Carson City golf: Find priceless Nevada character on a budget

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

CARSON CITY, Nev. - It's the kind of town you're tempted to drive right past.

Governor's Mansion - Cason City
The Governor's Mansion is one of the grand homes in surprising Carson City.
Governor's Mansion - Cason CityCarson City Neon LightsSunridge Golf ClubCarson City

The neon of its casinos is almost embarrassingly old-school compared to sleek modern Las Vegas. The casinos themselves are crammed between strip malls.

No wonder most people view Nevada's capital through the windshield of a moving car - a blur between Lake Tahoe and Reno. When they see it at all.

"Who ever expects to find themselves in Carson City, Nevada?" tourist Dale Benedict chuckled.

Look past the casino-and-strip-mall tack, though, and like Benedict you'll get a whole other view.

Just a few blocks from the neon are impressive old Victorians that could have been shipped intact from Charleston, S.C., including "The Bliss," a mansion where Ulysses S. Grant stayed.

Wandering visitors might also stumble upon the Governor's Mansion, a grand, roped-off house with Halloween decorations already up in September and enough plainclothes cops lingering around that you'd think the governor of Nevada actually mattered.

For a real window into Carson City's surprising eccentricies, Comma Coffee is the place though. It's on South Carson Street not that far from the Carson City Nugget's prime neon, yet clearly another world away. Say hello to the hippy underbelly of Carson City.

That's right, the hippy underbelly.

Running the counter is a hot blonde in a white tank top with a green bra strap and plenty of piercings peeking out. The other server sports dreadlocks (she's white), a bandana and completely glittery orange skirt. Straight out of central casting for the Love Child/Moonstar movie.

Four old ladies in back play a serious game of cribbage. A few feet from where an orange snake slithers around an aquarium.

A regular named Eugene - not the snake - walks in wearing army fatigue pants, combat boots and a hot pink bandana peeking out from his shirt. Eugene doesn't look a day under 70.

Across the room, a self-described rabbi with a colorful bead yarmulke types away on a laptop and jabbers on his cell.

Clearly, this windshield blur isn't so easy to peg. Stop the car long enough and you'll discover a town with its fair share of character, and characters.

The golf scene fits the pattern to a tee.

Carson City golf? Who ever heard of Carson City golf? In these parts is all about the wonder of Tahoe's towering-tree fairways and Reno's arduous forced carries, right?

"The golf courses right around Carson City are still a secret," Empire Ranch Golf Course General Manager Keith Stoll confided.

Make that a cheap secret. Carson City brings value into northern Nevada/northern California golf. And plenty of unexpected character.

There are more than a half-dozen tracks you can get on for less than $50 - sometimes less than $40. Tracks that won't bore your driver or putter to tears, either. Public golf courses with everything from water galore to devilish sagebrush obstacles. Call them budget courses with bite.

"The value-conscious golfer can really make out in the Carson Valley area," said Bill Henderson, director of sales and marketing for the golfer-friendly Carson Valley Inn.

Carson City cheapies

Sunridge Golf Club: Like your aqua? Sunridge has 26 acres of water in its 19-hole layout. Plus a 620-yard par 5 (No. 11), a hole with a 300-foot drop from tee to fairway (No. 14), a little par-3 19th that everyone plays and enough drivable par 4s to "bring out the greedy in you," as Head Professional Matt Latorte puts it.

Sunridge gives you more character than a Tarantino flick, all for a $40 weekday green fee ($30 after 1 p.m.).

Eagle Valley Golf Course: There's enough sagebrush on these two 18-hole courses that you half expect to see Wild Bill Hickok strolling down the fairways. The West Course is particularly striking, with looming mountains watching your bush misadventures. It looks even better at $38 with cart ($22 after 2 p.m.).

Empire Ranch Golf Course: There are three nine-hole courses here, each one is eccentric in its own way. They don't add up to monster 18s - the highest slope rating for any of the 18 combinations is 123. As Stoll says, "Golfers have an opportunity to score well." They also are encouraged to walk, a rarity in the Tahoe resort-track world.

You'll see a fair share of Nevada-only obstacles - sagebrush is big here too - plus friendly cart girls and friendly green fees ($40 weekdays, $45 weekends).

Silver Oak Golf Club: This is no-frills golf with a back nine that can take you on a surprising climb. Silver Oak isn't too long (6,504 from the back tees), but expect to be tested on the par 5s. Also expect the course to be in good shape. Maintenance takes precedence over fussy manners here, although you may want to offer a polite "thank you" after getting on for $40 ($25 after 2 p.m.).

Carson Valley Golf Course: You won't find a friendlier course for families than this 41-year-old track full of cottonwoods more than twice that age.

This place puts plenty of care into its bunny slopes, aka the forward kid tees. "They're not just stuck out there in the middle of the fairway 100 yards from the green," General Manager Tom Brooks said. "They're real tee boxes set up with a purpose."

Adults will get plenty of thrills too. Or tree thuds. The 325-yard, par-4 14th has you shooting over or between two of those big cottonwoods from the tee. One golfer in our group hit the trees four straight times. At least a close tree encounter only costs $38 with cart, $26 strolling.

Character can come cheap, if not easy. Just ask the guy in camouflage and hot pink.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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