Snow golf at high altitude? At this Tahoe ski resort, it’s a thing

A skier playing snow golf in the Sierra mountains

At the Snow Golf Tournament, in Tahoe, the air is thin but many shots are fat.

Courtesy of Palisades Tahoe

For many golfers, reaching the summit is a round at Augusta National or a tap-in putt to win the U.S. Open. But there’s another path to the top of the game.

Just hop a chairlift in the High Sierra and ride it to the peak of Palisades Tahoe, the ski resort formerly known as Squaw Valley, where, at 8,600 feet above sea level, a snow golf tournament takes place each year. 

Golf at altitude is often ego-boosting, with shots that arc majestically through thin air. It’s more humbling, though, with skis (or a snowboard) strapped to your feet, mittens on your hands and layers of outerwear around your torso that restrict your otherwise pro-model turn. Getting limber in the cold adds to the challenge. But at least there’s zero risk of a frost delay.

Though snow golf in Tahoe is not an ancient game, the Palisades event has been around a while. Its roots reach back to 1986, when a member of the mountain’s trail maintenance crew roughed out a routing with a grooming machine, planted flags in the ground and painted hula-hoop sized circles that passed as cups. He was acting largely for his own amusement. But locals liked the concept, and a tournament was born.

The most recent edition (the 38th annual Snow Golf Tournament!) unfolded this past weekend, on the kind of sun-kissed morning golfers dream about. Snow golfers, too. More than 400 participants turned up, paying nothing extra for the privilege aside for what they’d spent on a lift ticket. Entry to the event itself was free.

The hardest of the hardcore brought their own clubs, and those who didn’t were handed loaners, along with a used tennis ball, the official projectile of the event. Not all the swings were smooth. Handicaps ranged as wildly as the surrounding mountains, and for every player who got their first shots airborne there were just as many who shanked or whiffed.

In their defense, the opening hole at Palisades Tahoe is something of a doozy, with distracting views of white-capped peaks in all directions and aqua-blue Lake Tahoe shining far below. It plays (spoiler alert!) downhill, dipping into what is known as the Alpine bowl, on a precipitous plunge that doubles as a black-diamond run.

“You don’t have to be a great golfer to play in this event,” John Haines says. “But you do have to be a pretty competent skier.”

snow golf championship in lake tahoe
A scene from the 38th Snow Golf Tournament. courtesy of Palisades Tahoe

As the events coordinator for Palisades Tahoe, Haines is the Fred Ridley of the Snow Golf Tournament, or as close as it gets to someone in charge. Among his tasks is to organize players into foursomes (and sometimes fivesomes), and to keep things moving, a job that’s gotten tougher over the years as the tournament has swelled in popularity. At one point this past weekend, Haines says, the wait at the first tee was nearly two-hours long.

Haines is an avid green-grass golfer, and he’s played enough on snow to have picked up some tips. An open stance is helpful (“There’s less chance you’ll hit your skis when you swing”). And the more lofted the club, the better (“An 8- or a 9-iron, at least.”) Even then, used tennis balls don’t fly too high or far. 

The course, accordingly, is relatively short, with holes that are “basically like par-3s,” Haines says. “It’s just that a lot of people turn them into par-10s.”

Not that many of them keep close tally. There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when the Snow Golf Tournament was a formal competition, with official scores and prizes given out to the top finishers. But, as often happens in other forms of golf, some players took liberty with their accounting, prompting others to complaint. To avoid controversy, the tournament is now played strictly for fun, with prizes given out for best costume (this year’s winners were a group dressed as caddies)) and by way of a raffle that generates funds for the training and care of avalanche-rescue dogs.

There has never been a need for those dogs at the Snow Golf Tournament, and this year was no different. Everything went off without a hitch, on a 10-hole course that started at the summit and ended at a chalet at the base of the mountain with a Caddyshack-themed party.

The atmosphere was warm, and the beer was cold.

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.