Hitting It Big

Amid the crabgrass and cacti of the Nevada desert, three astonishing, opulent—and pricey—golf courses have emerged. Gary Fisketjon tries his luck in Sin City.

Las Vegas is predicated on the concept of astonishment: astonishing chances of sudden wealth, of forbidden fruit and outrageous behavior, of stupendously various goods and services meant to induce happy hopefulness in those whose gambling losses float the entire boat. Certainly the Las Vegas circa 1960 I knew as a boy was astonishing: a neon extravaganza in a pre-neon world, with a gigantic neon cowboy tipping his gigantic neon ten-gallon hat from atop the Pioneer Club as his "voice" boomed a "Howdy, pardner" that echoed up and down Fremont Street. I was astonished that casino doormen (some of them familiar with my uncle, who wintered there every year) would pretend to guess my age—six, seven, whatever—in order to determine whether I could legally be allowed entry. Back then folks were astonished they could feast like royalty for a fraction of the restaurant prices at home. Certainly my uncle and aunt were astonished a few years later when the hotel they always stayed at, the Orbit Inn, itself went into orbit. Unbeknownst to Lew and Laura Palmer, asleep after a hard day's keno, a fellow on a floor below them was cooking nitroglycerin on a hot plate in a room otherwise crowded with dynamite cases. He spilled a little, triggering a fireworks display that catapulted the couple through the roof and hundreds of feet out onto the street. The initial story—an unfaithful wife, murder, suicide—did not hold up long, given the many explosive possibilities in Clark County; the last I heard, the case was still open. (Incredibly, Laura suffered no grievous injuries, but Lew lost a leg in the bargain; certainly they never went back there again.)

With maturity, or at least age, my astonishment took rather more banal forms. Wow, they give you free drinks and cigarettes just for playing blackjack! Jeez, do you think she's a...hooker? Meanwhile, Benny Binion's stretch of what is now called downtown begat the Strip and the Strip begat the Las Vegas of today; quaint old Rat Pack haunts morphed into history (Caesars Palace, Luxor, Excalibur) or amusement (Circus Circus, Treasure Island) or geography (from Paris to New York- New York). What I saw during the mid-seventies had seemingly disappeared when I returned in 1990, and nothing I saw then prepared me for what is there now. If Stalin were alive today and a development-minded capitalist, his five-year plans could not hope to outstep what Las Vegas does to itself as a matter of course.

Golf in this context could be considered the most innocent of pastimes, most often used as a hangover cure and seldom a reason for visiting the city in the first place. But recently a number of extraordinarily luxurious semiprivate courses (accessible only to guests of certain hotels) have opened, and suddenly the most frivolous of municipalities has become a serious, if somewhat surreal, golf destination.

Wilbur Clark opened the Desert Inn in 1950. The property's course, dating from 1952, dominated the local golf tradition like a mighty colossus, hosting for 13 years the PGA Tournament of Champions (whose inaugural winner, Al Besselink, was paid his $10,000 in silver dollars) as well as a who's who of entertainers. My college golf memories of the course are vague though respectful, the most having been eked out of utterly flat terrain. Time ran out on the whole enterprise after a half century, though, and the Desert Inn's replacement—Wynn Las Vegas, unveiled in April 2005—is routinely described as one of the most expensive hotels ever constructed. The old course met the plow, to the dismay of nostalgic locals, and Steve Wynn retained the services of Tom Fazio to design an altogether new one.

Fazio moved 800,000 cubic yards of dirt and planted 100,000 shrubs and 1,200 trees. This task couldn't have been more different from their previous collaboration at Shadow Creek, a few miles outside Las Vegas, where they started out with a blank slate. Here the world-renowned architect and deep-pocketed investor had to implement a sea change smack-dab in city limits—transform a muni, if you like, into something marvelous and strange.

Restricted to 135 acres, bordered not by mountain ranges or ocean vistas but by absurd structures found only in Las Vegas, its pro shop and locker rooms just down the hall from the belly of the gambling beast, Wynn Golf Club could not seem less enticing. Yet its incongruity somehow works, especially if one stays in a fairway villa overlooking the course and thus can sample a smorgasbord of brands—from Fazio to Boulud, Brioni to Vuitton, Cartier to Chanel, and, of course, Ferrari to Maserati—without ever stepping foot off the grounds. A shrewd par 70 playing to 7,042 yards from the back tees, the course places Fazio's genius at bunkering—large, ragged-edged traps that lap at the fairways and greens—on striking display. The five par threes are picturesque, in particular the challenging 201-yard 11th, with a pond in front and several interesting pin positions; and it closes with a pair of par fours with more than enough length (498 and 448 yards) and bunkers and water for anybody. The 17th also features, over a creek near the tee, the Wilbur Clark Bridge, which had graced the home hole at the old Desert Inn. Given what has become perversely de rigueur in any parched desert milieu, water is in play on 11 holes, and the 18th boasts a 37-foot waterfall beyond the green; players exit the course through a windowed tunnel underneath it. The course exudes a pleasingly compact feel, partly because of the surrounding earthmoving and landscaping, which confine sight lines to only the hole being played, and thus limited space is made into a virtue.

Still, instead of the ten-acre driving range promised by the Web site, there is a set of tees from which you bang balls right into the net in front of you, and the shadow of real estate falls heavily over this ingenious track located in the heart of what for a couple of decades has been about the fastest-growing place in the nation. One knowledgeable local estimated the property's value at $2.6 billion and agreed with another that within two or three years it will be developed out of existence, despite the many millions required to create it. A Wynn representative denies any such plans are afoot, but here, as elsewhere, money talks and everything else walks. Sic, perhaps, transit gloria.

A player could spend weeks around Las Vegas trying out a new venue daily; only some of them are as wacky as their location would appear to call for. But in the fight capital of the world, most golfers would see the main event as being contested by Cascata and Shadow Creek, each fabled for its exclusivity, expense, elegance, and excellence. Both projects began with an enormous—and wildly speculated on—capital investment; each served as a private reserve for the highest of rollers before allowing guests of select hotels to cough up $500 in greens fees (after navigating formidable waiting lists). Both also offer every conceivable amenity in a lavish clubhouse, starting with your name on a locker plaque and then whisking you right along from there, with gifted caddies helping at every impeccably manicured step (on the course it's unlikely you'll ever see anyone you're not playing with). And both leapt onto best-of lists almost immediately. Otherwise, the two courses couldn't be more different.

Cascata is the younger (2000) and more visible of the two, having hosted Michael Douglas's celebrity tournament for three years now—though the broadcast fails miserably to capture the beauty of the course, with its endless views of Red Mountain and the desert around Boulder City. The name is Italian for waterfall, so of course there's one that tumbles hundreds of feet down the hill, past the practice green and right through the Tuscanlike clubhouse. Desert is everything, and designer Rees Jones has routed the course up and down (but rarely across) slopes that can be quite severe, scratched, bulldozed, or blown out of hard rock, each separate to itself. The flow is artful and surely an example of the "Open doctor" at his finest, with not a single dull hole and several jaw-droppers. The par-five third, 561 yards from the tips running down, down, down, is the first stunner, while the par-three seventh, also a downhill photo op, was only a wedge from 157 downwind yards the day I played it—and that flew the green, not a bad place given water short and left with a rock wall blasted out on the right. The 14th is a great par four, as water runs down the right side and fronts a green also protected by bunkers and the desert itself. The recipe is basically the same at the lovely par-five home hole, with risk-reward decisions on every shot. After holing out here, driving the 30 miles back to Vegas feels like a kind of suicide.

Driving isn't an option at Shadow Creek; a limo hauls you north of town into a landscape so uninspiring that Wynn had to spend years cajoling Fazio into creating the heaven on earth he pictured. In their book about the project, Shadow Creek: From Barren Desert to Desert Oasis, both men knock themselves out testifying to its ugliness. Sure, there are mountains all around, but they were after bigger game, an ecosystem that is variously deemed majestically northwestern or Carolinian and nothing like any environment within hundreds of miles of these 320 acres below the airspace of Nellis Air Force Base, whose fighters jet across the sky as though what is underneath weren't entrancing enough. Standing here, you feel as if you're below the invisible desert floor, the distant snowcapped peaks looking less peculiar than they should on a warm day in May, since this horizon starts with a veritable forest, largely pine, imported to enclose the course and frame the holes; the number of trees at least tripled as the plan developed. Nothing—whether the understated (if vast) clubhouse, the exceptional "practice field" with distinct tees and fairways, or the course itself—suggests the Southwest.

"Golf courses aren't natural," Pete Dye once famously said. "If they were natural, they wouldn't be golf courses." That view strikes me as hugely commonsensical, and at Shadow Creek it is taken to its furthest limits. Each hole is astonishing, possibly because every single one was crafted with an awareness of issues, many desert-related and previously unfamiliar to me. For example, how to keep sunlight from blinding the player, either directly or off the large reservoirs used to water such dry places, and how to maximize the allure of shadows that fall across the fairways, an accomplishment that made me want to play it all over again, not at midday but at dawn and dusk. Ridgelines were created and treed for this purpose. On some holes, willows cut the glare off water and pampas grass throws shadows across sand.

The landscaping is flawless: beautiful stone bridges have grass walkways, and one often encounters rare pheasants roaming the fairways. Pine needles, which were initially trucked in from Florida and Georgia, make wayward shots from the trees playable, as they are at Augusta National. In fact, my companion, the engaging general manager Mark Brenneman, formerly of Spyglass Hill, remarked that in terms of beauty this place is rivaled only by Augusta. It's the truth. I have never seen a prettier course, or one that tests your game with such a sequence that to cite only a few holes is a miscarriage of discernment.

Partly to honor the local rules—no TV shows, snapshots, or celeb gossip—I won't detail how gloriously any round here will unfold, but the pace is truly exceptional, building slowly, carefully, a left-swinging hole followed by a right or a straightaway, with not a single instance of repetition in direction or even view, the greens ranging from large to intimate depending on circumstances. Surprise is continuous. The par-three fifth, the only glimpse of the course you have on the ride in, is a shot over an abyss 66 feet deep, and you look at the green over the tops of mature trees—a prospect my chauffeur said was more unsettling than any he had ever seen. On the par-five seventh, you tee off with a partially blocked view of the Sunrise Mountains, but looking back from the green you're afforded a staggering view of snowy Mount Charleston. And then you proceed, as a football player might approach the bright roar of the stadium, to what Wynn calls his Shangri-la par three, which you exit through another tunnel whose stone façade drips with ivy and rosemary, to encounter the thrilling par-four ninth, with only more astonishment in wait. The drivable par-four 11th is followed by a shortish par four made to seem longish by traps encroaching on the fairway from the landing area all the way to the green, most of them out of play but all of which, once you are putting, have disappeared from view. Well, you get the idea.

After finally spinning around to take in the signature 17th, which plays from 140 to 160 yards—with water surrounding most of the green and a cascata behind—I told Mark and our caddy that I'd just as soon stay on here forever, even as a weed picker. The par-five home hole refines and advances everything leading up to it, and Mark and I both had plausible birdie putts we happened to miss before retiring to a splendid lunch. Shadow Creek preserves its mystique however it can—a decision I applaud, having heard so much about it only to find it even more overwhelmingly astonishing, in ways I never dreamed Las Vegas could offer. Wynn and Fazio set out to make a world-class golf course and they surely have, one I desperately hope to play again and again, no matter the cost.

Wynn Golf Club (only for guests at Wynn Las Vegas): greens fee, $500; 702-770-4653; www.wynnlasvegas.com. Cascata (only for guests of Harrah's Entertainment properties; some access for other hotels): greens fee, $350-$500; 888-727-4427; www.cascatagolf.com. Shadow Creek (only for guests of MGM Mirage resorts): greens fee, $500; 888-778-3387; www.shadowcreek.com.


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