Once an afterthought, golf has become a necessity in the quest to lure high-roller gamblers
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005
Rees Jones is no stranger to dynamite. The award-winning golf course architect did such an enormous amount of blasting at his stunning Cascata outside Las Vegas that it is said to be the most expensive course ever built. Now, braced against the chilly New England fall and far away from the canyon lands of the Southwest, he is once again blowing things up.
Amid explosions, Jones, clad in mud-encrusted work boots, surveys his latest gem, deep in the Connecticut woodlands, while orchestrating an army of bulldozers, backhoes and detonators. Below the soil lies endless acres of granite ledge, which Jones is shaping to his will. And once again, the money faucet is open.
Jones is one of the many top architects who have turned their attention to golf projects at gaming destinations, in this case Foxwoods, the world's largest and most profitable casino. Thanks to the unique way casinos operate, and their seemingly endless cash flow, the challenges he faced were not challenges at all, but rare opportunities in his business. His assignment, building a 36-hole facility called Lake of Isles, was like Christmas come early for a golf course designer. While golf courses can be built on as little as 150 acres, and often are, Jones had more than 2,000 acres of untouched woodlands and lakes with which to work, allowing him to pick and choose the most prime land. Normally designers are told where they can build and where they cannot, because many golf course projects are financially driven by new homes, which get the first pick of the land. Casinos like Foxwoods don't do residences, and Jones did not miss them. Between the ample land, the limitless construction budget and the fact that Indian nations tend to have a much higher regard for pristine nature than other clients, Jones was in architecture heaven. And so will be the golfers who tee it up on Lake of Isles when it opens this May.
It is casinos, Indian or otherwise, that have been funding a golf course building boom, creating some of the nation's best tracts in recent years. While other categories of golf course construction, including high-end daily fee layouts and private clubs, have declined, casino courses are sprouting; at least five have made the Top 100 You Can Play list from Golf Magazine, the nation's most valued ranking, including one in the top ten.
Some courses have expensive greens fees, if you can get on at all, like $500 for Shadow Creek and Cascata in Las Vegas, and that's if you are staying at one of the properties that own the courses. But in most other casino operations around the country, golf is being practically given away, like a 99-cent shrimp cocktail or a dinner buffet. Not only is the golf a bargain, but the courses are top-notch.
"It is a real growth area. The money is there, and as these casinos grow, they see golf as a way to amenitize themselves. We are seeing a huge boom in golf demand from the Native American community around the country," says Quentin Lutz, an executive with Arthur Hills/ Steve Forrest and Associates, one of the world's premier golf architecture firms. "I think it is a really big growth area in North America with the increased popularity of gambling. It may well now be the biggest tourism driver in the country. We looked at a site for this casino in the middle of the desert, on the Oklahoma-Texas border, in the middle of nowhere. It was in a temporary structure, like a circus tent, and it was just packed, with busload after busload from Dallas. While they use the tent, they are building a 150,000-square-foot casino and a golf course."
Arthur Hills, a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and a top designer himself, is currently working on a couple of casino projects. "The nice thing about clients like that is that they have an ample budget. They want something memorable, something that will bring people back or make them stay another day," says Hills. "The other unique thing about these projects is that there is usually no real estate involved, so you really have the opportunity to frame holes with trees, capture views, use the best land and not have to worry about the home sites." Hills just broke ground on a layout for the Pechanga Nation in Southern California, at its namesake Pechanga Resort and Casino, and is starting another for the Garden River First Nation, in Sault Ste. Marie, on the Michigan-Canada border.
Great land with no homes. Unlimited budgets. Burgeoning demand. Who in the golf business could ask for more? Not Robert Trent Jones II, Rees's brother, who used casino money to build a course at what has quickly become New York State's largest golf resort. Not Jack Nicklaus, whose Reflection Bay course at Lake Las Vegas was named Best New Upscale Public Course by Golf Digest. Not Rees Jones, the famed "U.S. Open Doctor," who just wrapped up his fifth casino effort. And certainly not Tom Fazio, often called the greatest living designer, the man with more Top 100 courses than anyone, including three of the whopping ten casino layouts he has built.
"In the '80s, we saw a lot of projects that combined golf, a hotel and residences," notes Fazio. "Then in the '90s, we got a lot of high-end daily fees. Now we're not getting a lot of new hotels, but many of the ones we are getting are associated with gaming.
"Most of the growth in the hospitality business is in small hotels like Hampton Inns, Courtyards by Marriott and the like, none of which have golf courses. Without a lot of hotel rooms, these courses don't make sense. It's all hotel-related, and right now, the gaming industry is driving the lodging sector. The casinos are the only ones still doing big, grand hotels."
You must be logged in to post a comment.