SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Nevada — Change is afoot around Lake Tahoe.
It all stems back to a pandemic travel boom last summer that was described as the "Wild West."
Lake Tahoe residents have always had a love-hate relationship with tourists. It came to a head this past year when throngs of Bay Area residents descended upon the lake, leaving trash, noise and traffic in their wake.
Locals agreed: something had to change to save one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Now, every community around the lake - from Truckee to Incline Village through Tahoe City on down to South Lake Tahoe - is preaching more sustainable tourism. And part of that edict means fewer visitors and more regulations to manage tourism.
Communities around the lake are cracking down on Airbnb and VRBO vacation rentals. South Lake Tahoe is taking the toughest stance by whittling the inventory in the downtown area from 1,400 properties to 400 by the end of the year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The irony is that several of the region's top golf resorts are expanding, albeit in a much more manageable scale. The Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe is building new villas and the Resort at Squaw Creek plans to build new townhomes and reroute its golf course. It's one of four local courses that are being renovated or facing uncertain fates in a post-pandemic world.
Change can be difficult, but after a recent lap around the lake, I feel better about the future of one of my favorite places. Bouncing between California and Nevada - two states with opposing stances on social distancing - I never knew when to wear a mask and when not to, but it was a minor annoyance to experience some new courses and hotels and get back on the road after a year stuck at home.
Day 1: An improved Tahoe Donner in Truckee
If you haven't heard of Truckee by now, you're missing out. It's one of California's best golf destinations with a fivesome of bona fide public courses, a pair of golf resorts and a trio of elite private clubs. Knowing all that, it's understandable that Tahoe Donner felt the need for an upgrade to find a better foothold in a competitive market.
Architect Cary Bickler spearheaded a $2.2-million renovation that should be completed by the end of June. New greens and tees are the highlight. The most noticeable change is the par-5 12th hole, where the cart path was moved to the left side of the fairway, which is protected by three new bunkers. Although more than 1,000 trees have been removed as a firebreak, the 7,002-yard layout is still squeezed tight with towering pines and evergreens. Between the sunken greens and a blind 18th fairway only seen through a periscope, there's enough character to deliver a good time whether you play well or not.
Day 2: A new era in California's Olympic Valley
The Olympic Valley's claim to fame is hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics. As you can image, this mountain setting is just as beautiful from the Links at Squaw Creek, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that runs on mostly flat terrain through the meadows. It's loaded with wetlands that gobble balls. I lost three in a six-hole par-3 shootout set up to introduce the course to the media before it opened for the season. A number of greens were still in disrepair coming out of the winter. The golf season is short, so conditioning can be hard to dial in during spring and fall.
The entire Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort/ski area is ready for a rebirth of sorts. It will soon announce a new name to remove the derogatory term "Squaw." The Resort at Squaw Creek will likely follow suit at some point. Its five new townhomes will be built where the fifth and sixth holes reside, forcing a slight redesign but adding some much needed modern accommodations. The timetable for both projects remains in flux, although it's not likely to impact play this year.
I kept up the par-3 theme that afternoon by playing the Mountain Course at Incline Village, an entertaining par-58 short course of 3,527 yards with only four par 4s. A three-club challenge spiced things up. I was forced to bomb drives and hit feathery putts with my 5-hybrid. I used my 8 iron for any shot between 115 and 150 yards. Surprisingly, my sand wedge didn't get much use because I hit a lot of greens. What a riot. It's the perfect format to make golf fun again on a buddies trip handicapped by too many rounds.
Each night, I crashed in Tahoe City - first at Granlibakken, a summer camp of lodges and outdoor recreation tucked into the woods, and then Basecamp Tahoe City, a camping-themed motel right in town. Neither are luxurious but perfectly suitable for your foursome.
I'd also recommend both dinner stops - the Lodge clubhouse at Tahoe Donner and Caliente, a popular Mexican restaurant.
Day 3: A golf party in South Lake Tahoe
If I haven't sold you on Tahoe's magic, then listen to the expert instead: Charles Barkley, who has been playing in the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe since the 1990s.
"Lake Tahoe is the only place that's not hot as hell in the middle of the summer," Barkley said during a recent interview to preview the 2021 ACC, which will be televised July 9-11 on NBC and Golf Channel. "I have no idea how you all do it every year. I don't care where I'm coming from in the country, it's a heat wave. When I get to Lake Tahoe the weather is always perfect. Man, I cannot wait."
Edgewood Tahoe has blossomed into one of golf's most luxurious retreats. Four holes of the course and the exquisite Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe (which made a splash opening in 2017) are all steps from the shoreline. Valet parking is complimentary on property. Ten new 1,000-square-foot villas - set to debut in summer 2022 along the ninth fairway - will feature one bedroom, a terrace/balcony, fireplace and space to lounge. Media Day on the course was wrecked by howling winds off the lake, but normally, it's one of the rounds I look forward to every year.
Outside of Edgewood's gates, South Lake's less glamorous golf playgrounds face more uncertain futures. The nine-hole Bijou Golf Course has been closed since the start of the pandemic and the city is examining alternative uses.
Meanwhile, the Lake Tahoe Golf Course, a muni owned by the California State Parks, has been headed for a redesign for more than two decades. Lawsuits and shifting political priorities have kept it from happening, but there appears to be momentum building. Architect Forrest Richardson is under contract for the work, which will shift holes 10-12 away from the Truckee River, among other changes. When I met Cyndie Walck, she was studying the plans in the grill room. They're available for public consumption here.
Walck's an engineering geologist for California State Parks with 25 years of experience in stream and watershed restoration. She was ready to get started yesterday.
"We have lost precious time to restore the river and habitat, sending more sediment into Lake Tahoe,” Walck notes on the project website. "I look forward to being able to start work on this critical project. This is a watershed scale effort to improve the river and reduce impacts to Lake Tahoe and the relocation of the golf course and restoration of this reach is a key piece.”
River. Lake. Golf. Sustainable tourism. It's all intertwined in Lake Tahoe. Although she's paid to do it, Walck shouldn't be the only person to care. I'm disappointed the golf course will lose some of its more memorable holes, but I'm okay with that. I'm ready to make some sacrifices to do my part to keep the lake blue and the environment green for the next generation of golfers. Are you?