Back on Top at Tahoe

Fairways and Greens
By Vic Williams


If Kyle Phillips isn’t careful, he’ll replace Rees Jones as “The Open Doctor.” He might even give modern design heavyweights like Jones and his brother, Robert Trent Jr., Pete Dye and the two Toms – Fazio and Doak – a run for their money.

In fact, most of the members at Incline Country Club in Incline Village, Nev., no doubt already include Phillips in that rarefied company. The proof of their praise is right outside their doors, high above Lake Tahoe, where the Championship Course at Incline Village has a bold and beautiful new look, a feisty yet friendly new feel and a much larger, more comfortable new clubhouse to complete the package.

Despite an accelerated time frame and various weather setbacks, Granite Bay-based Phillips – a globetrotting artist whose design at Kingsbarns in Scotland is a Top 50 dweller on many magazine lists – took Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s original 1968 routing and brought it up to 2ist century standards in impressive fashion. In essence, he squeezed miracles out of a $4.8 million budget.

Start with the greens: He reshaped and retrained every one of them, and already they read and run to perfection even at 6,500 feet above sea level.

He brought fairway bunkers out of irrelevance and back into play. He toughened up a slew of greenside traps; they’re still classic in look and often caustic to one’s score. He accentuated the water features, including a natural snow-fed stream running through the property. He shaved down landing areas so players can actually see where their drives land, where they’re heading and where they’re likely to stop.

And he brought the site’s sublime sightlines – pines in the short range, mountains and sky and Tahoe itself further on – into more stirring focus than ever.

“A lot of what we did at Incline was cleaning it up,” says Phillips, who’s currently rebuilding Sacramento’s venerable Del Paso Country Club from scratch.

“Getting the cart paths done properly, going to more formal, squared-off tees … compared to what Mr. Jones had, yeah, it’s different. Other than the concepts of the greens that he had stylistically, the rest of that course had been chewed up.”

By “chewed up” he means nearly 40 years’ worth of incremental in-house changes – money-saving measures that, collectively, took their toll on Jones’ vision and the overall golf experience. Stir in decades of snow-and-thaw cycles, construction of adjacent homes over the decades and constant changes in equipment and maintenance technology, and you have the perfect recipe for a timely overhaul, which was complete last fall but revealed to the general public in May.

“Basically, we’ve put the ‘championship’back in the Championship Course,” Phillips says. “It’s a nice site, with beautiful views of the lake. It represents Incline Village well now, and I’m happy for them.”

The course’s members, mostly well-heeled Incline Village residents and second-home owners packing the course’s summer tee sheet, are ecstatic to have a shiny new (grown up?) baby to show off. Visitors lucky enough to secure a tee time find an engaging yet demanding mountain resort course that is completely new to them, whether they played it before or not. Management is fired up, too. Jeff Clouthier, Incline’s superintendent since 2001, walked side by side with Phillips throughout the redesign process, from drawings to final shaping and sodding. He’s still amazed that the course has reopened so soon, especially after the winter just passed dropped more than 20 feet of snow on the course, leading to drainage issues in the spring.

“We’ve had so much water, we haven’t even been able to fire up our brand-new irrigation system, and I’m champing at the bit to do it,” Clouthier said in early June as a light rain fell over the course. “We had a few voles digging holes over the winter, and we had to push our opening date back a few days because of the weather, but it’s shaping up nicely.”

By now the Championship Course should be at full force, with greens running between 9 and 10 on the Stimpmeter, creeks simmered down to a sweet-sounding trickle instead of a roar and native areas edging toward a gold. Overall, it presents as a fast-but-fair test — including bunkers that get your attention and greens that have the hint of familiarity.

“Certainly [the bunkers are] back in play” Phillips says. “It used to be if you were a really long hitter, you didn’t even think about the bunkers on a number of shots. And though we changed all of the greens, we did GPS surveys of each one before we went to work. I thought a lot of the green concepts were good, and I’m not a fan of changing just to change.

“No. 13, for example, is a green I tried to rebuild very dose to what it was. No. 12 is totally new. So are 15 and 18. When Mr. Jones did these greens in the ’60s, they were great greens, but now they were too fast. It’s like Pasatiempo; if Alister MacKenzie were alive today, would he have three-foot tiers and five-degree slopes? The same with Incline; they now have more flexibility, with more pin positions.”

One green Phillips completely changed is at No. 2, a par 5 of only 423 yards that could play as a par 4 during big tournaments. Despite Phillips’ urgings, members voted to keep it a par 5, so he toughed up the green complex, deepening bunkers and shallowing the surface to repel long approaches.

Incline’s 5-pars, in general, got a lot of work. “We chopped down areas so when you drive the ball, you can see where you’re going. A lot of them were blind. In the case of No. 2, if you tried to lay up there, you’d go straight into the creek.”

As for the 4-pars and 3-pars, Phillips was limited by housing and couldn’t tag too many yards onto the shorter holes. No. 18, for instance, stretches to 420 yards, but it’s all downhill with a severe dogleg left. “We did the best we could with that hole, made it a better driving hole. When Mr. Jones laid that out, it was never part of the plan to have houses in there. Back then you had views of the lake from 16 tee all the way through 18. Somebody made a lot of money, but the course sure suffered.”

Though he supports Jones’ original intent to close the round with a trio of holes stoked with great Tahoe views and possible birdies, Phillips says today’s front nine is better. In a perfect world, he would switch incline’s two sides, and it’s hard not to agree. Even Augusta National eventually flip-flopped its layout, and look how that turned out.

But according to Clouthier, that’ll never happen at Incline. “Unfortunately, several of the streets surrounding the course are named after the holes they’re on,” he says. “So they have to stay the way they are.”

Thankfully that wasn’t the mindset going into the Championship Course’s long-overdue facelift. By hiring a naturalist like Phillips, the Incline ownership and membership knew they’d get the outcome they wanted, and by any measure, it’s turned out even better than expected, right up there with the region’s best, Coyote Moon and Old Greenwood included.

“It was a great course when it opened,” Phillips says. “And now the pride in it has been renewed.”

The Championship Course at Incline Village
RA1B: $155. $100 after 4 p.m., including cart


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