To lessen the possibility of first-tee jitters, I was tempted to slink down the steep arroyo that defines the par-five opener at Laughlin Ranch Golf Club and hit from a less daunting tee box. A mining theme permeates the course and the clubhouse, and I wondered whether I’d need an ore cart in order to negotiate the precipitous drop between the back tees and the distant boulder- and cactus-framed fairway below. Hoping I’d left my bad luck in the casino the night before, I took a deep breath, launched a solid drive through the thin desert air, and congratulated myself for not being in Las Vegas.
Sure, that ever-expanding megalopolis has its appeal, but almost everything that Vegas has too much of—snail-like traffic, endless hype, garish bling—is blessedly absent a hundred miles south in Laughlin, Nevada, and neighboring Bullhead City, Arizona. As a Southern Californian who doesn’t mind a long drive, I used to go to Las Vegas three or four times a year to play poker. Then, a decade ago, I discovered Laughlin. On my many return visits to this lesser-known and far more affordable area, I’ve stayed in most of its casino hotels, camped on a bluff above the Colorado River, canoed a stretch of the dam-tamed waterway, hiked the nearby canyons and fished in Lake Mohave.
It is the Colorado above all else that distinguishes Laughlin and Bullhead City and the broader Mohave Valley. In Las Vegas, the local waters consist of such contrivances as faux canals and concrete-encased “rivers.” In Laughlin, you can wake to the sound of an actual river flowing a few yards from your window and take an invigorating morning stroll along the landscaped river walk. I, for one, have also found the poker tables to be more profitable and the attitudes friendlier, and Laughlin is far easier to negotiate than its big brother is. In fact, I now suffer the unavoidable snarl of the famous Strip only when visiting my grandmother, a Vegas denizen.
Laughlin, the namesake of a visionary gaming entrepreneur from Minnesota named Don Laughlin, sprang from the ninety-eight-cent all-you-can-eat chicken dinners he and his wife sold in the 1960s at the Riverside Resort, their first casino hotel in the area. The growth that followed, including the development of a number of retirement communities, shattered the region’s somnolent image and created the mini-Vegas that is Laughlin today—a neon-bedecked, year-round destination that annually draws nearly four million visitors. Despite all the growth, however, not everything has developed in step. The accommodations still consist predominantly of casino hotels, and the high-end restaurant scene remains limited.
Another thing the Mohave Valley has not yet done is market itself as a golf destination. Until it does so, savvy golfers can book tee times at the area’s four finest courses (there are six within a half-hour drive) without being shoehorned among the hordes of golfers who descend on Vegas. Although less lavish than the likes of Shadow Creek and Wynn Las Vegas, the valley’s courses offer captivating desert mountainscapes. They’re also much less expensive: The highest green fee is $125, the peak-season rate at the premier Laughlin Ranch Golf Club.
The course at Laughlin Ranch was designed by David Druzisky, an up-and-coming architect who’s worked extensively in Arizona, including with Keith Foster in the creation of the popular SunRidge Canyon Golf Club outside Scottsdale. Laughlin Ranch, which opened in 2005 to national acclaim, delivers sustained challenge, with stark waste areas nipping at the edges of lush fairways. At the short par-four sixteenth, a ravine bisects the fairway, forcing golfers either to play safely to the left, from which point the second shot must carry a phalanx of bunkers, or to go for the farther landing area to the right in the hope of having an unimpeded approach to the green.
On the other side of the Colorado, just east of the shadowed crags of Spirit Mountain, lies the Mojave Resort Golf Club. The course, consistently in fine shape, is a twelve-year-old collaboration of Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley. It conjures up one deceptive tee shot after another, causing you to wonder where among the minefields of fairway bunkers you’ll be able to land your ball safely. Water encroaches on five of the holes, including on two par threes on the front nine and on the par-four eighteenth, where both the drive and the approach must carry sections of a lake.
At El Rio Golf & Country Club, the impressive Mission-style clubhouse suggests (accurately) that the round will be first-rate. El Rio, the work of Matt Dye, feels like a cross between a desert layout and a links. Dye displays a palpably less sadistic streak than does his famous uncle Pete. His fairways wend past some red rocks and plenty of desert washes but rarely demand target golf. The large, undulating greens can yield some dauntingly long putts, yet the speeds are manageable.