persists on the evil 14th, a 185-yd par three played through a chute of trees and over lateral hazards of every sort. Again, only two of us find the green; the rest go hunting in the hazard. Yours truly snags "closest to the pin" honors by smoothing a four-iron to twenty feet. No, I didn't make the putt, thanks for asking.
The western-themed Sierra Nevada Golf Ranch is our next stop. Separated from Genoa Lakes by only three miles, these bookended facilities represent the "upscale" portion of the Divine Nine.
Sierra Nevada, a Harbottle/Miller design, features a lovely layout carved into sage-dotted slopes. It also boasts one of the best practice facilities in Northern Nevada. While our "posse" clearly needed all the practice it could get, instead we are escorted to the course's two dramatic closing holes.
Seventeen at Sierra Nevada is a pretty 165-yarder with a partial island green. Shockingly, I witness four consecutive golf writers put their tee shots on the putting surface. I'm sure, had they been aware of the event, CNN would have issued a "Breaking News" alert (not that anyone would have believed it).
Eighteen, a dramatic risk/reward par five, offers a stunning view of distant Job's Peak. The hole also features plenty of water and bunkers. Tara, a magazine writer from California, finds four of them on her way to the green, yet still manages a bogey. Not surprisingly, she had nice things to say about the sand (and no doubt had some left in her shoes).
Reaching the southern periphery of Carson City, we disembark at our third course, Sunridge Golf Club. Sunridge may be the most controversial course of the Divine Nine, featuring a homeward half with staggering elevation changes and several holes harder to decipher than a Rubik's cube.
In this case, the first impression is deceptive. Those golfers who return to learn the layout's secrets will be forevermore hooked. Sunridge also proves to be an excellent course for women, who often shoot lower scores than their male companions from the generous forward tees.
Our group starts on the "reachable" par 5 sixth, with water looming in the "slicer's zone". Of course, none of us reach the green in two shots, though Dean, our local TV reporter, "reaches" the water twice. Good work.
It's my turn for ignominy as we backtrack to the par 3 fifth, a 150 yarder with an inviting water hazard. A little too inviting; I dump two shots in the agua. I pout all the way back to the shuttle. Stupid game.
At 10:47 AM, I consume my first beer. The liquid consolation for my golfing inadequacies helps somewhat. I take note, however, that I was the last on the bus to start drinking.
We are now forty minutes behind schedule as we arrive at the tour's fourth course, Empire Ranch. This facility is home to Northern Nevada's only 27-hole layout, and offers superb value golf in a low-pressure, enjoyable environment.
About this time, something strange happens. Perhaps the sun has sufficiently warmed our bones, or the beer has introduced fluidity to our collective swings, but a bunch of us golf writing hacks begin to swing the golf club with accuracy and purpose.
Tara, the gal we last saw struggling to extricate herself of some of Sierra Nevada's many bunkers, knocks a shot to within two feet on the Red Course's par 3 eighth, nearly bagging a hole in one. She settles for her second consecutive birdie.
I card two pars, easily my best effort thus far. I try to talk the crew into playing the rest of our "round" here, for my ego's sake. No such luck. Convinced that the beer was responsible for my newfound success, I crack open another cold one.
Heading eastward on US-50 towards the town of Dayton, we pass the Kit Kat Bunny Ranch. I suggest we stop there for lunch (I believe I used the term "quick bite"), but I am quickly shouted down by the tour's female contingent. Another time, ladies of the night.
Instead, we enjoy a fine lunch on the sunny patio of Dayton Valley's modest clubhouse. Dayton Valley, an Arnold Palmer design, is the perfect layout for the player in search of a challenge; the course has hosted the first stage of PGA Tour qualifying for seven years running.
Our bellies now full of something besides beer, we step up to the tee of the picturesque par three thirteenth, which features exquisite use of "beach" bunkering, and requires a carry over a pond to a generous green. Our host Phil drains a 35-footer for a fabulous up-and-down par. Cheater.
The par four fourteenth is a testy hole that dares you to bite off a healthy chunk of water to get close to a two-tiered green. Chad, a local newspaper reporter who could pass for an NFL lineman, hit a tremendous drive, then shanked his wedge into the drink. Of such things are obituaries written, Chad.
A shocking thing has occurred as we head back towards Carson City. We are inexplicably now a half-hour ahead of schedule. We all celebrate by having another beer.
As we return to town along US-50, we again pass the Kit Kat. Although I quickly conceive a plan which would enable us to spend that surplus time, I am once more chastised by the gals on the bus. Oh well.
At two PM, we arrive at the entrance to Eagle Valley, a 36-hole complex that represents the "anchor" of the Divine Nine. Centrally located, inexpensive, and always fun, Eagle Valley's two courses are perfect complements. The wide-open East Course is colloquially known as the "Ray Charles" side (close your eyes and hit it). In that vein, the tough, sagebrush-lined West Course should be known as the "Betsy Ross" side (you need to thread the needle).
After playing two straightforward holes on the East, our group scurries over to the West side to take on the challenge of that track's two toughest holes. The 554-yd twelfth, which slithers uphill to a well-bunkered green, can easily be a "four-shot" par five if you're careless.
The thirteenth is a black-hearted par three played over an arroyo to a slippery banked green. Back at the bus, several of our group tell woeful tales of birdie efforts rolled completely off the surface and down the grassy embankment. I don't mention that I had to "give" myself a three-footer to prevent a four-jack. Messy.
At a quarter after four, the Tour has become a test of survival. The bodies of our mostly stolid group of scribblers are by now rebelling against the constant shuffling in and out of the shuttle bus. The consumption of beer has also reached college fraternity proportions as we soldier on to our eighth course, Silver Oak.
Silver Oak may well be the hidden jewel of the Divine Nine. Superbly conditioned, value-priced and featuring an intriguing back nine routed through the Sierra foothills, this layout is another must play.
Our group is joined by young resident pro T.J. Duncan, who obviously possesses a fine sense of humor to play with golfers of our ilk. On the risk/reward par five ninth, which requires a heroic carry to an island green, T.J. calmly reaches the green in two with a mid-iron, while the rest of us lay up. Show off.
At the tough uphill par four fourth, with a greedy water hazard fronting an extremely shallow green, I make my only putt of the day, a snaky 30-footer to save par. Clearly, this element of the game proved the toughest to maintain. Imagine playing nine sets of greens of different speeds and surfaces, and then trying to sustain a putting rhythm. Anyway, that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.
As we make our last, and longest, drive of the Tour - the twenty-two miles southward from Silver Oak to Gardnerville's Carson Valley Golf Course - the sun has taken a temporary position atop the western range of the Sierras. We have now fallen behind again by fifteen minutes, but it still seems possible that we will not only survive this ordeal, but finish before dark. Maybe.
Carson Valley G.C. is an beautiful, executive-length course that is routed along the Carson River. Those who have played golf in Texas will immediately be familiar with these cottonwood-lined fairways.
And, as in Texas, those cottonwoods often sneak out into the middle of the landing area. The par five fifteenth has just such a troublemaker, and predictably, my tee shot caroms off of it. Regrettably, I have left my chain saw at home.
On the 325-yd fourteenth, which I have dubbed "the hole without a fairway", this concept is taken to the extreme. There are no less than six tall cottonwoods standing directly between the tee and the green; only a high-arching tee shot (and a well-received prayer) will do here.
Our final putts drop into the cup amid the gloaming of an early fall evening. Our group shakes hands and tumbles into the shuttle bus for the short ride back to the Carson Valley Inn. We silently acknowledge that we have accomplished something few golfers will ever know - the joys of a twelve-hour round.
Thanks to all who helped set up this unique adventure. Next time, though, we're stopping at the Kit Kat Bunny Ranch. Or else.
For more information on the Divine Nine, including extensive course information and other essential area links, go to: www.divinenine.com
A Divine Nine golf experience is not complete without a stay at each of the two golf-friendly lodging properties which anchor the northern and southern ends of the Carson Valley.
When playing the "Divine Nine-North" (Dayton Valley, Eagle Valley, Empire Ranch, and Silver Oak), I highly recommend the Best Western Pinon Plaza. The golf packages offered here have been put together by Jackie Behan, who understands the needs of golfers, being a fine one herself (just don't challenge her to a round, she'll stomp you).
For reservations: (775) 885-9000 Web: www.pinonplaza.com.
The recently upgraded Carson Valley Inn is the perfect choice for lodging when playing the four courses located in the southern reaches of the Valley (Genoa Lakes, Sierra Nevada, Carson Valley G.C., and Sunridge). Feel free to challenge the notorious Bill Henderson to a round; you should look good by comparison.
For reservations: (775) 265-3181 Web: www.cvinn.com.
The courses of the Divine Nine are dispersed around US-395 and US-50, in the towns of Carson City, Dayton, Genoa, and Gardnerville.
By car, access US-395 by heading south from I-80 in Reno.
By air, Reno/Tahoe International offers convenient access to the Carson Valley. US-395 is your main access road from the airport; head south for approximately thirty minutes to the Carson Valley.
For car rentals, I recommend Advantage, which has the area's best rates, especially for golfers. Call ahead for special rates. For reservations: (775) 333-6677 Web: www.arac.com