|Drinks are always plentiful on the Divine 9 Road Trip buses. (Courtesy of Weidinger P.R.)|
A tradition in Carson City, Nevada, the Divine 9 Road Trip is a party on wheels. Participants play nine golf courses - including Genoa Lakes Golf Club and Dayton Valley Golf & Country Club - two holes each, all over the course of 11 hours - plus share laughs, stories and spirits along the way.
CARSON CITY, Nev. - John Harris, a psychiatrist who regulates medications for the criminally insane, stood over his ball on the first tee at Empire Ranch Golf Course, transfixed.
It's 7:11 a.m., usually a good number in Nevada. But 41 - as in degrees (wearing shorts, with the sun still rising) -- is not. Staring down at his ball, never looking up at the other seven people in his eightsome, the Oklahoma drawl played out long and slow, "Um, folks, there seems to be a major problem here. Um, ahh believe ahh'm seeing three balls."
With that, he launched his maiden tee shot of the day, a knuckling line drive of about 200 yards that hit, rolled, then quickly died in the morning dew. The Divine 9 Road Trip was underway.
Four carts shot off down the fairway, then slowed - a quick blast of bracing morning air was instant wind chill that enveloped bare skin, dropped temperatures and brought the need for speed. Screw the official sermon about "no range balls, practice swings, breaking adhesions on the tee," No. 1 was damned cold and time to slow down.
Eight players simultaneously attacked this pre-selected hole, while six others drove through the chill to No. 5, a par 3 of 159 yards with water covering the first 120 yards. It was the first course of nine we'd visit that day throughout the Carson City/Carson Valley area, two holes at each, a par 72 over 6,226 yards during an 11-hour round of golf.
Who the hell came up with this one?
Some historian chirped in that this version was the 10th annual. Its sordid past was traced to a created-for-media-only event to demonstrate and promote the variety, value and non-stop possibilities of a golf trip to the area. Okay, it's the capital city area of the great Silver State, which means 24-hour casinos and a devil-may-care opportunity for the athletes in the group who can stay up all night before a golf marathon. (As it turned out, we had a few who tried but failed - and miserably.)
Nine area golf courses within a 25-mile radius formed a marketing co-operative, and the Road Trip became an annual staple. It wasn't always this way. At first we learned, scribes were invited up for a few days to sample the golf wares, but with limited time, they frequented only the name courses then went home. That was great for Genoa Lakes Golf Club and Dayton Valley Golf & Country Club but what about the others?
An offhanded suggestion at a recap meeting to have the media play two holes at each course in one day was appropriately scoffed at, then like great ideas scribbled onto a cocktail napkin, morphed into reality. Flawed, perhaps, but reality nonetheless.
Bill Henderson, longtime marketing director at Carson Valley Inn, is still paying for that flippant suggestion 10 years later. See, he's a host on one of two 16-passenger buses that take the journey. Over the years, he's kept track of the miles between courses, travel time to each, number of lost balls, birdies, pars, bogeys, doubles and the dreaded "others." Part of his documentation has also included number of beverages consumed along the trail. From the looks of things, participants have regularly scored best here.
Two years back, the Road Trip expanded the media format and opened to the masses and went from one shuttle bus to three, daring to mix the Fourth Estate with an unsuspecting John Q. Public. It turns out there really are people willing to pay to play an 11-hour round of golf. Well, it's more than that: $295 included the tournament, meals, welcome gifts, awards, beverages, shuttle bus with driver - very important - and two nights lodging. The Web site also claimed, "Golf stories for a lifetime."
Headquarters was the Gold Dust West Resort/Casino, a Carson City property that reflected the personality of the area: laid-back, friendly and authentic. Two mixed drinks and a pint for $8 - when's the last time you've seen that? That's not enough for a valet tip in Vegas. Plus, you get plenty of local knowledge from staff. These guys actually knew we were coming and could talk about the courses.
Following a two-hour opening night reception with introductions of hosts, along with explanations on format, schedule and rules, a few of the hearty braved out to the casino to try their luck. The more enlightened knew that 6 a.m. comes early.
A hearty buffet breakfast greeted early morning warriors. "Bulk up, you'll need those carbs," encouraged Phil Weidinger, whose PR firm annually orchestrates the event. Way too cheery for this early, a scary sign considering he was among the group out late. His assistant, Denise Watson, credited as the "great organizer," is already loading the ice chests. It's 6:20 a.m.
Two shuttle buses await the group, both proudly painted with course colors: one from Genoa Lakes, one from Dayton Valley. Turns out both drivers have "Road Trip" experience. "It's a good group," said Mike Rogers, of Genoa, who estimates this is his eighth or ninth reenactment. "I drive, they golf. From what I hear with those scores, I'm doing better than them."
As promised, wheels are up at 7 a.m. Well, for everyone save Mr. Harris, whose claim that a wake-up call never materialized rang somewhat hollow. He soon appeared, harried yet game. A Bronx cheer promptly greeted his appearance as he stepped onto the bus. It's gonna be that kind of day.
Nerves and temperature were steadier on the second hole due to the "Welcome Bloody Mary." Mr. Harris dunked his first tee shot but skimmed the next off the pond to safety and terra firma en route to his triple-bogey six. "Pick-up at triple," Weidinger barks. "We're racing sunlight." Hell, pal, we're fighting hangover, no sleep and old age.
Back toward the shuttle, and we pass the other group, a sixsome, approaching the No. 1 green. "Damn it, they're being too courteous instead of playing ready-golf," says Weidinger. "We're an hour in. We'll never finish."
Back on the bus, the group gets the "need for speed" speech - again. Harris then asks no one in particular, "Ahh, why did y'all make me finish those last 10 drinks?"
Twenty minutes later, and we arrive at Dayton Valley, driving through a private, gated neighborhood to our designated holes. No stopping at the clubhouse for formalities on this trip. The carts are on the sidewalk, at the ready. A bar cart makes its way out to welcome us. Great.
Hole No. 6 is a par 3, all-carry over water. This is our second course, and the theme is becoming apparent. The "helpful hints" section of the Web site suggested lots of balls, but this is getting scary. Only two of six players dropped balls in the pond - at least off the tee. Someone bladed a second shot in from the other side of the green.
Doug Maselli, a Lake Tahoe sheetrocker and 19-handicapper, center-cut an 18 footer for a deuce, the first birdie of the day. Doug is now 1-under after three holes and wins the KP for men, a dozen balls. When he stiffs his second shot to three feet on the 395-yard par seventh, a beauty with water running almost the entire length on the left and the last 90 yards on the right, he moves to 2-under.
"I love this format and this course," he yells. The greens are indeed among the best in the area, and justification for Dayton as a PGA Tour qualifier site since 1995, the longest standing in the U.S. Among our 14 golfers, 12 balls find watery graves during our two-hole excursion. However, Doug locates the bar cart for a celebratory special upon departure.
On to Eagle Valley Golf Course East and West, a 36-hole municipal complex. Jim Kepler, director of golf, has instituted various changes over the past few seasons that have encouraged more players and more groups. "Customer service, conditioning and value - that's what it's all about," he preaches.
Kepler's reputation as a salesman is instantly apparent with a spread of freshly baked pastries, juices and snacks with his chef at the ready. Anyone for another Bloody?
In past years, he's served the group shrimp cocktails, Oysters Rockefeller and hot prime-rib sandwiches. He once left a bucket of range balls on the tee of a 230-yard par 3 spanning water. Obviously, he knows his market.
Now that we're into regular business hours, we come across other players going the more conventional 18-hole route. They gladly step aside to let us through. (And when's the last time you smiled when eight players cut you off and jumped on the tee?!) The course crew had alerted the paying masses of the Road Trip with promises of free lunch and drinks in exchange for their good humor. Lemons into lemonade - these guys are good.
At parallel holes, one of our boys shanks a bullet off the tee 30 yards right that hits the tee marker on the adjacent hole - thank gawd it served as a head-high shield to the two public groups behind it still waiting to regain their original pace. Any closer and Kepler may have had to add free golf for life to the Faustian bargain.
The par-5 No. 12 on the West Course saw Dennis Bujer - a quiet, retired gentleman who was back for a second go-round this year - drain a 68-footer (laser measured) with an eight-foot right-to-left break over a spine.
"Tell me you got that on video," yelled Weidinger at Watson, who was observing from a cart with Candy Duncan, the executive director of the Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau, the folks who fund the event.
"We were talking about what Janet wore to dinner last night," she countered.
"Great," muttered our guide. "The Golf Channel will just have to learn to live with disappointment."
Maselli, 2-under par 90 minutes earlier, was now 5-over. "Back to normal," he lamented, hanging his head.
We're pushing 11:30 a.m., averaging just over an hour at each course. Good news due to the freedom of early morning access, but with more driving between the remaining courses and more public players, time will indeed tell.
Silver Oak Golf Course is another popular track with locals and golf groups. Why not, green fees are $40, and that includes a cart over a well-maintained layout that offers elevation changes to points with panoramic views of the Carson City area.
It turns out the Road Trip is a social gathering. Cart partners are determined by random acts of kindness. At each stop, the driver unloads bags and course cart staff strap them indiscriminately and instantly onto carts.
The three ladies patiently wait for the guys to get it in play on No. 11 before launching their par parade from the red tees. We're halfway home, but Ronda Holftorf, last year's defending champion, is still grinding it out.
"I came out here to play well," she laughed. Head nods and "You go, girl" encouragement come from her compatriots. Her husband, Jim, pars the first hole to wild cheers then quietly picks up a double at the next.
Warming temperatures and isolated gusts lead a local to comment on the possibilities of strong afternoon valley winds, but he's immediately chided for tempting bad juju. "This is the Divine 9 Road Trip. We always have good weather," is the counter.
Box lunches with ham or turkey wraps, cookies, candy bar and apple keep the riders content heading toward Genoa Lakes, the next stop. The ice chest has been tapped mostly for water and energy drinks to this point, unlike previous glory days. We come to find out that the two-seat-wide chest on the other bus actually has a name, "Chad Hartley," after the former Reno Gazette-Journal golf writer.
Garrett Dearborn, the weekend sports anchor from Reno's CBS affiliate, KTVN, and a legendary Road Tripper and live-life-large attendee, offered the moniker years earlier. "Hey, it's big. It takes up a lot of space. And it's full of beer." An apt description that Hartley grudgingly approved.
Turns out the other shuttle made its first stop for replenishments, sending its driver to a nearby convenience store while the golfers kept at it two-by-two. According to Headmaster Henderson, Corona and Coors Light were in big demand. The almost-all-male party bus was the vision of Pete Schaul. Last year, he and three friends did the Road Trip, and after stopping en route to their final course at the Genoa Bar, the oldest thirst parlor in Nevada, a light bulb went off.
"We were having an absolute blast, and I figured this would be a great way to entertain clients," said Schaul. An executive at Hawaiian Express, Inc., a freight company shipping goods to Hawaii, Alaska and Guam from four West Coast ports, he decided a bus full of 16 buddies would be just the ticket. He brought nine this year - one from as far as Alaska. "I can guarantee you we'll have a full bus next year," he said, laughing. "This event definitely fits the demographics of our group."
Anna Maitoza is asking, "So when do we start telling jokes?" The president of the Ladies Club at Reno's Resort at Redhawk, brought a club friend, Mary Isgrigg, and dragged her husband, Joe, to the Road Trip. "I've been reading about this thing for years, and it sounded like fun, so here we are."
You gotta love a woman whose Mercedes plates read "GLFNUTS" and who backs it up playing 200 rounds a year. Certainly not the shy type, Anna appreciates the social aspects and boasts vibrant language on the course and in the bus. A retired AT&T operator, she can get anyone talking. "I love the camaraderie on the bus," she said. "And all these courses make us feel like special guests. I'm getting a group together next year, too." We can't repeat her joke about the big Texan on the plane, though.
Ray Anderson and Fred Eisenstadt are construction buddies from the East Bay who heard about the Road Trip on a golf talk program on KNBR, a San Francisco radio station. Then to find out Anderson and Weidinger went to rival boys' Catholic high schools in the city. You never would have known listening to a few colorful reminiscences.
The Genoa Lakes courses were Nos. 6 and 7 on the attack sheet. The Resort Course at Genoa Lakes Golf Club featured two holes on the upper edge of the layout, the drivable (if you're Tiger) par-4 fourth, as the wind has picked up a notch. And the No. 1 handicap hole, No. 6, a long, dogleg par 4. Pars aplenty on the first and nothing close on the next. The highlight might have been a group photo from a perch overlooking the Carson Valley, when everyone got a respite to enjoy the view.
Next, we go two miles down the road to The Lakes Course and No. 12, a par 3 of 130 yards (ready for this: over water! Novel). Three more of our group succumbed to H20 by depositing balls in the Carson River fronting the green.
The course's finishing hole is magnificent, with Job's peak looming in the background, but unfortunately, it reflected in another damned pond that a tee shot is required to carry. This isn't the biblical Job, hence, no miracles, rather uninspiring doubles a plenty.
During the 20-minute intermission to Carson Valley Golf Course, the area's original circa 1965, everyone got to recite out loud their four scores from the Genoa courses. By this time, the snickers over 8s and 7s had subsided to harsh reality, and the business of finishing was starting to settle in. Harris had to be prodded awake for a response, and he couldn't be coaxed for anything but water.
"I knew I'd be tired, and this is where it's starting to get me," said Maitoza, laughing. The sugar in those Pepsis helped but certainly didn't please husband Joe. "Damn it, drink beer," he said. "It's better for you than that stuff."
Another neighborhood stop got us to the staging area for Nos. 14 and 15 at Carson Valley. Owner Tom Brooks, the former course super at the K Club in Ireland, met us and explained the appeal and branding of his course. The strategy has worked as it's been acknowledged and awarded for its family friendly design, pricing and nurturing atmosphere.
If you like one in the middle of the fairway, you're in heaven. The quirky No. 14 demands a low shot under the branches for an open look at the green. It's fun, different and memorable. No. 15, a 450-yard par 5, traces the Carson River and is receptive to an iron into a tiny green.
Marlene Drew, now a two-year Road Trip veteran and the calm yin to Anna's yang, saved her best for almost last, making par by draining a six-footer. Gotta like the quiet, steely type of the Greatest Generation: She wouldn't accept a gimme all day. "They make me putt 'em out at home, so I'm gonna putt 'em out here, too," she stated. No one argued.
The trees are spectacular, the cool air in the gloaming pleasant and everyone was leaving with a smile.
Heading to Sunridge Golf Club, our last stop, everyone was fired-up, knowing they were going to finish. We trekked out to No. 4, a (guess what) par 3 over water. It's 150 yards, and 130 of it is blue. Miss the green, and you're wet. Well, since it started that way, might as well end the same. Our sixsome put six balls in, two guys twice from the tee, and John Harris hit the third when he shanked a wedge from the drop area 40 yards from the green with no water in between.
The final hole was a gorgeous par 5 of 506 yards. No, there wasn't a pond, just three - all along the right side. Six more balls were sacrificed to the Road Trip water gods. "The pagans have offered up enough, damn it," cried Isgrigg, whose total of 12 for the day led the group.
Soon after the final putt dropped, celebratory beverages were passed around the bus, hugs and handshakes exchanged, and the driver received three cheers for all his efforts. A 72-year-old man unloading and uploading 14 sets of clubs 11 times is a pretty strong day.
We finished at 6:04 p.m., almost 11 hours. Truth in advertising. When asked if they'd like to move the dinner from its scheduled 8 p.m. up to 6:45 p.m., the scheduled hotel arrival time, it was unanimous for the early finish. Once again the Road Trip bended backs and minds - but not resolve.
At the Awards Dinner, everyone won a prize, among them rounds of golf at all nine courses. Is that a ploy to get people back? Maybe, but if someone really wants to play all 18 holes at all nine courses over the course of a year, the Divine 9 offers a "Ticket To Paradise," including cart and range balls for $249.
Other gifts were gags to commemorate a memorable shot, most lost balls, and even good scores. Poor Amber Pass, a bartender at the Beacon Restaurant at South Lake Tahoe, was the only woman on the Genoa Lakes bus but proved good natured to the end. Too many times she heard the line, "Amber, sorry about that one."
Nine folks broke 100, with five in the 80s. The high was 118, the low was shared by two at 83. Anna shot 89 and lost nary a ball - and that last tidbit is an all-timer. Three players recorded two birdies each, and a whole lot more had numerous triples. Over 50 balls were deposited in water hazards. "Chad Hartley" was left only with soft drinks and bottled water floating on melted ice - the beer all gone.
Promises were made by many to return in 2010 with more friends. Looks like the limit for the courses during public play may be three buses of 16. Weidinger suggested nine buses with 16 players each and the need to determine an equitable compensation plan for the courses, as they currently comp play this particular day.
Well, this thing did start off as a flyer 10 years ago. Where's another cocktail napkin?
For more information on the Divine 9, the co-op of golf courses and lodging properties in the Carson City/Carson Valley area, Ticket To Paradise information, or rampant rumors about the 2010 Road Trip, visit: www.Divine9.com or call 800-NEVADA-1.
January 12, 2010
W. Warren Phillips is a Northern California-based freelancer writing under this pseudonym so his ex-wife won't discover that he might still be enjoying life on the golf course and a few drinks off. He specializes in golf: equipment, courses, travel and the offbeat, as well as corporate communications.
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