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The Greatest Greens

Less than 20 years ago, first-rate Las Vegas courses were scant, but today the area boasts some of the country's best golf experiences
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

The recent history of Las Vegas is divided into two eras: Before Steve Wynn and After Steve Wynn. The history of Sin City's golf follows the same Wynn chronology: Before Shadow Creek and After Shadow Creek, the original ultrahigh-roller golf course he built.

Wynn, the mythic visionary of the ultra resorts that transformed Nevada's gambling mecca, opened Shadow Creek in October 1989 as the ultimate amenity for his big-bucks gamblers drawn to the new 3,044-room Mirage hotel. The golf project made history, too, not only creating a world-class course out of the desert but also setting the stage for the opulent public and private courses that followed in its wake.

Shadow Creek is a complete mirage, created out of a patch of scrub desert northwest of the Las Vegas Strip. Wynn hired architect Tom Fazio and worked in close collaboration with him to render from the barren earth something of a miracle-a course that is part Pinehurst, part Pine Valley, part eastern parkland course of your choice (Winged Foot, Brookline, Merion) set as if it were in the Pacific Northwest. Trees, creeks, lakes and waterfalls grace the once- parched desert floor.

Before Shadow Creek, golf in Las Vegas was a mild amusement for casino goers, a betting opportunity for hustlers and cheap recreation for the locals. The Dunes Golf Club and the Desert Inn were on the Strip, convenient and conventional, decent places to play. The PGA Tour held its first Tournament of Champions, in 1952, at the latter. Both courses are gone now, the Dunes replaced in part by the Bellagio resort, and the Desert Inn course replaced by Wynn's new resort named, appropriately, Wynn. And it has a new golf course, designed by Fazio and Wynn in the style of Shadow Creek.

In truth, Wynn's vision and, some might say, excessive ambitions permitted other developers with big budgets and big dreams to pursue the biggest names in golf architecture during the Las Vegas golf boom of the 1990s. Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, the brothers Rees and Bobby Jones, all lent their expertise to golf courses in the area. The modest golf of an immodest town suddenly became all glitz and glamour, all precious and possessive.

The After Shadow Creek era offers a myriad of choices in and around Las Vegas and its rapidly expanding suburbs. What follows is Cigar Aficionado's choice for the best of Las Vegas golf, with the stipulation that the courses must be within an hour's drive of the center of the Strip (doing the speed limit). The cost of golf was no object (geez, you're in Las Vegas) and we've included a couple of private clubs (if you're tight enough with your casino, it has a good chance of getting you in). Here are our Top 5 followed by our five honorable mentions, in alphabetical order, all with our gold tee ratings.

Cascata
Cascata isn't what it once was, and that's good for every player who wants to pony up the $500 (plus forecaddie fee) to play it. Cascata was built by the MGM Grand Hotel as an exclusive amenity for very high rollers. Designed by Rees Jones on the side of a mountain about a 30-minute drive southeast of the Strip, Cascata is a minor engineering marvel. A waterfall protrudes from the mountain in back of the practice range and flows under the range into a series of waterfalls (hence Cascata) that tumble through the clubhouse. Creeks and lakes abound. All the topsoil had to be made on site. It was one of Jones's toughest jobs.

Before the project was completed, MGM and Mirage Resorts merged. Since Shadow Creek was now an amenity of the combined resorts, the company sold Cascata to Park Place Entertainment, owners of Caesars Palace, Paris Las Vegas and several other properties. Park Place (now Caesar's Entertainment) made Cascata the domain of the whale. High rollers, those with six-figure credit lines and seven-figure bank accounts, could have the run of the place with no cost for golf, food and hospitality, not to mention the solitude. Then Harrah's Entertainment bought Park Place, and as of last July Cascata became a public golf course.

It's a splendid place with well-conceived holes that spill over the rugged terrain. The views are outstanding, including the occasional sightings of bighorn sheep.

Reflection Bay
In a town with its own Eiffel Tower, exploding volcano and a roller coaster atop a space needle, how difficult could it be to create a lake, build a Mediterranean-style resort and lay down some grass? Lake Las Vegas is a resort and residential development less than a half hour southeast of the Strip, yet it can seem a world away. The Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt Regency are not in-your-face casino-driven, though the Ritz does have a version of Florence's Pontevecchio Bridge.


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