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Casino Courses

Once an afterthought, golf has become a necessity in the quest to lure high-roller gamblers
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

He should know. Fazio just completed his second design for übercasino developer Steve Wynn, a course at the new $2.5 billion Wynn Las Vegas, which was scheduled to open at the end of April. Casinos may be eager and willing to spend money on great golf, but Wynn and Fazio put their peers to shame. While hard numbers were never released, their first effort, Shadow Creek, is estimated to have cost $37 million to $40 million to build in the late 1980s, which at the time made it the most expensive golf course ever constructed (today, you can build a very good one for $5 million). When Wynn bought an empty desert lot, the 320-acre site had less than six feet of pitch. But rather than the desert-style layouts on which Las Vegas thrives, Wynn wanted a traditional Carolina-style tree-lined course, with wooded forests so thick that no hole could be seen from another. To accomplish this, Fazio transplanted more than 21,000 fully mature trees, mostly pines and cottonwoods, many over 30 feet high. He moved so much dirt that the elevation change on the site went from less than six feet to 85 feet. To avoid the laborious task of growing grass from seed in the desert, he became the first to sod virtually every inch of a course with pre-grown grass, a then unheard of expense.

Shadow Creek has lived up to its promise as the world's top casino course. It is ranked among the first ten on the Top 100 You Can Play list and commands the nation's highest greens fees at $500. And that is only Monday through Thursday; weekends are reserved for invited casino guests, mostly high rollers. If you want to experience the mystique of Shadow Creek, do it fast: with MGM Mirage Resorts, the current owner of the course, now negotiating to acquire the Mandalay Bay casino group, and thus many more high rollers, rumor is that demand may soon close the course to the public altogether.

The new Fazio/Wynn collaboration, right on Las Vegas Boulevard, in the heart of the Strip, will be available only to guests of Wynn's resort. "I did it on the site of the old Desert Inn course, but in typical Wynn fashion, we blew everything up and started over again," says Fazio. "From what was there before, you would never guess that this was the same site. Now we have twenty to thirty feet of elevation changes. It's a classic course, with a quaint country club feel, like a Bel Air or Sleepy Hollow. Just imagine doing a second course with Wynn after Shadow Creek. It's like asking, 'What do you expect from Steve Wynn's new hotel?' Well, he went from doing the Golden Nugget to the Mirage to the Bellagio, each better than the last. It's like that with the course. It's going to be fantastic."

Not every course Fazio has done for Sin City casinos has been as expensive or over-the-top to build, but they have all been great. He designed the 36-hole facility at Primm, an easy 45-minute drive from the Strip, for Gary Primm, the original developer of New York New York, who also built three lower-end casino hotels next to the courses. The Primm courses, now owned by MGM Mirage, are open to the public and arguably the best layouts in the Vegas area, period, while there is no doubting they are the best buys. Both courses, the Lakes and Desert, have made Golf Magazine's Top 100 list, and both are spectacular. The marquee Lakes course is locally known as "the poor man's Shadow Creek" because Fazio used so many similar features, including the gorgeous rock-lined creeks and tumbling white water. The 16th hole plays over not one but two waterfalls en route to a strong and picturesque finish. The Desert course, an awesome demonstration of how to properly use waste areas, is reminiscent of another very highly acclaimed Fazio effort, Pinehurst Course No. 8. With packages including both lodging and golf at half the cost of a mere round on many mediocre tracts closer to town, Primm is more typical of the nationwide casino golf phenomenon, combining great golf with great value.

A perfect example of the trend is the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Part of the Pearl River Resort, which includes the Golden Moon and Shooting Star casinos, the 36-hole facility is owned by the Choctaw Indians. Both courses were designed by Tom Fazio with Jerry Pate. Opened in 1997, the Azaleas, aptly named for its impressive resemblance to Augusta National, is a perennial Golf Magazine Top 50 public course, featuring expansive bunkers, manicured landscaping and a winding creek that's frequently in play. The Oaks, which opened in 1998, is also outstanding, with more room to swing away but more water in play. Both encompass an otherwise undisturbed 700-acre lot filled with dogwoods, azaleas and umpteen varieties of flowers, and both feature excellent greens and maintenance throughout. As is often the case with casino courses, no expense is spared—except by the visitor. Besides the ample lodging on site, Dancing Rabbit has a unique twist: eight guest rooms in the clubhouse itself—a touch of the British Isles—except these come equipped with whirlpool baths, and guests can play all the golf they want for less than $200 a night. Despite the bargain-basement prices, the clubhouse accommodations are far superior to the rooms at the casino.

New York is the third most populous state in the Union, yet until last year, it did not have a single resort with more than two 18-hole courses. It took a casino to bring a large-scale golf resort to the Empire State, and as usual, money was no object. The Turning Stone Casino Resort in sleepy Verona, midway between Albany and Syracuse, just wrapped up a $308 million expansion that included a Tom Fazio golf course, plus a performing arts center; an enclosed winter garden—style atrium complete with waterfalls, palm trees and a couple of restaurants; a huge spa; and two new hotels, a 19-story high-rise and an upscale boutique lodge. Besides the golf, the small hotel may be the most intriguing facet of the project. While casinos often skimp on accommodations on the logic that guests spend little time in their rooms, the freestanding Lodge at Turning Stone bucks the trend with a true luxury experience. From oversized rooms, marble whirlpool baths and a wonderful restaurant, to attentive service and the best location on the property, adjacent to the spa and clubhouse, you could be at any first-class golf resort in the world. You could even enjoy a terrific golf vacation—without ever setting foot in the casino. Turning Stone clearly reflects the golf gaming trend, a move away from mere casinos towards full-service resorts. "They are looking to move to more of a destination resort and destination golf resort from the casino they have been," says Mark Emory, spokesman for the Oneida Nation, the owner of the resort. "This could now probably be considered the premier golf resort in the entire Northeast. There is no other place with three courses by top designers, and there may be additional golf on the drawing board. Looking at it on a national basis, the courses are also bargains." (Greens fees at Turning Stone start at $90.)

The Robert Trent Jones II effort at Turning Stone, the Kaluhyat Golf Club, which opened in 2003, made Golf Magazine's Top 10 New Courses You Can Play list and was just named one of America's Best New Upscale Courses by Golf Digest. The latter magazine extended the same honor to the resort's first course, the Rick Smith—designed Shenendoah, when it opened in 2000. With Atunyote, Fazio's wonderful new course, on Golf Magazine's best new course ballot already, it is likely that all three 18-hole layouts at the resort (there are also two nine-hole courses) will be award-winning must-plays. As with Dancing Rabbit, Shadow Creek, Pechanga and all the rest, the architects got the pick of the tribe's land, in this case more than 5,000 acres, and there are no homes. "Golf has a connection to the environment, and American Indians have always had a high regard for Mother Earth," says Emory. "I think that's a big part of it. Two of our courses have Audubon Sanctuary certification." In just five years, Turning Stone has gone from unknown to one of the top golf resorts in the nation, and with luxury lodging and nearly 20 restaurants, the resort, backed by gaming, is changing the face of East Coast golf.

Not to be outdone by another big Northeast player, the Foxwoods Resort Casino undertook Lake of Isles. Convenient to both New York and Boston, Foxwoods already had one rather nondescript golf course when it hired Rees Jones to build two more across the street from the main hotel-casino complex. Foxwoods and Turning Stone share the same philosophy, which Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates executive Lutz described as "amenitization." Bob DeSalvio, Foxwoods' executive vice president of marketing, says, "We are looking to evolve the resort into a true destination resort, and in all our research and customer interaction, golf came across as an important amenity. We wanted to elevate the resort to another level, and golf helps to do that."

Foxwoods gave Jones his pick of the land, and plenty of it. "Over the years, the tribe has invested in about 2,000 acres across the street," says DeSalvio. "We wanted an architect who could help the courses be recognized as among the best in the country. We have a reputation for quality in all of our operations, and by using a top architect, you get golf that fits that image. Likewise, we chose Troon Golf to manage the facility, because they have the reputation for the highest quality experience."

Lake of Isles plans to keep one course private, for members and invited casino guests, while the other will be open to resort guests and, when space is available, outside play. Jones designed the routing so that a composite tournament course can be made from both, as is the case at Ryder Cup venue The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Presidents Cup venue Royal Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia. But don't hold your breath for a big tournament anytime soon: the PGA Tour does not allow casinos to be host sponsors. If they did, casinos from coast to coast would surely be willing to step up and back the events.

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