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Betting on the Greens

Las Vegas entrepreneurs are adding stunning golf courses to the city's list of attractions
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

In a town that has its own Pyramid, its own Sphinx, its own Venetian Canal and its own Eiffel Tower, do you think it would be difficult to grow grass? When you can build 5,000-room behemoth hotels and put a roller coaster at the top of a space needle, creating golf courses in the desert is easier than pulling an inside straight.

Las Vegas is the ultimate mirage, a shimmering neon oasis of self indulgence that feeds the souls of adrenaline-starved gamblers who come for the rush as much as the cash. For decades, Las Vegas has drawn millions of patrons by offering the illusion that there were millions of bucks to be made in the most glamorous of circumstances. Throw in chorus girls, Wayne Newton and an oil tanker full of complimentary drinks and you had a perfect gambler's cocoon. No need to leave the casino. No need to leave the hotel. No need to know whether it is day or night.  

It's different now.  

Las Vegas is going green. Vast carpets of grass are covering the desert landscape. There is something to do outdoors in the blazing sun. Thousands of people are riding around in carts, swinging sticks, hitting something other than blackjack and rolling something other than dice.  

Once, Las Vegas had two golf courses of note: the Desert Inn and the Las Vegas Country Club. The PGA Tour visited the Desert Inn frequently, and when the high-profile pros weren't there, a lot of high-profile gamblers were. If the gamblers weren't at the Desert Inn, they were at the Las Vegas Country Club. Matches played for $100,000 weren't unheard of; matches for a million were whispered. Not everybody played for that kind of money, but there always seemed to be something on the line.  

There are now more than 50 courses within an hour's drive of the Las Vegas Strip. More grass has been laid down in the desert over the past decade than felt over craps tables. Golf has become hip, cool, the thing to do. And of course, golf and gambling have always gone together. Who hasn't played a match for two bucks or two hundred? Who hasn't pressed a Nassau bet or wagered a five-spot on who makes the next birdie? Who hasn't seen his best friend choke over a dollar sandy? Who hasn't seen Tiger Woods gobble up the golf world and go off at odds of 15/8 in the British Open?  

Hoteliers and entrepreneurs are gambling that golf will be another big drawing card in the deck of high-stakes business. In the age of Tiger Woods, that's not such a long shot.   Steve Wynn knew this. Wynn also knew that Las Vegas was a grand illusion. So when the grand hotelier set about creating the Mirage Resort, he also set about creating what might be Las Vegas's ultimate mirage, Shadow Creek.  

If you know about golf and you know about Las Vegas, then the odds are short that you know about Shadow Creek. You know about it, but the odds are equally short that you haven't played it. Shadow Creek is the Siren on the distant rock, the brass ring out of reach of the masses and held dear by the precious few. Wynn wanted it that way. He wanted a course that was a private sanctuary for his highest of rollers, a retreat for his closest friends, a desire for his most well-heeled customers. He gave architect Tom Fazio a virtually unlimited budget and told him to build a course unlike anything Las Vegas had ever seen--not that most of Las Vegas would ever see it.  

What Wynn conceived and Fazio rendered is a remarkable transformation of the desert floor. Whatever you've heard about Shadow Creek is true; whatever you've dreamed about it is real. Shadow Creek is a marvelous (bordering on miraculous) place to play, and now that Wynn has sold his Mirage Resorts holdings to MGM, it has also become more accessible.  

Shadow Creek is a sunken paradise in the desert about 20 minutes north of the Strip. Fazio dug down into lifeless earth, bermed up the perimeter, brought in 30,000 trees and created a Pacific Northwest golf course in an arid Southwestern climate. From the confines of the course, all that is visible beyond the tree line are the distant mountains. From the moment you pass through the club's guarded electronic gate, you have left Las Vegas and entered a different dimension. That's what $40 million and a vision can do.  

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