by Vic Williams, Golf Getaways Magazine
Those four simple words echoing through the lodgepole pines and Douglas firs of Plumas County, Calif., carry a tone of sweet relief for golfers from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento to Reno. This golf course is far too good to go away for good.
“In fact,” says Director of Golf Van Batchelder, “It might be the best course around here. I mean, I love Whitehawk Ranch, but I think this place is better.”
Batchelder would know, and I’ve gotta agree with him. He was the guy at the helm when, in 1996, Whitehawk Ranch opened in an impossibly gorgeous Sierra valley not 20 minutes southwest of where Grizzly Ranch sits today among 7,000-foot peaks, its Bob Cupp-authored flanks coiffed to near-Augusta perfection. Indeed, as the summer of 2013 gets into high gear, the Grizzly looks and plays better than ever in its eight years of operation. The greens are smooth, the fairways impeccable, the bunker sand just-so firm. The flawless 50-mile views — range upon range of green- and rust-brown-clad mountains stretching toward the deep-blue high-altitude sky — are as they were a thousand years ago. Much of the entire Grizzly Ranch development’s acreage of forests and meadows remains in its pristine state, with 30 or so existing vacation homes sitting well back from playing corridors and another several dozen lots awaiting building or development. It’s so blessedly quiet between shots over Cupp’s meandering, challenging-but-fair route that even my 13-year-old daughter, who like most modern teens prefers 24/7 video stimulation over John Muir-caliber solitude, told me after just a few holes, “Dad, I could stay out here forever. It’s very relaxing.”
Music to my ears. Now I know that although this was our first full 18 holes together — she played a couple par 3s, a few fairway shots and chips and putts around and on every green, shooting photos with her Nikon along the way — it won’t be our last. Leave it to an idyllic spot like Grizzly Ranch to hook a kid and make a dad just happy to be there as witness.
But time was, not too long ago, that this beguiling Cupp of fun might have been emptied forever. Though it opened in 2005 at the height of the real estate boom as a fully private club, Grizzy Ranch didn’t really have its feet under it until a few years later, and we all know where the economy had gone by then. The development’s original owners looked hard at shutting it down and had pretty much pulled the trigger by 2010, even though several homes had been built, including three fully loaded spec homes along the No. 9 fairway.
“It would have been a shame to lose a course this good,” said Batchelder, who also owns a horse ranch about 20 minutes south, on the edge of the Sierra Valley. “So the members ended up buying it and opening it for public play, which is what keeps us going.”
Batchelder came on board in 2011 to run the golf operations, get to know the 30 or so members (most of whom hail from elsewhere in California) and work with the superintendent — who’s been there since grow-in — to take the course to the next level. Now it’s probably the best-conditioned layout within 50 miles, and there’s plenty of top-shelf competition: Fellow Plumas County denizens Whitehawk Ranch, Nakoma’s Dragon, Plumas Pines and Graeagle Meadows and, further south in Truckee, places like Old Greenwood, Gray’s Crossing and Coyote Moon. And those three spec homes I mentioned? They’re now the Wolf Tree Cabins, available for public rental including stay-play packages — one with three bedrooms, the others with two — making Grizzly Ranch a boutique destination all its own. I stayed in the three-bedroom Sugar Pine cabin with my wife and two daughters and hated to leave it behind. Just sitting on the wraparound porch at dusk with a beer and a cigar, watching hundreds of hungry bats zigzag out of a giant pine tree’s trunk and into the hungry night, had me muttering to my bride, “this is just too good.” And that was after we’d venture into the tiny burg of Blairsden for dinner, deciding on stellar Italian family fare at a place called Gumba’s. Mountain heaven, for sure.
Then came our actual round the next morning, ratcheting the joy even higher. Cupp puts it all there in front of you — broad fairways, greens canted into hillsides or set into meadows, a couple of blind tee shots, more than one wily par 5 (especially holes 12 and 18), one of the most fun reachable par 4s in Christendom, No. 15 (I reached it and barely missed a 25-footer for eagle) and perhaps the Sierra canon’s finest penultimate hole, a par 4 bisected by a diagonal creek in the driving zone. And though the waterfalls and ponds along the final fairway are manmade, they fit beautifully — and provided some serious eye candy while we enjoyed a sandwich on the Lake House’s patio just up the hill.
Put it all together and Grizzly Ranch should now hold the top slot on any Sierra golf vacationer’s itinerary, just above Batchelder’s former digs. “Imagine playing here and Whitehawk back-to-back,” he said, making no effort to hide his pride in either locale. “That’s pretty tough to beat, and perfect for a group of guys looking to get away.”
Or an entire family, for that matter. I’m already angling to get us back up there before the Grizzly goes into hibernation in late October. It had us at that first glorious, friendly growl, and now its teeth are in us for good.
Wolf Tree cabin rental rates start at $219 per night, per unit. Discounted golf rates with a confirmed cabin reservation are $99 for morning tee times, $89 for afternoon. Call (530) 832-4200 to get in on it, and chances are Batchelder himself will set you up.