News & Opinion

Nevada club elevates game’s fun factor

Thinking Outside the Tee Box: One in an occasional series about innovators who are making golf more attractive.

The most dominant player in golf might be Bruce Gordon.

Never heard of him? Gordon plays at the Incline Village Mountain Course overlooking Lake Tahoe’s scenic north shore in Nevada, and he plays a lot. Call him the “Champion Walker of the Year.” 

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COURTESY OF INCLINE VILLAGE MOUNTAIN COURSE
Bruce Gordon logs another walking round at Incline Village’s Mountain Course in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

COURTESY OF INCLINE VILLAGE MOUNTAIN COURSE
Bruce Gordon logs another walking round at Incline Village’s Mountain Course in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Robyn Bradford, the head professional at the Mountain Course, began a fitness program last year. GolFit featured rewards for every 10 miles walked by golfers, starting with a free appetizer and escalating to prizes such as free lessons and gift cards, plus a nine-hole season pass to the golfer who covers the most miles all summer.

Once around the par-58 Mountain Course track is a hearty three-mile trek. Gordon logged 321 miles in 2016, blowing away his competition. This year, Gordon walked 270 miles by mid-September. The next-best total was 30. 

“He’s an animal,” Bradford said jokingly.

He also is 78 years old. How about that?

When Bradford asked Gordon what he thought of his 321-mile total that first year, he answered, “You know what I think? I think you need a bench at 13.”

That par-3 13th hole is on high ground, at 7,000 feet on the highest-elevation course in Nevada, making it the perfect spot for a breather. Gordon would know, obviously. So, Bradford installed a bench this spring with a plaque acknowledging Gordon’s feat, along with his comment that led to the course’s new rest stop.

“It’s kind of cute,” Bradford said.

The keep-fit program is just one of the many clever ways Bradford is attempting to Make Golf Fun Again, to borrow from a familiar phrase, at what already is Lake Tahoe’s most fun course.

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COURTESY OF INCLINE VILLAGE MOUNTAIN COURSE
Robyn Bradford guides the ‘Fun Department’ as head professional at Incline Village’s Mountain Course.

COURTESY OF INCLINE VILLAGE MOUNTAIN COURSE
Robyn Bradford guides the ‘Fun Department’ as head professional at Incline Village’s Mountain Course.

“The big thing nowadays is attracting golfers, getting them to the course and retaining their interest,” Bradford said. “When I got hired, the club wanted me to increase the rounds of golf, sure, but they wanted me to make sure it was fun.”

In the Fun Department, Bradford is killing it with her innovations. Some examples:

Nine and Wine. It’s a 5:30 shotgun start every Thursday evening, featuring a nine-hole scramble. Golfers retire to the clubhouse after play for wine tasting from a different vintner every week, plus amazing food pairings from the club’s chef. 

Bradford’s clubhouse has room for nine tables. So, the Nine-and-Winers are limited to 36 players. It sells out right away, and the finale, Bradford said, had a waiting list with 25 names. That has her thinking about expanding the post-round activities to the outside deck to accommodate more Nine-and-Winers.

“We need some heat lamps and lights because it gets chilly at night in Lake Tahoe,” she said.

Laughing, she added, “It also gets dark.”

Thrill and Grill. It’s a 3 p.m. shotgun start on the back nine every Sunday, using oversized 8-inch cups and a scramble format. Step one: golfers arrive and hit the Build Your Own Bloody Mary bar.

“There’s bacon, horseradish, the works,” Bradford said. 

There also are to-go cups. Each par-3 hole features a different crazy rule: replace your ball on the green and putt out with a marshmallow; hole out with a cue stick and an 8-ball; play ring toss to the flagstick. You never know.

The post-round action features barbecue and craft beers from regional brewers.

“It gets people out who are maybe a little afraid of golf,” Bradford said. “They have fun. They want to come back. You can’t beat it.”

Get Golf Ready. This is a more traditional, five-day golf learning program for adults. It comes in two sizes, Level 1 and Level 2, runs for 90 minutes a day and begins at Ground Zero. 

Day One includes a tour of what happens at the course, starting with the golfer’s arrival, and then putting lessons.

“You’d be surprised how many first-time golfers don’t know what to do at the bag drop, if you have to use the bag drop or how you check in,” Bradford said. “They’re afraid to do something wrong right away. We don’t assume they know the little things.”

Chipping is on tap for Day Two. The next two days are full-swing instruction and bunker play. The fifth day is a playing lesson. The cost is $135, and Bradford did 12 sold-out sessions. She estimated 135 golfers went through the program even though each session was supposed to be limited to eight players per class. 

Some players return just to get back into the swing of things each summer. “I love that they keep coming back,” Bradford said. “Some of them say, Usually, by the third time I take your class, I start to get it.”

There’s more. Sundays at the Mountain Course are Family Day. Golfers younger than 18 play for free. They’re half-price any other day.

Bradford’s September Glow Golf Extravaganza attracted 200 attendees for drinks and a glow-ball skills contest on the range and practice green at the Mountain Course’s big sister just down the slope, Incline Village Golf Course. 

The Mountain Course has two women’s groups. The Tee-sters go 18 holes and have 30 members. The Mountain Niners play nine holes twice a week and have 106 members. 

“The Niners can’t get enough,” Bradford said. “They usually stay and have some wine, chat on the deck and hang out. They love it.”

Bradford’s innovative programs have increased the popularity of the course, which is open from early June until early October.

“We’re very busy for four months,” Bradford said. “Very, very busy.”

Just like Bruce “The Animal” Gordon.

If you know someone doing innovative things in golf, contact the writer at gvansick@aol.com.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle