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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.  

Every hole at Shadow Creek is a work of art, separated from the next by mounds and thick stands of trees. From 7,239 yards from the back tees to 6,701 from the regular tees, Shadow Creek is as good a test of golf as it is a walk (make that a ride) in the park. There is a certain sense of renewal at every tee, a sense of adventure. The question keeps arising: can this really be?  

Unlike the hotels of the Strip, the clubhouse at Shadow Creek is less of everything. It is understated, simplistic by comparison and comfortable to the bone. In the open, brightly lit locker room, brass nameplates on the lockers read Michael Jordan, George Bush, Arnold Palmer. If you're fortunate enough to get a locker, chances are the staff will know who you are and treat you with familiarity. You have, in every sense of the word, arrived.  

When Shadow Creek first opened, you could only play with Wynn's approval. As a guest of the Mirage, you were allowed to play if you took a $1,200 suite for the night. That worked out to roughly $700 for the room and $500 for a greens fee, the highest in the United States. That greens fee still applies, but the new MGM­Mirage Resorts has made the course more accessible. You have to stay at one of the MGM­Mirage resorts: MGM Grand, Mirage, New York-New York, Bellagio, Treasure Island or Golden Nugget, but unlike the Mirage days, any room will do. With that qualification you can call 888-778-3387 and ask for a tee time. Play is limited to as few as 11 foursomes or as many as 30 foursomes, but don't worry, Shadow Creek is still exclusive, still holds its mystique, still is an illusion in the desert.  

The Rio All-Suite Casino Resort has tried to cash in on a bit of that mystique by building its own high-end golf course, the Rio Secco Golf Club, and signing up Tiger Woods's swing coach, Butch Harmon, to run a golf academy on the property. The course, designed by Rees Jones, is a 15-minute drive from the hotel to the foothills south of Las Vegas. Six holes play along the desert floor, six through canyons and six along a plateau. The greens fee is in the $200 range at this course, built strictly for the guests of the Rio or Harrah's.  

But maybe not. It seems that there hasn't been quite enough revenue generated from the hotel guests, so the Rio just might be willing to accommodate a few outsiders, particularly corporate or club groups. It also might be willing to arrange lessons at the Butch Harmon School of Golf, maybe even with old Butch himself.  

More accessible are the courses owned by one of Las Vegas's best-known gamblers, Billy Walters. Walters will tell you that he isn't much of a gambler anymore; instead he's an entrepreneur taking a chance that golf will be a substantial part of Las Vegas's future. Walters runs the 54-hole Stallion Mountain complex, the adjoining Royal Links and the downtown Desert Pines Golf Club. "For years we didn't have enough quality golf available to the public here," says Walters, a pretty fair golfer himself. "If Las Vegas is going to be a complete destination for everybody, then you have to have golf, and good golf with good service. That's what we provide, and it's working."  

The Stallion Mountain courses are bland by comparison with many of the dramatic desert courses, but because of that they are much more playable for high handicappers. The Royal Links is a replica course of famous holes from the British Isles, such as the Road Hole at St. Andrews and the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon. You might recognize them if you've played them, though you will also recognize that you are still in Las Vegas. The illusion isn't complete here, and at a $225 greens fee ($275 on weekends), you'll have to decide whether it's a value or not. Desert Pines packs a lot of course in a very small piece of land, about 98 acres, and is the most interesting of all the Walters properties, with the added convenience of being very close to the Strip. But beware of balls from adjoining fairways.  

The newest of Walters' developments is a course that sits right off the end of the runways of McCarran International Airport. This is Bali Hi, meant to suggest the South Pacific with plenty of blinding white sand, palm trees, tropical foliage and water. It's scheduled to be open in November, meaning you can get in a round of golf on the way from the baggage claim area to the casino floor.  

In the Las Vegas suburbs are courses such as Badlands, a target-golf course designed by Johnny Miller, and the TPC courses at Summerlin and The Canyons. There's the Revere at Anthem, with a waterfall behind the seventh hole green suggestive of the American side of Niagara Falls. There's also the Legacy Golf Club, with its par-3 10th hole that has four tee boxes in the shapes of a heart, a diamond, a club and a spade, the spade being the championship tee. Wretched excess is also the hallmark of the private Southern Highlands Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Robert Trent Jones Sr., that is quite stunning and may be playable by those who make discreet phone calls.  

In a world apart from the Strip, the Lake Las Vegas development in Henderson, about 25 minutes east of Las Vegas near Lake Mead, is an oasis of tranquility. The illusion is Las Vegas Lake, not the Jack Nicklaus golf course known as Reflection Bay. The lake is man-made, of course, with expensive housing and a Nicklaus private course on one side, and Reflection Bay and the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas on the other. The Hyatt Regency is for people who don't want in-your-face opulence and over-the-top grandeur. It has a pure resort feeling, done with a Moroccan theme. There is a small European-style casino that you don't even have to walk through to get to the elevator.  

Though Nicklaus will tell you that every course he builds is a reflection of the land and the desires of the developer, Reflection Bay is pure Nicklaus. The fairways are wide, the greens large with gentle contours. The lake comes into play on the final two holes of each nine. The water at the shoreline is shallow, and there are likely to be golf balls that are just out of the reach of ball retrievers but within easy grasp of ambitious waders. Nicklaus has combined just enough challenge with just enough forgiveness to make Reflection Bay the consummate resort course.  

Las Vegas will always be an illusory world inhabited by dreamers who are driven by the churn of casino cash. Tapped-out days followed by get-well nights, or vice versa. And where there is gaming, there will always be the outdoor game of choice, golf. It's an illusion that is here to stay, an illusion built around the most elusive of all the courses, Shadow Creek.  

A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.    

PLAYING THE NUMBERS Getting tee times at some of these courses is by no means guaranteed, but here are the contact numbers for some of the Las Vegas area's top courses.  

SHADOW CREEK 702/399-7111  

RIO SECCO GOLF CLUB 702/889-2400  

DESERT PINES GOLF CLUB 702/388-4400  

TPC COURSE AT SUMMERLIN 702/256-0111  

TPC COURSE AT CANYONS 702/262-5816  

REFLECTION BAY 702/740-4653

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