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
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 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.
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.
Jack Nicklaus has designed two courses here, the public Reflection Bay and the private South Shore Country Club. There is a third course, The Falls, designed by Tom Weiskopf. It's Reflection Bay that you want to play, the host course of the Wendy's Three-Tour challenge. Reflection Bay is pure Nicklaus, taking advantage of every movement of the terrain, more than a mile of the lakefront and the vastness of the vistas.
The final four holes of the front nine speak to everything that is Reflection Bay. The sixth and seventh holes are long par 4s that tumble down the long slope toward the lake. From the sixth tee, particularly in the late afternoon, there's a sense that you're playing in a watercolor painting. The sixth and seventh are menaced by an arroyo running down the right side and cutting in front of you just when you don't want it to. The eighth and ninth are Florida holes, playing along the lake with plenty of white sand and palm trees. The back nine also ends along the lake with an intimidating par 3 and a reachable par 5. At the end of the day, Reflection Bay is a very fine golf experience, and at greens fees ranging from $160 to $295, it's a relative bargain-for Las Vegas.
The course that started it all still rules and is still a must-play. While Shadow Creek's total exclusivity has long since passed, the sense of privilege remains. You must stay at MGM Mirage properties to gain access, fork over the $500 greens fee and play from Monday through Thursday (VIP guests only on the weekend). But you get limousine service to the course, a caddie and a priceless rush of wonderment. It was the best golf course Steve Wynn's money could buy, and he got his money's worth.
From the moment your limo oozes through Shadow Creek's gate, you have left Las Vegas behind. The drive takes you northwest of the Strip, through the creeping sprawl of Las Vegas subdivisions and strip malls, and into a parch of desert that seems unlikely to contain anything except disagreeable critters. Then you see a massive tree hedge and know that you are approaching nirvana.
When your caddie meets you at the clubhouse entrance, it's impossible not to be struck by its understatement. Unlike Vegas, where every property announces itself with the subtlety of a space shuttle launch, Shadow Creek is pure serenity. The clubhouse is relatively small and unendingly comfortable. The domain-you will note by brass nameplates on the lockers-of Michael Jordan, President George Bush (Senior) and assorted touring pros. And now, you, treated like a member of the club.
The practice range at Shadow Creek is worth the price of admission. Beautifully arranged, it provides a preview to the course and a certain privacy. Small teeing areas separated by copses of trees allow a foursome to warm up together. It's also where the very adept caddies will get a sense of how you play and what you are capable of.
From the first hole, with the namesake Shadow Creek running down the left side, who wouldn't be astonished at what Wynn and Fazio have accomplished. Each hole, lined with berms and thick stands of trees, stands alone. Each hole is designed for playability and challenge, and vistas of the distant mountains. And Shadow Creek, a completely artificial recirculating brook, is your constant companion. If your passion for golf equals your passion for Texas Hold'em, go all in and play Shadow Creek.
The Southern Highlands Golf Club is a real private course (the emphasis on real) southwest of the Strip off Interstate 15, located in an upscale residential community where the size of the homes seems to mirror the size of the distant resorts. The course, a green-carpeted traditional layout, is a collaboration between the legendary and prolific architect Robert Trent Jones and his equally prolific son Bobby Jr. The proviso about playing Southern Highlands is that you need to hold some major standing with your casino host, who in turn needs to have some major standing at the club. You won't be able to just put up a greens fee here.
But let's say you do have such standing, and have an itch to play that your host can scratch. Southern Highlands is an excellent choice, ranked highly by Golf Digest in its private-club reviews, perfectly maintained with a lovely clubhouse and ubiquitous views of the Las Vegas Valley. It's also unmistakably a work of the Jones clan. The holes are big and burly, and there's plenty of water and sand. Speaking of the sand, the fairway bunkering at Southern Highlands is more penal than most, tending to be as deep as greenside bunkers. Since there is ample room to play around most of those bunker complexes, it's a good idea for high-handicap golfers to avoid them. If you've got some pull, then make some tracks for Southern Highlands.
Wynn Golf Club
After Steve Wynn's Mirage resorts were hostilely taken over, he embarked on a new venture on the Las Vegas Strip by taking over the old Desert Inn, ripping down its recently renovated buildings, tearing up its old golf course and putting $2.7 billion into a new resort and course, both of which he called Wynn. By bringing in Tom Fazio again, and sticking to his ideas about what a golf course should look and feel like, Wynn has created Shadow Creek South.
Like Shadow Creek, Wynn is sunken into the landscape and manages to block out much of the sights and even some of the sounds of the surrounding city. The tourists clomping along the east side of the Strip don't get a glimpse of this $500-a-round haven. The 50-story Wynn Resort tower hovers above the property, its contemporary sleekness suggestive of a very large Zippo lighter. You must stay at Wynn to play at Wynn, and they take that requirement seriously.
Like Shadow Creek, there are perfectly green and manicured fairways, dramatic green complexes, creeks and waterfalls (you can drive underneath the one behind the 18th green), and plenty of trees, many of which were saved from the Desert Inn course. Like Shadow Creek, you get a very experienced caddie in uniform coveralls.
Unlike Shadow Creek, you don't get a full practice range. There is a lovely practice green and bunker complex, but for warm-up shots you have to hit from artificial mats (egads) into a net (good heavens). With the cost of land along the Strip, and the magnitude of Wynn's development ambitions, building a practice range on this precious acreage wasn't going to happen, and the course is a bit shoehorned as a par 70, though it does stretch 7,000 yards from the tips. But for absolute convenience in the center of everything, coupled with style and grace, Wynn is a value play.
This will be a controversial choice. On the one hand, Bali Hai is off the end of the runways at McCarron International Airport and in full view of the Mandalay Bay, Luxor and New York-New York resorts. There's a feeling of tightness between the holes, and the South Pacific motif would be entirely out of character if this wasn't Las Vegas. It's what you might expect an upscale Strip golf course to be. Some like it, some don't. But there's really no denying it's a lot of fun, and quite possibly for the same reasons that its detractors find repugnant. There's a certain challenge to ducking underneath a 757 on takeoff.
It's an amusing course, this Bali Hai, without being an amusement-park course. It's 7,000 yards and has a good collection of par 4s from short to long, including three exceeding 480 yards from the tips. There is plenty of water, much of it surrounding the island-green par-3 16th hole. The clubhouse overlooks this lagoon and green and gives your buddies plenty of chances to harass you for water balls. This is a great place to play near sunset, when the lights of the Strip come alive. There's no practice range, only a net, but what the heck. Bali Hai is the work of Billy Walters, a local golf entrepreneur with a roster of other courses in the area, but none quite like this.
Jack Nicklaus's other entry in Las Vegas is his replica course, Bear's Best, at the far end of Flamingo Road 11 miles west of the Strip. This is a collection of holes that Nicklaus has designed at courses throughout the west and in Los Cabos, Mexico, and is a sister property to Bear's Best in Atlanta. Some might be put off by all the construction going on around the course as the Vegas sprawl creeps into the mountains to the west, but taken hole by hole, Bear's Best stands up well.
The first hole, a par 4 around a lake, gets your attention. It's a re-creation of the sixth hole of Nicklaus's Private Course at PGA West at La Quinta, California. The fourth and 11th holes will get your attention if for nothing other than the black sand in the bunkers. These holes come from Nicklaus's Old Works Golf Club in Montana, which was built on an EPA Superfund site where a copper smeltery once stood; Nicklaus used black slag left from the smelting process for bunker sand. Golfers who have been to Los Cabos will likely recognize holes taken from the Cabo del Sol, El Dorado and Palmilla courses. The forced carries over broad sand washes distinguish these holes. Nicklaus has also re-created holes from his Desert Mountain courses in Scottsdale, Arizona, and one from his Castle Pines Golf Club in Colorado. There's a big, basic practice range off the back of the clubhouse where you can hit balls all day for about $20.
Paiute Golf Resort, Wolf Course
Like other tribes across the United States, the Paiute Indians are capitalizing on their land by building golf courses. The Paiutes also capitalized on one of the magical names in American golf design, Pete Dye. Bring Dye into any project and you are going to get a course that inspires wonder among players.
Dye has designed three courses at the Paiute Reservation, about 40 minutes from the center of the Strip to the northwest off Route 95. The reservation is just beyond the wave break of urban sprawl, and golf at Paiute has an appropriate sense of solitude, though with so many courses there also may be a lot of golfers, particularly conventioneers. On weekends, there can be a wedding party about.
Dye's Wolf Course is a bear, so to speak. It's 7,604 yards from the tournament tees with a hefty course rating of 76.3 and a hefty slope rating of 149. If you really are intent on beating yourself up, play from the back, but for some enjoyment play the yellow tees (OK, so you are chickening out) at a little less than 6,500 yards. Just so you know it's a Pete Dye course, the par-3 15th has an island green. It can be windy all year and chilly in the winter here, but all the courses are well-kept and finely detailed.
Resort, Lakes Course
Primm Valley Lakes is Shadow Creek for those on a budget, minus the exclusivity. Primm is a casino exit off Interstate 15 about 40 minutes south of the Strip. But you won't find the Lakes and Desert golf courses attached to Whiskey Pete's or Buffalo Bill's. You have to go another four miles-plus over the California state line to get to the courses. The fact that they are located over the state line allowed Tom Fazio to design both courses at Primm, which angered Steve Wynn. Wynn's contract with Fazio for Shadow Creek didn't allow him to design another course in Nevada for anyone other than Steve Wynn.
At Primm Lakes you get a sense of what Shadow Creek is like for less than a third of the price. Fazio being Fazio, there is drama all about. A lake and stream system comes into play on 11 holes. Lots of pines (fast-growing for instant maturity) come into play and block off views of many adjoining holes as well as the nearby interstate. Primm is another favorite for conventioneers and, like Paiute, it's best to call ahead for a tee time. If the Lakes is chockablock with an outing, the Desert Course is a more than acceptable alternative.
TPC at Summerlin
The Tournament Players Club at Summerlin is a private club and home to the PGA Tour's annual Las Vegas event, whatever it seems to be called these days. It's conveniently located less than a half hour northwest of the Strip, and if your credit line is sufficient, your casino host can likely arrange for you to play here. There's a better chance to play here than at Southern Highlands.
The TPC at Summerlin, a design by Bobby Weed and Champions Tour player Fuzzy Zoeller, is a fetching course that's always in great shape. While the Tour pros tear it up during the tournament, it's pretty challenging for the average guy. The designers appropriately incorporated the desert terrain, with the typical carries over washes and arroyos and a rash of mesquite trees, but you will also find almost 100 acres of lush Bermuda grass The hole corridors are wide and the greens large. A very pleasant place to spend a few hours away from the casino.
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