In the splendid early morning, the sun not yet fierce across the El Dorado Valley, a coyote and a crow play tag at the upper end of a practice range. A single golfer on the range, who has not yet hit a ball, waits to see how the game plays out. There is a stunning solitude, a palpable privacy.
That's Cascata, the new Holy Grail for high-rolling gamblers in Las Vegas.
The Cascata golf club clings to the side of a mountain within the limits of Boulder City, about 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. The complex was built at a cost of nearly $60 million for one reason: to attract big-time players to the casino-hotels owned by Park Place Entertainment. If you are a guest at Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris, the Flamingo or the Las Vegas Hilton, and you carry around a credit line that pushes six figures, you can play at Cascata.
Greens fees? There aren't any. Menu prices? There aren't any. Personal service? It's there in abundance. Cascata is all about coddling the casino corporation's most important customers, all about attracting new clientele to Park Place Entertainment's hotels in Las Vegas. Golf and money are mutually attractive. Give your high-rolling customers with high handicaps a golf club to call their own, and you gain an edge over another casino.
That's what hotelier Steve Wynn did in the late 1980s when he built Shadow Creek, the original Holy Grail. This was Wynn's private domain, a sanctuary for the Mirage hotel's biggest gamblers and a few of Wynn's special friends. You can now buy a greens fee for $500 at Shadow Creek. The folks at Park Place Entertainment say that won't happen at Cascata. Just bring a large bankroll and your clubs, though clubs aren't absolutely necessary. They will loan you a set, or even give you a set if that bankroll is big enough.
"We were the only high-end property out here that didn't own its own golf course," says Scott LaPorta, the executive vice president and chief financial officer of PPE. "We would send our players to golf clubs like the TPC at Summerlin and buy their tee times. They would get some sort of special treatment there. But they were out of our control. We wanted a place where we could make them feel special every step of the way. We have that in Cascata."
Cascata was built for the MGM Grand hotel, but when the merger with Mirage Resorts took place last year, the new company needed to raise some cash. It already owned Shadow Creek. So PPE struck a deal with MGM Mirage to buy the golf course and some property in Atlantic City. It was a turnkey agreement, with MGM completing the course and then handing it over to PPE. Cascata opened for play last December.
Cascata is no less an engineering triumph than Shadow Creek, which is a mirage of a Northwest golf course planted in the desert floor. Golf course architect Rees Jones constructed Cascata's 18 holes and a practice facility out of the side of a mountain, a feat just a smidgen short of amazing. He found ways to route the course up and down the finger ridges that fall off the mountain; consequently, the course sprawls across 450 acres. His construction crew made its own topsoil on site. He designed a number of water features into the arid landscape. He ensured that the course was playable for all levels of players because high rollers often come with high handicaps.
Cigar Aficionado was the first publication allowed inside the gates of Cascata, to view the splendor that Jones created and to experience the personal ambience. As the limousine delivers you to the front door of the Tuscan-style clubhouse, members of the golf staff and the food and beverage staff greet you. When you step inside the clubhouse, you guess immediately how the club got its name. A 418-foot waterfall, which begins on the mountain in back of the practice range, flows through the center of the clubhouse. It's a spectacular introduction to a spectacular day.
Director of golf Dave Johnson, a veteran of nearly 25 years at the Desert Inn, will tell you all about the course. Food and beverage director Greg Poplewko may inquire about your food needs for the day, like lunch on the course, dinner in the clubhouse, snacks and drinks. He'll catalogue your food tastes in his computer database for your next visit. A visit to the locker room will find your name etched in pewter and affixed to your locker. Your golf cart will leave from an enclosed area of the clubhouse's lower level. You will hear the waterfall, the cascada streaming through the clubhouse.
Jones knew this had to be a special course for a special purpose. "I think this project is one of a kind," he says. "We had to find holes without being able to move a lot of earth. We had to crush the rock to make the soil. I think we came up with a very accommodating golf course that has a lot of beauty. It took a year and a half to build. I don't know if you could have built it anywhere else, because of Las Vegas and the resources they have there."
Virtually every hole sits between rock ridges, isolated from the other holes. Unlike the desert courses of Arizona, grass is abundant. Few holes require a forced carry off the tee, allowing the higher handicappers to bunt it along if they have to. Two par 3s stand out, the 157-yard seventh and the 165-yard 12th. Both greens are notched into the side of large rock outcroppings; the seventh's is blasted from the side of the mountain. The rock walls provide both backdrop and backstop. Errant shots hit long may rebound back on the green.
There are big par 4s, some as long as 489 yards, but mercifully they play downhill. The longest hole is the 17th, where the good or brave player can try to fly his tee shot over an arm of the mountain that defines the dogleg, cutting off 100 yards. There are multiple sets of tees on every hole, the course playing as short as 5,591 yards or as long as 7,137.
"This was really a feel job, something you had to do in the field, not on paper," says Jones, who made 25 visits during construction. "It's not like you could move soil around and do it again if you didn't like it. We moved some rock, but you definitely didn't want to do it again."
To live up to its name, Cascata offers water features on many holes, usually in the form of streams. The water tends not to be intimidating, though it is the main feature of the par-5 finishing hole, with a stream running along the fairway and a lake in front of the green. It takes 13 pumping stations to carry the water around the course, and four 200-horsepower pumps are needed to operate the main waterfall that runs through the clubhouse. Besides sustaining an abundance of grass, the irrigation system, with 70,000 drip nozzles, provides life to the many varieties of flora that are planted along the ridges. Jones calls the revegetation of the area "simply amazing."
The course looks out over the El Dorado Valley and from the higher elevations you can see forever, or at least to a mountain across the valley floor. Along with the coyote and the crow, bighorn sheep and mountain lions are known to roam the area. The land was even home to a hermit woman, who was discovered during construction to be living in a small cave that now sits on the right side of the 16th fairway.
Providing personal service is the ultimate goal of the Cascata staff. There are seldom more than 12 players a day, often just a handful. Each player or group is sent out with caddies, many of them aspiring professionals who can help a player with his swing as well as identify the proper club and read breaks in the greens. Cascata professional Brian Hawthorne often accompanies guests. "I actually get to play more here than other places I've been," says Hawthorne. "It's a pleasure to be meeting and playing with so many different people from around the world."
Food and beverage director Poplewko deals with special requests for all types of cuisines. Food products are shipped to Cascata by truck from the Paris hotel. Want caviar or foie gras? No problem. Jellied eels? They'll work on it. Special trays are available for lunches eaten on your golf cart and for cigar service in the dining room. A cigar lounge, which adjoins the dining area, contains a decent-sized humidor stocked with high-end labels. All of this is free, of course.
"The high-end players are used to being comped, so when they go to Cascata they don't spend money except for tips," says LaPorta. "If they want something in the pro shop, chances are we'll buy it for them. The pro shop is the only place where there are goods for sale, but you have to be at the course to get any of our logo material. We don't sell it in our hotels."
Invariably there will be comparisons to Shadow Creek, but the only things the courses have in common are 18 holes, water features and personal service. Shadow Creek was an enormous earth-moving task, dug down into the desert floor so that the desert disappears the moment you drive inside the gate. With thousands of trees and views of the distant mountains, Shadow Creek could be in Oregon or Washington, minus the 110-degree temperatures in the summer.
Cascata is more true to its desert surroundings, if you can call 100-plus acres of grass and waterfalls true to a desert. But there has been no attempt to mask its surroundings, and every attempt to glory in them. Not a single tree comes into play. "I think the people who play it are struck by the site," says Jones. "It's very special that you get to do something like this. It was a tremendous challenge, but I believe it turned out well and is doing what it was intended to do."
The hope is that the $60 million spent on Cascata will attract even more money to the gambling tables of Park Place Entertainment. For the very high rollers, Cascata is one leg of a very expensive golf outing for about 30 players. After playing at Cascata, they are flown by luxury private jet to the Monterey Peninsula of California, where they play Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. The company has also held a tournament for 144 players at Cascata, which has a large tournament room in the clubhouse for serving gala dinners and handing out the prizes.
Park Place went so far as to hand-deliver special invitations to play Cascata to customers and potential customers in the Far East. "It's been making some pretty good impressions on the Far East customers," says LaPorta. "We see people coming back and telling us they did so because of the course. Everybody I take out there -- investors, casino analysts -- wants to go back. Based on the increased level of play we've had in our casinos, it has justified our investment in the course."
Cascata has no plans to sell tee times, nor any intentions of building housing around the course. The entire site is 800 acres, and there are unconfirmed reports that PPE eventually will build a second course farther down the mountain that will be open on a daily fee basis. But the long-term plans are to guard the privacy of Cascata and its exclusive group of players.
And to make sure that the coyote and the crow have a place to play tag.
The Shadow Knows
MGM's golf course was the first high-roller enclave in Las Vegas
In the supercharged competitive world of Las Vegas hotels, everyone is looking for a hook. Every hotel executive is looking to attract the biggest players, the six-figure guys, the seven-figure whales. It could be a private jet ride into town, an extravagant suite with a butler or a personal gaming room. No matter what the bankroll, the odds are still with the house, and the house wants you to know how appreciative it is.
Steve Wynn sought different hooks when he founded the Mirage hotel. He put a volcano out front to entertain the teeming masses. And he had another idea, a highly successful, unique idea. He spent the better part of $40 million to build one of the most talked about, and least played, golf courses in America. He created Shadow Creek.
Opened in November of 1989, Shadow Creek was Wynn's private club, his sanctuary and his hook. He knew that high rollers, particularly from the Far East, found golf compelling. So he set about building, with golf course architect Tom Fazio, a mirage in the middle of the desert and a gem that would sparkle around the stratosphere of the gambling world. The course felt like a tree-lined, green paradise nestled somewhere in the Northwest, only it was in Las Vegas. It was the ultimate casino amenity, and one that has proved tremendously successful, even though Shadow Creek isn't as exclusive as it used to be and Steve Wynn doesn't control it anymore.
"It's still one of the greatest marketing tools ever," says Bill McBeath, the president of the Mirage. "I played it the first day it was open. I played there every weekend with our high-end customers. And they kept coming back time after time, hundreds of them, because they found Shadow Creek so special."
Shadow Creek remains special entering the twenty-first century. It hasn't lost its mystique; it has no less allure. It's still a terrific place to play. And now you can buy a tee time, for $500. That's a result of the merger between the Mirage hotels and the MGM Grand company, yielding MGM Mirage. Wynn broke the exclusivity barrier in the '90s when he offered customers a deal: rent a higher-end suite at the hotel, and get a round at Shadow Creek.
Now you are eligible, by staying at any MGM Mirage hotel, to pay the 500 bucks for a tee time, Sunday through Thursday. But McBeath says the course will never be packed, there won't be a hundred people vying for a locker in the clubhouse or a club sandwich in the dining room. "The course had been running to about 20 percent of capacity," says McBeath. "We are not intending to increase that above 50 percent of capacity, and that's only on certain days. To put any more people out there would denigrate the experience."
Shadow Creek still is a great draw to players from the Far East. "The golf course had its greatest impact on the international market," says McBeath. "Its instant acceptance by the golf community helped to accelerate our ability to dominate the international market. We command up to 50 percent of it and up to 90 percent of the baccarat market."
Shadow Creek still has a lot to do with MGM Mirage's ability to attract players with ultra-deep pockets. "During the holiday periods -- Christmas, New Year's, Chinese New Year's -- it's impossible to get on the course unless you are a six-figure player," says McBeath.
The Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino also saw golf as a major draw, and had architect Rees Jones design the Rio Secco Golf Club in the hills south of the city. The Rio sends its big-time players to Rio Secco, though the course may not be the principal attraction. What the Rio has that other hotel golf courses don't is Butch Harmon, the coach of Tiger Woods.
"In addition to his knowledge and his expertise, Butch is truly a nice guy and a real character," says Bill Hunt, the Rio's executive director of casino marketing. "It doesn't hurt that he's Tiger Woods's coach, but Butch's personality holds its own."
When Harmon isn't busy with his teaching academy at Rio Secco, the hotel books him for private lessons and private rounds with valuable customers. "We have to block times way in advance with him because of his commitments to Tiger and other players, and his golf school," said McBeath. "But we have guys who once they meet him just can't wait to go back." Those guys need to have a six-figure credit line or close to it.
You can buy a tee time at Rio Secco for as little as $200 if you're a guest at Rio or Harrah's; $250 if you're a guest at another hotel. But of course the big players don't pay a dime. The course probably loses money against the bottom line, but Hunt sees it as a valuable commodity. "As a casino amenity, it's absolutely a great thing to have," he says.
The Venetian hotel doesn't have its own course, but, like the Rio, its offers a special instructor to satisfy its best customers. "It's important to have some kind of golf amenity for both the domestic and Asian side of the business," says Brian Parrish, the vice president of marketing for the Venetian. "We have John Redmond, who is Paul Azinger's coach, who plays with our customers and helps build relationships with the hotel. He gives real solid, quality instruction and keeps a record of every player so he can pick up where they left off the last time he saw them."
The Venetian maintains a close relationship with the Walters Group golf courses in the area, including the new Bali Hai course. For the players with six-figure credit lines, the Venetian arranges three-day golf trips to Pebble Beach or clubs in the Los Angeles area. "Golf is something you need to round out your product offering," says Parrish. "You may lose customers if you can't offer them something special with golf."
Golf is a big hook in Las Vegas, helping hotels get their slice of the pie. But if you expect a freebie at Shadow Creek, or Park Place Entertainment's new Cascata, or a three-day golf trip to Pebble Beach, a high five-figure credit line might get you something, but six figures is pretty much a lock.
Seven figures? "Would you like the course emptied, sir?
Jeff Williams covers golf for Newsday.