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Red Hawk Golf and Resort in Sparks, Nevada offers two very different courses

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer
Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Lakes Course - hole 3
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Water comes into play on at least a dozen holes on Red Hawk's Lakes Course. (Kiel Christianson/TravelGolf )

SPARKS, Nev. -- For eons, battles have raged between mountain and valley people, between clans from the highlands and lowlands, and among forest and plains tribes. Geographical features can define identities and shape mindsets.

Red Hawk Golf and Resort, located in Sparks, Nev., offers visitors and members two distinctly different courses -- the Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Lakes Course and the signature Hale Irwin-designed Hills Course.

Although the dissimilarities between these two tracks haven't spurred the locals into bashing each other's heads in with 9-irons (as far as I know), there are some strong loyalties among regulars. For every golfer you run into who praises the Lakes Course for its strong, classical design, you'll find another who gushes about the vistas and wild-west feel of the Hills Course.

Take, for example, 15-handicap Golfer X (he preferred not to be identified), who described the Lakes Course as "somewhat claustrophobic."

"When my driver isn't working," he said with a sigh, "I hit more houses than fairways. On the Hills Course, most bad drives don't end up OB."

As a counterpoint, consider none other than the starter himself, who praised the Lakes Course: "Now that's a nice design. Just really, really nice." As for the Hills Course, he said, "It's picturesque, but it's got some goofy holes."

Let's take a closer look at each course, and you can make up your own mind.

Lakes Course at Red Hawk Golf and Resort

The par-72 Lakes Course opened in 1996 and is aptly named, with water coming into play on at least a dozen holes. The 7,140-yard layout meanders through a rather densely built residential complex, too, so between worry about rinsing shots and bouncing off roofs, it is understandable why Golfer X feels somewhat hemmed in here.

When you finally arrive at the first tee (it's quite a drive from the clubhouse), you'll find that the first few holes have a nice, calm, resort feel to them, with mounding to help keep shots in play and closely cropped rough that is not so penal. After these first few holes, though, the eponymous water hazards come more into play, as do the OB stakes.

Many of the holes set up with the most severe penalties to the right, including tricky driving holes No. 6 (557 yards, par 5) and No. 7 (402 yards, par 4), both of which dogleg right and punish slicers. The 529-yard, par-5 10th is another slicer's nightmare, with its sharp dogleg right and nearby back yards.

The greens on the Lakes Course are generally flat, with subtle breaks following the drainage patterns toward the ubiquitous ponds. There are very few wild undulations or dramatic ridges or quadrants, though, so if you can get the speed down, those first putts should generally end up near the hole.

Probably the staunchest hole on the course (even for straight hitters who manage not to pelt any houses along the way) is the brutish, 241-yard, par-3 17th. Even from the blues (221 yards) or whites (198 yards), the tee shot across water is daunting. Happily, there's a large bail-out area to the left of the green, which is also closer to the tees. Also handy is a drop area on the other side of the water, just in case.

Hills Course at Red Hawk Golf and Resort

The first thing that crossed my mind when I looked at the scorecard for the Hills Course was that I have never seen a course as long as this one (7,106 yards from the tips) with such a low slope rating (127). All I can figure is that the relative forgiveness off the tee makes the 1997-vintage Hills Course play a lot easier than it looks.

Chad Pettingill, the director of golf at Red Hawk, said the Hills Course was "a lot easier off the tee," after all, with "an abundance of fairway out there."

At the same time, though, there is a considerable variety of elevation changes, and if the wind picks up, first-time players (like myself) will find pulling the right club and playing the optimal shot more difficult than the pedestrian slope ratings (all the way down to 114 for the men's white tees) suggest.

Take, for example, the sporty little par-4 third hole. With elevated tees, a general elevation advantage and a prevailing helping wind, one might think it could be drivable, especially from the more forward tees (black: 323; blue: 302; white: 280). But lurking behind the small, back-to-front sloped green are two hidden nostril-like pot bunkers. So if you go long from the tee or on the approach, this easy par hole turns immediately into a double-bogey hole at best.

The toughest tee shot on the Hills Course comes at the 529-yard eighth, which runs uphill from the tee boxes and into the prevailing wind. The fairway from the vantage point of the tees looks no wider than a shoestring and has OB up the hill to the right and a steep, yet playable, drop-off on the left.

Here, and in a few other places, some conditioning problems are still visible. Red Hawk came under new management two-and-a-half years ago, and, according to one member and one former member with whom I spoke, the new team has done a lot of good, but a few kinks still need to get worked out like residual conditioning issues, which had become almost irrevocably bad before the management switch.

The 318-yard, par-4 ninth hole might be one of the "goofy" holes the starter had referred to. With certain death lurking left of the fairway, and a green tucked behind that self-same deadly vegetation-choked ravine, this hole requires only a mid-iron off the tee for most players and is really pretty dull. It would work much better if it were converted into a mid-length par 3.

But the design redeems itself on the lovely downhill 242-yard, par-3 11th. Thanks to the dramatically elevated tees, it plays nearly two clubs shorter than the yardage would suggest, and balls that hit the right side of the green tend to funnel toward the hole.

Holes 16-18, all at least 400 yards, comprise one very tough closing stretch. The 16th hole has a 50- to 75-foot elevation drop, and the 18th is a terrible place for your hook to rear its ugly head, with evil water all down the left. This closing trio will remain in your memory, for better or worse, for quite some time after playing the Hills Course.

Red Hawk Golf and Resort: The verdict

What's your preference: A shot-maker's dream requiring accuracy as it snakes through a peaceful residential neighborhood, or a grip-it-and-rip-it romp up, down and along ridges that mix vistas with golf? No matter your tastes, Red Hawk has a course for you.

As mentioned, the conditioning and service are improving weekly under the watchful eye of the new management team, and the rates, ranging from $49-$79 with cart during peak season, are extremely reasonable. (Carts, by the way, are outfitted with one of the most sophisticated GPS systems I've ever seen.)

As of April 1, 2013, the two courses will rotate with respect to availability for public play, with one on odd days and the other on even days. So be sure to check with the pro shop before you book your tee time if you have strong feelings one way or the other.

But really, can't we all just get along?

Lodging and dining in the Carson City/Sparks area

As the name implies, Red Hawk Golf and Resort offers accommodations on site, consisting of spacious, luxurious golf villas that include access to all the resort's amenities.

Another local favorite, especially if you'd like to partake in some gaming action, is the Carson Valley Inn. This longtime mainstay of the Carson City area has been fully refurbished, and the spacious rooms let you stretch out and relax after hitting the links or the blackjack tables. The charming Old West feel of the place is very endearing. (Not all rooms have in-room coffee makers, so if that's important to you, ask about it when you check in.)

If you feel like Mexican food, San Marcos Grill is a wonderful family-owned restaurant and bar, with outstanding homemade guacamole. The Plato de Asada is especially delicious.

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Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Lakes Course - hole 6Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Lakes Course - hole 12Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Lakes Course - hole 17Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Lakes Course - hole 18Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Hills Course - hole 3Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Hills Course - hole 7Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Hills Course - hole 11Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Hills Course - hole 18Red Hawk Golf and Resort - Hills Course - vistas

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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