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Steve Wynn's Vegas Play (The Sequel)

Sixteen years ago, anyone who had ever yearned for a taste of the ultimate golf experience wanted to be Steve Wynn's best friend. There was only one way to play Shadow Creek Golf Club in North Las Vegas, the most buzz-inducing course to open in decades—you had to be personally invited by Wynn himself. Rumors swirled like dust devils across the Nevada desert: Days went by without a single player on the course; exotic animals roamed the property; sitting presidents were turned away.

The trickle of facts that leaked out was no less startling. The club had no phone listing, the course had no rating, and the restaurant and bar menus had no prices—guests were free to order whatever they wanted. For those lucky few who managed to get tee times, reclusive casino mogul Steve Wynn seemed an embodiment of Willy Wonka. Shadow Creek was his Chocolate Factory, a fantasy realized, with perfect fairways that ribboned through towering pines and hopscotched dark pools and skirted cascading streams—in the middle of an arid wasteland.

Jump ahead eleven years. In March of 2000, Wynn was divested of his private playground when MGM Grand engineered a takeover of the Wynn-held Mirage Resorts Inc., a deal that padded Wynn's pockets but left him without his company, his hotels and his dream golf course, which today is open only to guests of the MGM-Mirage and its recently acquired Mandalay Bay Resort, at $500 a pop.

Don't be fooled, however: Steve Wynn isn't your average, garden-variety, self-made hotel and casino billionaire. Like every Vegas legend, he had more surprises up his sleeve. Precisely one month after cashing in his chips at the MGM window, he plotted his return. He purchased the venerable Desert Inn hotel and golf course and then essentially imploded it, save a few tall trees, a couple of years later. As of April 28, 2005, when Wynn Las Vegas Resort and Country Club opened to worldwide attention, Wynn was back.

His new $2.7 billion resort is "the only one I've ever signed my name to," the mogul says in his television spots, the implication being that his stellar properties from the pre-MGM days—the Mirage, Treasure Island and the Bellagio—were mere warm-up acts; that this hotel will be shout-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sensational. Wynn does have a phenomenal track record, so all that is probably true. But what we're really wondering is, How good is his new golf course?Could it possibly be the equal of—or even better than—Shadow Creek?Is it the next great golf destination?

When asked in a rare one-on-one interview at his Las Vegas offices in April whether Wynn Las Vegas would rival such world-class golf resorts as Pebble Beach, the American Club and Bandon Dunes, Wynn thundered, "Yes! I sure hope so!" He added: "The property is worth $10 million to $15 million an acre. I've got a billion and a half dollars of real estate under that golf course. It better become a destination, or I'm gonna look like a jerk, and then goodbye golf course. It will be filled with buildings."

Indeed, even for one of the world's highest rollers, Wynn has made a big bet. Estimates place the golf course development costs alone at $22 million, and while it may not be quite the engineering marvel that was Shadow Creek, it most certainly qualifies as an oasis-in-the-desert act of magic. The course occupies one of America's most legendary blocks, bounded by the Strip (a.k.a. Las Vegas Boulevard), Sands Boulevard and Paradise and Desert Inn roads. Yet thanks to a man-made berm that extends around the perimeter of the property and is crowned with tall pines, passersby can get nary a glimpse of the holes. While playing the course, you can see the occasional local landmark, such as the Stratosphere needle, but mostly the feeling is of a self-contained, grand urban park.

Spend a little time with the man behind Wynn Las Vegas and, in short order, delightful contradictions abound. Though known for his inaccessibility, the sixty-three-year-old Wynn can be remarkably effusive. Dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve polo shirt, his German shepherds dozing at his feet, Wynn positively gushes on the topics of his new hotel and casino, his new golf course, his adventures in golf and his philosophy of course design. "I call him the 'most of the most,'" says Tom Fazio, the course architect who carried out Wynn's vision, first at Shadow Creek and now at Wynn Las Vegas. "He's the most intelligent, most magnetic, most energetic guy I've ever worked with. He doesn't sit around and think about copying holes he has seen. He constantly wants to innovate, to be unique."

Yet it's this desire to be original that gives rise to one of these contradictions: Wynn likes his golf to be straightforward. Spectacular, yes. Memorable, yes. Quirky, no. He hates blind shots, blind hazards, holes that take the driver out of your hand and funky stances in the middle of preferred landing areas. By means of explanation, Wynn recalls an experience at the PGA West TPC Stadium course in California: "They make you hit a four-iron off the tee and they make it tough by having a fairway that is so undulating that in the middle you're on a downhill lie and can't see the green. Well, if that's golf design, I'm Mary Poppins."

Wynn is no fan of long grass, either. "We don't like rough here very much," he avows. "This is not the U.S. Open. It's one thing to have hazards that a player has to negotiate, but I don't want anyone to not find their ball. You're gonna find your ball. You may not like where you find it, behind a tree or in a stream, but you'll see the ball. It speeds up play and allows people not to suffer.

"Make no mistake about it. This golf course exists for one single reason. It is not to test Tiger Woods, who happens to be a friend of mine—I've known him since he was a senior in high school—or Phil Mickelson, who played at Shadow Creek with me the first week it was open, before we had a clubhouse, when he was a student at Arizona State. This course exists to bring pleasure to my guests, and the hell with everything else."

In designing his courses, Wynn has placed far more emphasis on, of all things, the play of light on the land. "Light is the single biggest asset that a designer has, whether you're a sculptor or a painter or a golf course architect," he says. At Wynn Las Vegas, he insisted that most of the holes run either north to south or south to north, perpendicular to both the morning and the afternoon sun. That way, says Wynn, "you create shadowing, which accentuates, deepens, heightens the natural sculpting and modeling of the earth that the architect does."

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