Clanking coins, spinning wheels and flashing lights are staples of the typical golf vacation in the upper Southwest. If that's your bag, head to Las Vegas (or to Reno or Mesquite, Nevada). But if you're looking to unwind in a more relaxing place in the high desert, the answer lies two hours northeast of Vegas in the red-rock country of St. George, Utah. With more than a dozen courses—a few of them superb—as well as six others across the border in nearby Mesquite, St. George has quietly emerged as a golf destination.
The city, founded in 1861 by the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young and located in the southwest corner of the state, is sometimes called Utah's Dixie because of its unlikely origin as a cotton-growing area (part of Young's desire to have his settlers be self-sufficient). A lack of water rendered the cotton experiment short-lived, and today the encompassing region—which includes Zion and, a bit farther away, Bryce Canyon National Parks—is better known as Color Country, marked as it is with sandstone monoliths bearing a spectrum of earth tones.
The color green, of course, is the reason to bring your clubs here, especially in the spring and fall. Prices for golf and lodging are lowest in summer, when the mercury regularly tops one hundred—but, as they say, it's a dry heat. And speaking of dry, the conservative populace frowns on alcohol use. Although booze is available, some restaurants lack a liquor license (all those recommended below have a full bar), and under state law beer sold in taverns must be no more than 4 percent alcohol by volume (or 3.2 percent by weight). So expect to be intoxicated most of all by the scenery of St. George.
Most travelers fly into Las Vegas McCarran International Airport and then drive about 120 miles down Interstate 15, a stretch of which passes through the canyon walls of the Virgin River Gorge. (In booking a tee time for the day you arrive, keep in mind that Utah observes mountain standard time, one hour ahead of Nevada.) A more direct option is to land at St. George Municipal Airport, served by Delta (SkyWest connects in Salt Lake City) and United (SkyWest, via Los Angeles).
Once you hit town, check into the Inn at Entrada, whose lodging consists of rooms in free-standing casitas in a gated community. Patios overlook the inn's golf course and the mountains beyond. For your first round, however, make the fifteen-minute drive over to The Ledges, a year-old course designed by Matt Dye, nephew of Pete Dye.
With flattish fairways and shallow bunkers, the front nine seems benign, but a closer look reveals strategic hazards and cleverly contoured greens. The Dye family magic fully emerges on the back nine, where the young architect melded his layout with the natural surroundings to yield a dramatic series of holes, highlighted by the risk-reward 320-yard par-four fifteenth, which plays to a green isolated by ravines. The course is the centerpiece of a real estate development, but given its elevation of nearly four thousand feet, many of the sweeping views on the back nine thankfully will never be compromised.
Cap off the day with dinner at Kokopelli Restaurant back at Entrada, with its tables set around a stone fireplace. The corn chowder makes for a hearty first course, but save some room for the grilled rib eye.
Start with a breakfast burrito of eggs, chorizo, green chile and cheese at Entrada's sports and fitness club, the better to steel yourself for the test that awaits outside your door: Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club. A private club that allows no outside play except for guests of the inn, Entrada may well be the best of Johnny Miller's designs. The course makes no apologies for its rigorous but fair shotmaking demands, particularly its emphasis on precise iron play—Miller's specialty. The finest hole is the 613-yard par-five ninth, which swings hard to the right following its daringly angled tee shot over a scrub-filled canyon. Yet post-round talk inevitably centers on the stretch from fifteen through seventeen, known as the "lava triangle." Each one harder than the last, the holes snake through fields of black lava that seem airlifted from the Big Island of Hawaii.
Have a sandwich at the clubhouse and drive to nearby Snow Canyon State Park for a hike or a guided tour by Segway (to arrange one, call 435-674-7700). If time allows, make a longer trip of some forty miles to see the cliffs, sandstone towers and narrow slot canyons of Zion National Park.
Back in town for dinner, try the Gun Barrel Steak and Game House, a restaurant with a hunting-lodge theme and a mesquite grill in the center of the floor that can cook fifty steaks at once.
Begin the day with a walking tour of historic Ancestor Square, otherwise known as downtown St. George. There's not a lot to see, but what is there—such as the tiny old jail that the town grew up around—speaks of the old Southwest. Have breakfast at the Bear Paw Coffee Company on Main Street. Belgian waffles, stone-ground oatmeal and more than twenty kinds of tea make this a local favorite.
From there, it's about a forty-five-minute drive to Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite. As tough as it is to leave St. George's natural grandeur behind for the imported palms and casino developments of Mesquite, Wolf Creek is a mandatory stop for adventure-seeking golfers. There may be no other course in America that has as many caution: steep grade signs on its cart paths. Boasting a slope of 154, Wolf Creek plays like a roller coaster, its holes either plunging downhill or climbing up, nearly all of them cocooned by enormous sandstone formations and canyon walls.
If you're still feeling lucky after the round, you can hit the casino tables in town. Just be sure to return to St. George for dinner at the Painted Pony, the region's best restaurant. Its New American cuisine carries a Southwestern accent that's on display in such dishes as almond-crusted salmon and a double-cut pork chop with mushroom bread pudding and pear-apple chutney.
Drive over to Coral Canyon Golf Course in the town of Washington, ten minutes from St. George, for one last memorable round. Sagebrush-dotted slopes bracket many of the fairways, but the course is quite playable, thanks to generous landing areas, benign bunkers and greens that are only moderately undulating. Still, the course packs plenty of punch—two par fours measure at least 480 yards and one par three demands a mid-iron to a green surrounded by rock. But you're likely to fly home feeling as positive about your game as you do about the city of St. George and its surrounding areas.
Trip Planner: St. George
Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club ****1/2
Architect: Johnny Miller, 1996. Yardage: 7,059. Par: 71. Slope: 131. Greens Fees: $85-$145. Contact: 435-986-2200, www.golfentrada.com.
Wolf Creek Golf Club ****1/2
Architect: Dennis Rider, 2000. Yardage: 6,994. Par: 72. Slope: 154. Greens Fees: $85-$185. Contact: 866-252-4653, www.golfwolfcreek.com.
Coral Canyon Golf Course ****
Architect: Keith Foster, 2000. Yardage: 7,070. Par: 72. Slope: 137. Greens Fees: $55-$98. Contact: 435-688-1700, www.coralcanyongolf.com.
The Ledges Golf Club ****
Architect: Matt Dye, 2006. Yardage: 7,145. Par: 72. Slope: 134. Greens Fees: $60-$110. Contact: 435-634-4640, www.ledges.com.
The Inn at Entrada, 2588 West Sinagua Trail, St. George; 435-634-7100, www.innatentrada.com. Villas: $159-$549.
Bear Paw Coffee Company (Breakfast), 435-634-0126. $
Gun Barrel Steak and Game House (Steaks), 435-652-0550. $$$
Painted Pony (New American), 435-634-1700, www.painted-pony.com. $$$
Snow Canyon State Park, 435-628-2255, stateparks.www.utah.gov.
Zion National Park, 435-772-3256, www.nps.gov/zion.