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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 2)

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."

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.

Like Turning Stone, Foxwoods has the room to do another course down the road. "It's a huge site," says Jones, "so we were able to pick and choose and use all the best land and natural features. There is a 90-acre lake, peninsula greens, and almost every hole has something special about it. It will be positioned as one of the top courses in the country."

Jones is no stranger to such sites. His first casino effort was for the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and the Rio Secco Golf Club is now one of the highest ranked courses in the city and home to the Butch Harmon School of Golf, the nation's most desirable place for instruction. The course is available to guests of the Rio and other Harrah's casinos. "The land that I got [for Rio Secco] had ravines, a plateau and an ancient river bottom, so there are three kinds of holes," says Jones. His next feat was Cascata, a Shadow Creek peer that was among the most costly ever built and is one of the most expensive to play, with weekend greens fees of $500 (just $350 during the week), open only to guests of Caesars properties. The holes run back and forth in a series of rugged and rocky finger canyons on the slope of a mountain, which made construction especially difficult.

"Cascata is pretty spectacular," says Jones. "They had to helicopter me in to see the site, to make sure it could physically be built. It's pretty rugged country. I did a lot of blasting. If it had not been for casino money, they never would have tackled such rocky sites as Cascata, Rio Secco and Lake of Isles. A normal country club could not have afforded to build them, and even a developer would not have spent enough. All five are worth traveling a long distance to play." On a kinder, gentler note, Jones also built Dacotah Ridge, a course carved through the Minnesota prairie and wrapped around a 14-acre lake for the Lower Sioux Indian Community, owners of the adjacent Jackpot Junction casino. While Jones's other gaming layouts command top dollar, this one offers a first-class golf experience at a pittance; a package that includes two nights' accommodations, two rounds of golf and two breakfasts, for instance, costs just $200.

Another Minnesota course that in all likelihood would not have been built without gambling revenue is The Wilderness at Fortune Bay, a wonderful layout carved from rocky and unforgiving terrain. Opened a year ago, the course is located in the desolate northern part of the state, near International Falls, the community famous for often being the coldest place in the lower 48. The exorbitant costs of building a course in such a remote and rugged location—along with providing a luxurious clubhouse and high-end carts equipped with GPS—would surely have dissuaded a conventional developer. Yet backed by the adjacent Fortune Bay casino, architect Jeffrey D. Brauer, who gained national prominence with Minnesota's award-winning Giant's Ridge, built a layout with one memorable shot after another, including a terrific three-hole stretch along the shores of Lake Vermillion. And, greens fees never exceed $84.

From the Caribbean to the hinterlands, casinos are bringing some of the best courses to some of the most beautiful places and creating a new breed of golf escapes. Just as golf is helping to make these casino resorts complete, the other resort amenities are making the prospect of golf vacations more alluring. Most of these properties offer a vast variety of cuisine, in many cases world-class, along with accommodations running the gamut from average to off the charts. Spas, shows, shopping and, of course, gambling complete the vacation picture, making a gaming golf getaway one well worth considering.

There is no end in sight to the trend. Outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, the luxurious Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa, owned by the Santa Ana Pueblo, features 45 holes, including the highly rated Twin Warriors course. The resort also offers many activities, a first-rate spa, and is the highest profile of three new casino golf projects—in Albuquerque! In Lake Charles, Louisiana, the new L'Auberge du Lac is a $365 million riverboat casino and hotel project complete with a Fazio course. This is a follow-up course to the one Fazio designed for the resort's sister property, the Belterra Casino, in Belterra, Indiana. Circling Raven in beautiful Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, just won recognition from Golf Magazine as one of the Top 10 New Courses You Can Play; it is routed through 620 acres of wetlands, grasslands and woodlands, teeming with wildlife. The Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino outside San Diego has an acclaimed four-year-old course that Golfweek ranks the fourth best public layout in California. Even in golf-mad Scottsdale, Arizona, where the high-end daily fee craze was born, casino golf is taking hold. The We-Ko-Pa course is owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, which also operates the Fort McDowell Casino; the three-year-old course is artfully routed through the stunning scenery of the Sonoran desert. Just down the road, the full-service Sheraton Wild Horse Pass resort sits on the Gila River Indian Community and features 36 holes of first-rate casino-funded golf. Even Mr. "You're Fired!" himself, Donald Trump, has gotten into the act, with his casino and golf course combo on the remote island of Canouan in the Grenadines, an adjunct to the new Raffles resort. The course, carved across the top of a mountain range, with drop-dead views in all directions, was an expansion of a bankrupt nine-hole design that had sat vacant for years and which never would have been completed without the addition of the casino.

Those who lose a small fortune at craps or blackjack might not agree, but for golf lovers, casinos have been a white knight coming to the rescue. v

Larry Olmsted is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado and the editor of The Golf Insider, a monthly newsletter.

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