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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)

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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