Guide to the private and semi-private golf clubs of Lake Tahoe

TRUCKEE, Calif. -- No doubt the Lake Tahoe area is littered with great golf, both on the public, semiprivate and private level.

If you limit yourself to public golf in the area, the pickings are still pretty good with courses like Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, Tahoe Donner Golf Course and The Dragon at Nakoma Golf Resort, just to name a few.

But it seems a shame, if you make the trip to Lake Tahoe, not to get on some of the private courses and certainly the courses that were deemed private in conception but for one reason or another have opened their doors to public play. That list includes some of the most beautiful courses in the country done by some of golf's best designers. Each of them has different levels of access, and a couple of them are nearly impossible to get on -- but not impossible.

Premium semi-private golf clubs in the Tahoe area

When a club is built to be private during tough economic times, opening the club to outside public play is often necessary for survival.

Sometimes the plan is to go fully private when the economy turns around, membership reaches a certain level or a certain amount of home sites are sold. It's usually a combination of more than one of these factors, but often it never happens.

Sometimes clubs also offer limited unaccompanied guest play to spread awareness and drive membership. Such is the case for Schaffer's Mill Golf & Lake Club (formerly Timilick) near Truckee. When it opened in 2008, Golfweek named it the no. 1 Best New Private Course in California. This terrific and beautiful Johnny Miller and John Harbottle design, with its superior practice facilities, clubhouse and impeccable conditions, is now open to the public on Mondays and sometimes on Tuesday. It's really a tale of two golf courses as its outward nine weaves through a meadow and the back nine showcases a mountain look with elevation change up to 400 feet. Guest fees range from $95 to $175 in peak season.

Other semi-private clubs in the area, however, offer unaccompanied guests on most days. Old Greenwood and its sister course, The Golf Club at Gray's Crossing, are great examples.

Both are Truckee TMR Real Estate courses, obviously set on development, but both offer pretty much unlimited outside play. They are premium courses with green fees that reflect that ($120-$200 during peak times in prime season), but they are well worth checking out if you take a golf vacation to the Tahoe area.

Old Greenwood is a memorable Jack Nicklaus design with plenty of scenic holes, and it's in flawless shape by early to mid-summer. The Golf Club at Gray's Crossing is a wonderful Peter Jacobsen-Jim Hardy design with fast greens and PGA Tour-like tournament conditions every day.

Grizzly Ranch Golf Club near Portola, Calif., which is north of Truckee, should also be on your list. This Bob Cupp design was private when it opened in 2003, but opened for public play in 2005. It's pure mountain golf, tough but fair, as Cupp golf courses tend to be, and always in great shape. Green fees peak at $115.

And finally, there's Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club in Clio, Calif. The club not only offers daily-fee play in addition to its annual memberships, but also has accommodations. The Dick Bailey design is carved from the natural terrain of the Mohawk Valley and offers both meadow-like holes and tree-lined challenges for just less than $100.

The big three private golf clubs in the Tahoe area

We've all heard the expression, "If you have to ask how much, you probably can't afford it." When it comes to Martis Camp near Truckee, the phrase should probably be something like, "If you have to ask how to get on, you probably can't."

It's not impossible, mind you, but Martis Camp is as exclusive as anything in the country, Head Professional Gus Jones said. It doesn't offer reciprocals to anyone; you have to play with a member. When asked if a member at Augusta National could play the course, Jones replied, "I hope they run into one of our great members."

The club doesn't even offer reciprocals between the other exclusive club in the area -- Lahontan Golf Club. Lahontan and Martis Camp, however, share many members, so they can often play each other's clubs by accompanying one of their own members who are members of both.

Martis Camp is part of a unique family setting that offers so much more than golf and is booming with its real estate sales and membership. Tom Fazio calls it one of the finest golf courses he's ever designed, and two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen ranks it as Fazio's best ever. Elevated tee shots, incredible mountain views, fast undulated bentgrass greens and Fazio's signature bunkers -- it's all there, plus a clubhouse that towers over the 18th green, offering first-rate locker rooms, patio dining and a full-service spa. There's also an enjoyable 18-hole putting course designed by Dick Bailey.

Lahontan, also in Truckee, is the oldest of the big three and like Martis Camp, you have to play with a member. Many of our readers feel like this Tom Weiskopf design, which opened in 1998, might be the finest of any club in the Tahoe area. Reader Brian Nelson says, "The best kept course in Tahoe! Challenging, but fair. The greens are like glass and the fairways are like carpet." The club also offers a nine-hole, par-3 course, practice field and croquet lawn as well as a spa.

Clear Creek Tahoe is the most accessible

The good news, however, is that the third great private course, Clear Creek Tahoe, is no less spectacular than the other two but is way more accessible, at least for now. It's also way different, much of it due to location near Minden, Nev., about halfway up to the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, and of course, its design team.

Bill Coore took some convincing but finally agreed that this 1,600-acre mountainous site was suitable for great golf, and he and partner Ben Crenshaw didn't disappoint. They wanted it to be natural, and it is. And aside from one hole, the par-4 third, there really isn't much elevation change on the course, which means it's surprisingly walkable.

Unlike Martis Camp, the current -- and temporary clubhouse -- is understated. But as Director of Golf Colin Campbell said, "We don't have to say much; the golf course speaks for itself."

It, too, is impeccably conditioned and it has been in a constant state of tweaking since it opened six years ago. The first hole, for example, was turned into a reasonable par 5 instead of the killer par 4 it was when it opened. And the par-5 sixth, which has one of the nastiest greens you'll find anywhere, will get a new more approachable green moved to a different location.

Best of all, the club only has 110 members and is just now starting to build out. Future plans call for a permanent clubhouse, pool and other amenities. In the last couple of years, it has offered annual passes of $6,000, which is an incredible bargain for anyone spending summers there or anyone who lives within driving distance of the club.

The club is also receptive to anyone who wants to try the course out for a round, meaning you can come to the area and play the course one time for a reasonable green fee. Once you do, you might be trying to figure out a way to swing an annual pass, something that surely won't be offered much longer.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Guide to the private and semi-private golf clubs of Lake Tahoe