Image: 16th hole at Red Hawk
Photo By Rod Hanna
Red Hawk’s 16th hole requires a carry of close to 200 yards over water from the back tees, a tall order on a typically windy day near Reno.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 6/22/2007 2:31:16 PM ET 2007-06-22T18:31:16

The big bird touched down and I braced myself ... and not just from the unconscionably loud, hammered guy in the cowboy hat hell-bent on steamrolling me and every other passenger in the 737 to get to the nearest airport slot machine.

No, the task at hand was much more daunting than Twelve-beer Tex.

I was setting out to play 72 holes in 72 hours in one of the nation’s best, most diverse and most criminally under-publicized golf regions, and my bags just weren’t quite big enough to hold all the Titleists, sunscreen and Advil I’d need to get through it.

And finding enough energy to handle all the other activities on the docket for Reno, the Carson Valley and all around Lake Tahoe — in addition to the seven or eight hours a day I’d be dedicating to the usually futile act of swinging a metal club and cursing myself — was going to be a challenge.

But as I found out, a weekend, a long weekend, or even an extended — and trust me, you’ll be wishing it was permanent — vacation in this paradise is worth any damage you might inflict to your lower back, wrists, knees and/or brain cells.

With 44 golf courses within 75 minutes, varying topography spanning the desert, tree-laden mountains and picturesque valley landscapes, every great outdoors activity you can think of nearby and gambling and booze everywhere you look, the toughest thing you’ll experience is finding the time to sleep.

Day 1: Reno, Nev.
This self-proclaimed “Biggest Little City in the World” still looks like a mini-Vegas when you head downtown, but you’ll be stoked to discover that the golf courses dotting the outskirts are as big-time as any you’ll find in any major city in America, and the weather always seems to cooperate.

A cool, sunny June morning turned into a typically blazing high-desert afternoon as we pulled into Red Hawk Golf Club in nearby Sparks, Nev., for a noon tee time on the Lakes Course.

Now, normally I’m not a huge fan of “condo golf,” and there are plenty of tract homes with barking dogs lining the fairways here, but this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is so stout and so well-conceived that you almost forget that you’re in the middle of a development.

Slideshow: Coming up aces There’s a little bit of everything for the serious golfer here, including tee shots over water, plenty of bunkering and greens that are mature enough to receive well-played shots, a nice alternative to some dry-climate courses where high approaches bounce off the greens like they’re superballs hitting asphalt.

And when that desert wind kicks up, you might wish you’d stayed in your hotel room and watched a “Judge Judy” marathon ... but back to golf, for now.

I missed a short birdie putt and parred No. 1, and as for the rest of the round, well, let’s just say that I had enough cerveza frio on the course to forget how difficult Red Hawk is and that I shot a number that’s less than my weight (I’m a relatively athletic 6-foot-3 ... you do the math). The important thing is that I had a blast on a course that’s challenging and well-maintained and worth trying again.

Another thing in Reno that’s definitely worth trying again is my dinner destination for the night, the Santa Fe Hotel on Lake Street, which filled me to the tonsils with succulent, more-than-plentiful family-style Basque cooking and basically rendered me useless and bed-bound by 10 p.m.

Day 2: Carson Valley/Carson City, Nev.
The food coma that I was forced into the previous night didn’t allow me to make the most of my night in my hotel/casino, the Atlantis, as much as I wanted to. Still, I had to wake up early for the Divine Nine in the Carson City/Valley area, which made all of that protein and rest pretty useful.

Image: Genoa Lakes
Photo By Rod Hanna
The resort course at Genoa Lakes in the Carson Valley offers some of the most challenging, scenic golf in the United States.
The “Divine Nine” is a grouping of nine of the best golf properties in the area, and the good folks at Weidinger Public Relations had planned a day for us grizzled media types to experience two holes on each of them, with a little socializing and drinking of adult beverages on a chartered bus that zoomed us from course to course.

The entire day was a six-hour blur, but suffice it to say that there’s some fantastic golf to be played here. The elite courses for the serious players of the Divine Nine are the three layouts that comprise Dayton Valley and the two gems of the Genoa Lakes complex.

Dayton Valley, an Arnold Palmer design, has been the site of the first stage of the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament (“Q-School”) for the last 13 years. That means it’s good and it’s tough. It also means that if your score is ballooning in the wind and your balls keep diving into Dayton’s many lakes, know that a bunch of Tiger wannabes who really have game have seen their dreams dashed on the very same track. In other words, don’t feel bad.

The Genoa Lakes courses are just as good and might even be a tad better. The Lakes Course, which is the product of noted designer John Harbottle and former PGA player and character Peter Jacobsen, is a links-style course with country-club conditions and a dastardly length of close to 7,400 yards from the back tees.

The Resort Course, formerly known as Sierra Nevada Golf Ranch, is simply spectacular — for its setting and its shot-making. Carved almost directly out of the Sierra mountain range, every hole is seemingly on its own planet, stuck out there in the shadow of nearby 10,000-foot peaks. Elevation changes, heavenly fairways and greens, and what seems like an endless parade of monumentally long par-4s and par-5s will provide more than enough drama before you leave town.

Finish off your day at the Genoa Bar, “Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor.” You’ll need a drink or three after all that hacking, so why not soak in some history with your cocktails?

Day 3: Lake Tahoe area, Nev./Calif.

Image: Edgewood
Photo By Rod Hanna
You won’t find a more dramatic finishing hole than the spectacular 18th at Edgewood, right on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
The last day brought me down to the lake, where the brilliant emerald grass of Edgewood Tahoe awaited for a pristine, perfect morning round. At least it was perfect until I smother-chunked my drive about 63 yards down the right side of the first hole.

Edgewood is better-known as the home course of the Celebrity Golf Championshp, a.k.a. that tournament on NBC where you’ll watch Rick Rhoden and Jack Wagner kick butt and then stare with your mouth agape at Charles Barkley’s bizarre hesitation swing, wondering how the heck the “Round Mound of Rebound” ever became a world-class athlete.

Getting to play this course on a quiet, sunny day is a real treat, though. The first 15 holes wind through stately trees, and the fairways glisten from the perfect patterns cut into them. The last three are epic, with Nos. 17 and 18 set right on one of this country’s most beautiful mountain lakes.

After Edgewood, I took a great drive all the way around the lake and on up to Old Greenwood in the historic town of Truckee to finish off my marathon 36-hole day. Old Greenwood was designed by Jack Nicklaus and is one of the newer additions to the recent golf boom on Tahoe’s northern end, and the course is destined to be a classic.

It’s practically hidden in a forest, with creeks and mountain views and was built around a high-end resort community. The Nicklaus (back) tees measure over 7,500 yards, and you’ll see pretty quickly why it’s ranked No. 4 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s finest upscale public courses.

After tapping my bogey putt in on No. 18, I drove back to the Reno airport, back to real life and all of its non-golf annoyances. I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get to do a lot of the other things you can take advantage of in this wonderful area — boating, fishing, hang gliding, kayaking, hiking, biking, losing my mortgage payment on the roulette wheel, etc. — but I promised to next time. And I sincerely meant it.

But first I needed to get some sleep, and as soon as that plane lifted off and there weren’t any excitable buckaroos spouting off nearby, that’s exactly what I did — all the way back home.

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