Golf and gambling go hand in hand, and many players can’t even fathom teeing it up without a skins game or friendly bet on their match. But in 2018, two of the all-time best, superstars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, took this concept to new heights when they played in a high-profile mano a mano contest for $9 million—winner take all. If you are going to roll the dice for such big bucks on the fairways and greens, where better to do it than in Las Vegas?
Neither player was a stranger to Sin City, and Woods—who recently tied Sam Snead for the most career wins, with 82—took home his very first PGA Tour trophy in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. The city has long been steeped in golf history, hosting PGA, LPGA and Senior Tour annual events, and Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange and Greg Norman are among many famous pros to win on the Strip. Las Vegas golf courses also have a long history of star sightings, from Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. to modern-day superstars such as Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, who can regularly be found teeing it up, often on the lush fairways of Shadow Creek. The NBA legend even keeps his own custom golf cart on property.
Today, the golf scene in Vegas is better than ever, with courses designed by Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye, Rees Jones, Billy Casper, Ray Floyd and more. And while Vegas wouldn’t be Vegas without over-the-top oddities (such as the fully lit Cloud Nine short course at Angel Park, comprised of a dozen reproductions of world-famous par-3s, and the largest TopGolf facility in the world at the MGM Grand), you can enjoy an exceptional golf trip here, with the bonus of stunning food, lodging and entertainment. These top choices include VIP-level experiences with sky-high greens fees that cater to high-limit gamblers and VIPs as well as courses that combine high-quality golf with surprising bang for the buck.
7. Reflection Bay at Lake Las Vegas
In its heyday, this Jack Nicklaus Signature Course anchoring a very large planned community southeast of the city and the airport hosted the Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge and was arguably the second-best course in the area. Both nines visit the large namesake 320-acre lake with five coastal-style and peninsula holes, and the inland section climbs up into the hilly desert with interesting, strategic holes, complete with tumbling rock-strewn streams. But Lake Las Vegas has had a lot of financial ups and downs, opening and then tearing out a second course by Tom Weiskopf, rebranding its flagship hotel several times, from Ritz-Carlton to Loews to the current Westin. (There is also a Hilton resort onsite.) Finally, the Reflection Bay course was shuttered from 2009 to 2014.
Since reopening, it has lost some of its luster. For a course in such a large development, it oddly has no driving range (just nets) to warm up. The flipping of the nines now has golfers starting on a very strange opening hole, one that requires a forced carry off the tee, a second over water to the green, with water down the entire left side, and to make matters worse, running along a busy road, an incongruous and unwelcoming start to a round. But any frowns from the rough start will be replaced by smiles when you reach the lakefront holes, which are the star of the show. They remain impressive and memorable. While the inland holes that once showcased the desert are now flanked with an enormous amount of homes, this course still offers plenty. Nearly a third of its holes are on the water and home free, featuring a traditionally strong Nicklaus finish to both nines. It remains one of the top courses you can play on a golf trip to Vegas, and is one of the few where you can stay on property, which also boasts a central village with several restaurants.
6. Bear’s Best
“Tribute courses,” which try to copy famous holes from well-known sites, are generally hokey and fall flat because they cannot be replicated on different topography. That’s not the case for Bear’s Best, an unusual tribute to the works of the Golden Bear by none other than Jack Nicklaus himself. The logic that if he designed the hole once he could do it again holds true, especially since Nicklaus wisely picked only holes from western North America, many from similar desert settings such as Los Cabos, Mexico; Desert Mountain, Arizona; and PGA West in Palm Springs. When you have designed more than 400 courses in 39 states and 45 countries, you have a lot to choose from, and Nicklaus chose well.
The real appeal at Bear’s Best is the chance to play 18 holes that would be solid even if they weren’t replicas, with some highlights from acclaimed Nicklaus designs that are either private or difficult to get to. The best example is his Old Works course in Anaconda, Montana, one of the first and most famous uses of golf for environmental mitigation, cleaning up an old copper smelter designated as a Superfund site by turning it into a course in 1994. Old Works is most famous for its dramatically distinctive black sand bunkers. While the original is far off the beaten path, Las Vegas is not, and two impressive holes are recreated here, most notably, a memorable island par-3 surrounded by a ring of black bunkers. There’s also a unique, pine-tree-defended par-5 borrowed from Denver’s very private Castle Pines Country Club, which most golfers cannot otherwise play.
The beauty of the Bear’s Best concept (this was the first, and there is now one in Georgia) is that while it really appeals to golf course architecture and history buffs, it is equally satisfying to those who just want a fun round. It does get heavy play and can move slowly, and many holes are distractingly lined with homes, but it has bent grass greens of very good quality. If you have played one of the courses replicated, such as Cabo del Sol or Palmilla in Mexico, it also offers a bonus pleasurable flashback.
5. TPC Las Vegas
Only some of the Tournament Players Clubs comprising the PGA Tour’s TPC Network are open to the public. Las Vegas has two: the private TPC Summerlin, which hosts the annual Shriner’s Hospital for Children Open, and the public TPC Las Vegas, formerly TPC Canyons, which hosted a Senior PGA Tour event until 2001 and the Shriner’s PGA event until 2006. The course offers “stay and play” packages that include a complimentary shuttle from the adjacent and luxurious JW Marriot Las Vegas Resort & Spa, making it one of the more turnkey golf travel options in the area. Many golfers simply commute from the Strip, as Summerlin is a close suburb just southwest of the city. You can get there in 20 minutes without traffic.
Designed by Bobby Weed and Ray Floyd, it has a markedly different feel from the other Vegas courses, with a pronounced carved-from-the-desert aesthetic on a hillier and higher site, with more dramatic drops and climbs. Your shots will carry farther here, as the course sits more than 2,000 feet above sea level. There are several forced carries and it is one of the most challenging options in the area, with no shortage of opportunities to lose balls in the rugged dry washes, cactus-studded surroundings or occasional lake. It also features several distinctive risk-and-reward holes, such as the reachable yet penal 13th hole, a par-4 also known as “Death Valley.” And because it was designed for tournament play, it has an unusual six tee options to choose from, allowing golfers to eliminate some of the forced carries and pick the right length for them, from under 5,000 to more than 7,100 yards.
As is usually the case for TPC facilities, it boasts very good conditions, has first-rate practice areas with all sorts of short-game features, an elaborate clubhouse with a well stocked golf shop, full locker rooms and full-service restaurant.
4. Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort
There are very few facilities in Las Vegas with two courses, and only this one has three, and all 54 holes are designed by Pete Dye, putting the high-end daily fee in an elite club with tony resorts Destination Kohler in Wisconsin and Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. All three layouts are equally compelling, so this is Vegas’ top choice for those looking to play 36, and they frequently offer very attractive replay or multiround, multiday packages. Despite the name, this is not really a resort, as there is no lodging, but it does have an expansive clubhouse that has a rare indoor smoking lounge set off the bar, where you can enjoy selections from the humidor and cocktails, plus plenty of outside seating. They carry cigars in CertiFresh packaging to thwart Vegas’ notorious dry conditions, with half a dozen popular selections from Romeo y Julieta, Oliva, Montecristo and even a custom label from Camacho.
Besides sheer quantity, what sets the Paiute property apart is its location in unspoiled and undeveloped desert, with long-range mountain views you just do not get on most other area courses, which are often lined with wall-to-wall homes. The Las Vegas Paiutes are a sovereign nation, and in 1983 acquired the 4,000-acre Snow Mountain Reservation, now home to the golf resort. It is so expansive that there are two large practice facilities, each with full driving range and short game area, at either end, to be used depending which course you are playing.
It is a pristine setting for golf, but despite an abundance of surrounding desert, the holes themselves have carpet-like, wide fairways of grass, with almost no forced carries and plenty of room to play, and unusually impressive conditioning for such a heavily played facility. Because all three courses can stretch more than 7,000 yards, with the most difficult, Wolf, topping out at 7,604, the challenge here comes from length, lots of bunkers, and native waste hazards, but the design allows less skilled players wide targets off the tee, offering a rare combination of difficulty and welcome.
Wolf is the most popular, with slightly higher prices, but if you are not playing it from the back all three are comparably difficult, and all have a few dramatically used water features, typically on holes nine and 18. Wolf also has a full-blown island green par-3, a semi-replica of Dye’s most famous hole at TPC Sawgrass. Whichever course you choose, you will get one of the best golf experiences—and values—in Las Vegas. It sits northwest of the city, about 30 minutes (without traffic) from the Strip, and modestly closer to Downtown Las Vegas.
Cascata is very much a desert course, or as designer Rees Jones puts it, a “desert links.” The nearly 400-acre site is situated on the slopes of 3,600-foot-high Red Mountain, and is unlike any other golf course design, as many of its fairways are uniquely located in the area’s finger canyons. The big piece of real estate and its topography gave him natural tee, green and fairway sites so holes fit the land perfectly. “Choosing the best 18 was the hard part,” Jones joked. “It looks like a desert links because the holes fit right through the valleys. It’s a phenomenal piece of ground.” Because of the finger canyons, virtually every hole is private, and its Italianate name comes from the artificial 417-foot waterfall that tumbles down the mountain—and through the clubhouse.
Water features are used generously here, starting on the first hole, with several more along the way and a final hazard on 18, completing the theme. The striking and contrasting combination of raw desert, rocky slopes, tumbling creeks and lush green fairways lined with stands of palm trees all creates a sort of oasis fantasy that is as impressive to look at as to play.
Cascata was originally owned by MGM, which sold the course to Caesars before it opened in 2000. It originally was private, then made available on a limited basis to hotel guests, but when Caesars left the golf business, it sold Cascata to a conventional golf course operator, who opened it to the public. Today, Cascata is the best public course in Las Vegas that’s not part of a casino.
Cascata is very well maintained, with skilled caddies, which are required. The greens fees here are $399 in season ($299 in the off-season) and no longer include the caddy fee or a limo ride. Cascata offers discounted replay ($149) for a great 36-hole day.
2. Wynn Golf Club
Steve Wynn built Shadow Creek to woo high rollers, and when he sold his Mirage Resorts to MGM and started his own brand, he hired Tom Fazio to create a direct competitor, the Wynn Golf Club, in 2005. Built on the footprint of the famously historic Desert Inn course, Wynn has one standout advantage that sets it apart from every other area choice: its prime location in the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard. It is both the only course on the Strip (daily fee Bali Hai sits on Las Vegas Boulevard, south of the Strip) and the only one at a Vegas hotel. It’s turnkey for Wynn guests, who can book tee times 90 days out. It’s 30 for everyone else. The course is within walking distance of the Venetian, Palazzo and Mirage, and a few minutes’ ride from most Strip hotels, 20 to 40 minutes closer than other top alternatives. Top luxury lodgings here include the five-star Wynn and Encore Tower Suites, and the even posher Fairway Villas. It is the easiest course in Las Vegas to play—and one of the best.
The course was closed for a time, and it reopened in October and is even better than before, thanks to a near-complete renovation by Fazio. Wynn decided to replace golf with an expanded convention center and waterpark in 2017, but after tearing out half the layout, management reversed direction and brought Fazio back to rebuild. The result is more earth moving, more elevation change, more trees separating fairways, and 10 all-new holes. The behind-the-scenes investment was considerable: new drainage, new irrigation, a new breed of heat-tolerant bent grass greens, all in pursuit of year-round great conditions, something elusive in the Nevada desert. “We did a great job, a lot of work, but we also tried to keep it like it was before,” explained Fazio. “If you played it in the past you might ask, ‘Did it really ever close?’ It’s so ready for play and in such good shape that it is hard to believe it changed.”
The new Wynn Golf Club feels like the old one, only better, and still has white glove service, a high-end country club–style locker room, and will soon feature an all new eatery by famed chef Thomas Keller. It still climaxes with the signature feature, a 35-foot-high, 100-foot-wide waterfall behind the 18th green, feeding a daunting pond front left. But while it used to be a par-4, the finale is now a long par-3, 209 yards from the typical tees and a whopping 249 from the tips, imposing enough that anyone who makes a hole in one gets a $15,000 prize. Since the lofty greens fees ($550) include a skilled forecaddie, you always have a witness.
1. Shadow Creek
The most desirable course in Las Vegas since the day it opened, Shadow Creek is clouded in mystique, frequented by A-list celebrities, and absolutely lives up to the hype. “Shadow Creek is the place I would like to be buried when my days are done,” says NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving. “It’s my favorite place on the planet.”
Golf Digest named it the nation’s Best New Course when it opened in 1990, and 30 years later still ranks it the fifth best you can play. In Golf Magazine’s most recent Top 100 You Can Play, it’s ranked 16th, higher than any course in Nevada, but one could easily argue it should be moved up several places. When Tiger and Phil played their $9 million match, Shadow Creek was the venue.
By any measure it is a beautiful golf course, reputed to be the most expensive ever constructed at the time. While the site was dead flat desert, Fazio was charged with bringing the feel of hilly North Carolina to the area, so vast amounts of earth were moved to create dramatic elevation changes, while the fairways are so heavily lined with mature, transplanted pine trees that you typically cannot see other holes. So few people are allowed to play each day that on most visits you will not see a single other group. And in addition to the immaculate condition, great design and extensive use of rock-lined tumbling streams, the thing that elevates the experience is the “king for a day” feel you get. Any other public course this good—and there are very few—typically sells every tee time it can fit in, but a round at Shadow Creek is as close as most visitors will ever come to owning their own course.
All this exclusivity comes at a hefty price. The greens fees here are $600, the highest in Vegas and among the loftiest in the game. When the course was built, it was never meant to accept any public play, or members, at all. It was an amenity to be given away to woo the highest of high-rolling gamblers. It is still used that way, but a limited number of paid tee times, most on weekdays, are available to guests of any MGM Resort, Shadow Creek’s owner. At the lowest end, these include Luxor and Excalibur, while the best-known casino resorts in the portfolio are the Bellagio, Aria and MGM Grand. MGM operates several even more luxurious boutique “hotels within hotels” up and down the Strip, such as the ultra-luxe Mansion within MGM Grand, where Tiger Woods has been known to stay. For cigar lovers, the best of these more exclusive choices are the ground level Villas at the Mirage, which have their own back yards. The hefty greens fees include roundtrip limo transportation from any MGM property, as well as an excellent caddie to complete the fantasy golf experience.
Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.