The Best Bets in Vegas

The Best Bets in Vegas

John and Jeannine Henebry
John and Jeannine Henebry
Pick your track: there's all manner of action in Sin City these days for players in search of a different kind of green

A triumph of artifice or a gauche travesty?With Las Vegas, it all comes down to how you feel about indoor sunsets, headline entertainers you've never heard of (Danny Gans: Man of Many Voices) or had forgotten all about (the Everly Brothers) and golf courses thriving on the northern rim of the Mohave Desert, thanks to annual water bills that can push seven figures. A young bride in billowing white rolling her luggage through the hotel casino: Where else are you going to see this?A fifty-million-dollar layout that utterly and jaw-droppingly denies its desert setting: Where else are you going to see this?

Only in Vegas, thank goodness, and I was delighted to be back as I rolled down the Strip in my upgraded Town Car, aimed toward the venerable Desert Inn, home for this golfing holiday because I knew the place would be quiet and because the sto-ried golf course is the only one left on the Strip. The old Dunes layout now shoulders the weight of the Bellagio; the Tropicana eighteen, the MGM Grand. Long gone, in more ways than one, are the days when the main action out here was hard-nosed Texas Whip-Out.

However, this is no loss for me because I don't gamble. I don't enjoy that you-poor-sap look of the pit bosses. It's easy enough to poke fun at the slots players with their plastic cups, but actually they have the right idea. At least they can conceivably win a huge payout by wagering one coin, while I cannot get so lucky at the tables, where I'd need to hit an incredible run of luck hand after hand after hand, walk away and never come back for the rest of my life. Gambling is an embarrassingly transparent alpha-male display if you're so rich the money doesn't matter, or a pathetic pipe dream if you're not.

So I tossed and turned that first night in town. The absurdity gnawed at my sleepless soul. Then I realized, wait a minute: Golf is the same way, "flog" spelled backward, as we all understand. Maybe the biggest difference is that the casinos conspire to deceive us in many ways--my favorite is the resounding clank of the heavy coins spilling into the metal bins of the slots so that five bucks sound like five million--whereas golf courses, and desert layouts especially, are quite up-front about the deal: Here is the fairway, there is the desert, good luck! Driving into town from L.A., I had visions of driving the ball as long and straight as that brilliant white contrail traced across the pure blue sky. Alas, it didn't happen often enough.

Gambling and golf: For most of us, what's the difference?We're inveterate dreamers, and we're losing.

The Las Vegas Paiutes are a small tribe of only fifty-four members, some of whom live in the community of houses right across the Reno highway from the thirty-six-hole resort they own and operate about twenty miles northwest of the Strip. These natives of the land were officially recognized by Congress as a sovereign nation in 1970, and they were allocated four thousand acres of this desert in 1983. They also own two tribal smoke shops, one at the entrance to the resort, one on a twenty-acre parcel downtown that was deeded to them by a friendly rancher in 1911. This urban shop is the largest single retailer of cigarettes in the United States and one of the ten largest nongaming businesses in this state.

The tribe's two golf courses were designed by Pete Dye, but I should note that there are Pete Dye courses and there are Pete Dye courses, the famous ones on which he camped out and drove the machinery himself. I'm pretty sure the Paiute courses are in the former category. Still, they're excellent, and the lush green carpets thrown across the harsh terrain are irresistible to the eye if not to the ball. Off to the west is snow-capped Charleston Peak and its ski basin; to the east, the ancient striations of the saw-toothed Sheep Mountain Range gleam in the afternoon sunshine. This may be the most stunning of all the golf settings around Las Vegas, and that's saying a lot.

These courses amply demonstrate what a top-line architect can accomplish with today's technology, ten or fifteen million dollars and comely golfing terrain. Not far away, Tom Fazio and casino magnate Steve Wynn have demonstrated what fifty million dollars or so can buy: an incredible golf course and golfing environment in purgatory itself. Although most of the desert around Las Vegas is awesomely beautiful, Wynn's tract on the northern edge of the city, near a pig farm and an industrial park, was banal and uninviting. (They say he's trying to buy the pigs, which cause problems on those downwind days.) After much cajoling, Fazio accepted the commission. Land-wise he had nothing to work with, absolutely nothing, but money-wise he had everything. The check was pretty blank.

When Shadow Creek opened in 1989, it was immediately hailed as the best new private golf course in the country. But the IRS eventually told Steve Wynn he couldn't treat the club as his private domain--open only to invited pals and premier players from his casinos--and also write it off for taxes. Or so goes the story. Anyway, the club now offers the most expensive game in America, perhaps anywhere. The suite for the night at the Mirage, the limo ride to and from the golf course and the round of golf cost one thousand dollars for one, and an additional five hundred for a second player. If you can pay, you can play, just like at the baccarat tables.

A friend in the golf business in Northern California, a guy I'll call Tom because that's his name, flew in to join me. We fell silent as our driver turned onto the grounds, presented our documents at the guardhouse, received clearance, motored oh so slowly through the woods (nobody wants to run over a Ring-necked pheasant, much less a rare Reeves pheasant) and finally arrived at the understated clubhouse tucked among the trees. In the large, airy locker room you'll notice nameplates for . . . well, I won't gratify this kind of name-dropping with a list, especially because these guys aren't really members anyway, because there really aren't any dues-paying members at Shadow Creek. (You'll probably hear about the time Bill Clinton called Steve Wynn and asked if he could play the Creek. "Are you gaming at my tables?" was the alleged response. "No, I'm not. I'm the President." "Well then, I'm sorry." Golfers love these sorts of stories about Augusta National, Cypress Point and the like. Often they're true, but I'm not sure about this one. Then again, I have no intention of correcting the record because that's not the Vegas way.)

Now I should acknowledge that I favor Tom Fazio's golf courses above all others by contemporary architects. He has the lightest touch in the business. His best greens almost float on the face of the earth. He lays in the bunkers with a finesse most of his peers can only copy. (I know professionals in the trade who feel just the opposite, that his bunkers are nothing special. They're wrong.) His framing of the holes is faultless. On the other hand, I had doubts about the idea of completely denying the desert setting. Every other great golf course works with the strengths of the given land; that's the whole idea.

My two biases offset, I can state the following with complete objectivity: Fazio and his partner--Wynn is co-credited, and deservedly so, I understand--have created nothing less than a fairy-tale land of gurgling streams, deep ravines, artful waterfalls, gardens, pheasant, quail, ducks, miles and miles of immaculate turf, distant areas of native grasses and more than twenty thousand fully grown trees. The result is a tour de force without comparison in the world of golf. From certain vantages on the course you can see the peaks of the desert mountains in the distance. Otherwise, you're somewhere else. This re-creation of the sand hills of North Carolina scant miles from the Las Vegas Strip is a 100 percent artificial, 99.9 percent convincing, stupifyingly beautiful environment. It's so good it's scary.

Tom agreed, but he can be a stickler when it comes to the holy game, so he zeroed in on that point one percent. The tee markers, for example: "Strictly resort course," Tom said, and after further consideration I had to agree. At a course this classy, on which caddies are required, these totem poles are cheesy and superfluous. (Wynn could take his cue here from the simple logo-free scorecard.) Tom also found fault with our caddie's beeping range finder. The device is illegal in any official competition, and cell phones and pagers aren't allowed on the course. "So why this thing?" Tom demanded of our man, who was, for once, at a loss for words.

After the round, we retired to the nineteenth hole (meal not included in the $1,800) which overlooks the eighteenth hole and, off to the right, Steve Wynn's capacious home. Tom, a strong player, understood the reason for the relatively easy driving conditions on the course, but he found some of the holes not quite demanding enough, strategically. My rejoinder was simple: Phil Mickelson and Ken Green may share the course record at sixty-one, but the average score at Shadow Creek couldn't be below 90 and probably isn't below 100, according to our man on the bag. That sounds right to me, and it is right regarding me. And the shortest of the two sets of tees is 6,700 yards. The course is tough enough. "Okay," Tom said, "but three of the par threes are less than 150 yards from the basic tees. That's weak." Sorry, Tom, but such a quirk is the legitimate prerogative of the designers. It's not as though Wynn and Fazio didn't realize what they were doing. Those stories about scale models, tiny video cameras and painted dirt fairways are true. Besides, you can always head to the back tee on an ad hoc basis, should you get bored with your birdie putts.

Staggered by this response, Tom threw his haymaker, labeling some of the waterworks as "froufrou." Well, part of the big splash behind the seventeenth green is obviously molded, but we wouldn't know this if the structure were wet all over, which is easily accomplished with further engineering. Otherwise, Tom missed the point regarding the water: He had forgotten where he was.

Sometimes Billy Walters picks up the phone himself. When he did so in my case and said he'd be happy to show me around his Vegas golf courses anytime but Saturday or Sunday, when he was busy betting on football games, I should have put two and two together. I didn't, but when I got to town it was hard to miss his smiling face in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the headline reading WALTERS PLEADS INNOCENT TO CHARGES--state money-laundering charges, which are not all that different, in the defendant's view as expressed in the story, from a set of federal indictments for which he and the ultrasophisticated Computer Group gaming syndicate were exonerated in 1992. Not two months after these latest charges were filed, the judge dismissed them.

The issues are complicated and beyond our purview here, but suffice it to say that Walters is a professional gambler, a longtime target of investigators (they have $2.8 million of his cash, and he wants it back), a native Kentuckian who has bestowed large sums on a variety of charities in his adopted Las Vegas and the area's leading golf course developer. His proposal for developing 163 acres south of the Mandalay Bay casino at the southern end of the Strip--touted as the most valuable land in Nevada--recently beat out two other well-placed groups, one fronted by Andre Agassi, who also lives in Las Vegas.

Walters plans to build a tribute to the work of his favorite living architect, Pete Dye: copies of twenty-seven of Dye's greatest holes, including a par-three layout. This might be a pretty good idea. Dye is a flatland specialist, and Walters does know how to do this kind of thing, as I saw while careening around his Royal Links club east of town, which was not quite finished when I was there but is now open for play. He owns four other courses in Las Vegas, but this will be the project that's going to be instantly famous, if not quite in the Shadow Creek category. Each hole of the Royal Links is a reproduction of a great hole in the British Isles. The developer knows all about the legal problems faced by the similar Tour 18 concept and is confident he has them well in hand. The literature states that the holes are "reminiscent of," "inspired by" and "similar to" the originals. Besides, he demanded with an intense gaze, why would anyone object to such deferential homage?His clubhouse is a castle with a life-size bronze of Old Tom Morris out front. The museum inside will be a tribute to British golf. Out back by the first tee will be a large, yellow scoreboard, emblematic of the British Open.

Perry Dye, son of Pete, is the consulting architect. The holes are accurate and beautifully done. The only thing missing from this version of the Road Hole is the hotel in the crook of the dogleg. The 115 pot bunkers with sod walls are dead-on. There is, however, one key difference throughout: The Royal Links is one hundred percent manicured. The intermediate rough is zoysia--a first for Nevada. "I wanted the golf course to be enjoyable and playable by the average player," Walters called out as he gunned his cart across a curb. "Fescue for the rough would have made this course too difficult. Zoysia is like putting the ball on a tee." Beyond the zoysia, in areas that are knee-high in Britain, Walters has planted alyssum, gazania and wildflowers.

The next day I joined the developer for a spin around one of his other clubs, Desert Pines, which he touts as the Pinehurst of the West, built from scratch in nine and a half months on just ninety-eight acres in the middle of town, right next to the freeway, and where the pine needles beneath the four thousand mature trees are replaced twice a year. Powering past a foursome on the back nine, Walters hollered, "'Scuse us, fellas! Have a great round!" and then barked to me, "You hit the ball out of one of my fairways, you're on turf. You're not out in some desert and rocks." The seventh, eighth and seventeenth greens congregate around a pond--a great design, even if it was dictated by the confines of the site. I had to agree with Walters: In an era of sprawling golf courses designed to incorporate bizarre geography and fairway homesites, such a neat, tight layout in the Merion manner is a refreshing change of pace.

But the real essence of what the prosecutors are up against with Walters is the five greens on the Desert Pines practice range. Each replicates a famous par three's green complex, right down to the bunkers and, in the case of Harbour Town's seventeenth, blue paint. Walters is that rare sort, a visionary with an eye for details, and I'll make this prediction right now: The law will never catch him. Not that he's done anything wrong.

After five days of golf in Las Vegas, the back blew, so I just rode around Rio Secco Golf Club and putted in the company of assistant pro Paul Charron. This course Rees Jones was supposed to be part of the Seven Hills development south of the Strip, but it ended up in the hands of the Rio Suites hotel and now serves as an exclusive amenity for its guests. Premier casino players, tour pros and invited VIPs even have their own locker room. Rio Secco is also home to Butch Harmon's School of Golf. Harmon teaches Tiger Woods, which is why Tiger was on the school's practice tee hitting half wedges as Paul conducted his tour, regaling me with stories from his long days and nights on the Nike Tour. He had always understood that he's a free spirit, certainly as golf pros go--his ponytail on tour was halfway down his back--and maybe he wasn't all that surprised to learn that he was neither good enough nor competitive enough for the grind. When he OB'd on the first tee of one tournament, he turned and bowed gallantly to the gallery. It's tough picturing Tiger horsing around like this, and surely this is one reason Tiger, not Paul, holds the course record, sixty-seven.

Tiger must have been putting well that day because Rio Secco's greens are something else: huge, lopsided and fast. Such Augusta-type greens are a lot of fun to mess around with, maybe not so much fun if you're shooting for a score. From many spots, forget about making the first putt and go for position instead, and steel yourself ahead of time for the occasional four-putt. Holes two through seven are the visual highlight of the golf course, playing across, along and down inside a series of canyons--terrific holes with brutal greens.

And then I left Las Vegas, passing, on my way out, computer folks coming in for a huge industry show. For once, everybody in the city agrees on something: The geeks are notorious low rollers, especially when compared with, say, the automotive after-market crowd. Back in Manhattan, I saw confirmation of this point in a little news item.Apparently Bill Gates had taken his seat at a Bellagio blackjack table and doubled his modest stack of twenty-five-dollar chips. Although I like to picture Bill counting coin as he strode away, I'm sure this windfall wasn't the point. I'll bet he was just laying the groundwork for his real play, the call to Steve Wynn angling for the coveted invitation to Shadow Creek. Asked if he was gaming at Steve's tables, Bill wanted to be able to testify, in all honesty, "Yes."

Vegas's Lucky 7

Las Vegas is now a legitimate golfing destination, with more courses built every year. As luck would have it, there are exactly seven excellent venues within thirty minutes of the Strip, plus an important eighth (Primm Valley) somewhat farther away--across the border in California, according to the map.

Desert Inn

This golf course is not nearly as showy as the others--no canyons, no horrifying carries, no inherent pitch-and-roll to the terrain--but not every course can or should be of that character. The pros around Las Vegas always name the Desert Inn among their top three or four local courses, which tells you something. The main nod toward fancy resort golf is the computer system mounted in the roof of each golf cart, which provides exact distances to the flagstick from anywhere on any hole. Of course, if the system loses its triangulated downlink, as it did with my twosome at the turn, you're on your own.

Par & Yardage:72, 7,193
Greens Fees:$160 for hotel guests, $200 for Caesar's Palace guests, $225 for others

Las Vegas Paiute Resort

If there's a better setting for golf in the region, hire an architect and go to escrow tomorrow. This land twenty miles northwest of the Strip is perfect, always moving and always providing a light show on the flanks of the mountains east and west. The Sun Mountain layout (Tav-Ai Kaiv) has more sand, less water, just as much desert as Snow Mountain (Nu-Wav Kaiv).

Par & Yardage:Sun, 72, 7,112; Snow, 72, 7,158
Greens Fees:$130 weekdays, $135 Fri.-Sun.

Primm Valley

Two Tom Fazio layouts about forty miles from the Strip, and well worth the drive. You'll hear the Lakes course described as the poor man's Shadow Creek, and there's truth to that. Add fifteen thou-sand more trees, spend a little more money here and there, tweak the finish work and you'd have a quite comparable golf course. In fact, the tee markers here are superior to those at the Creek.

Par & Yardage:Lakes, 71, 6,945; Desert, 72, 7,131
Greens Fees:$125 weekdays, $150 weekends; packages available for guests at local hotels

Reflection Bay

Beautifully turned-out golf at the super-high-end Lake Las Vegas Resort and residential development, seventeen miles east of the Strip. This was envisioned by the developers as a vast Mediterranean oasis (2,200 acres, projected four billion dollars), with Italianate and Moorish elements throughout, complete with gon- dolas floating beneath the covered bridge on the placid lagoon. The big golf holes by Jack Nicklaus make sense on the big-scale piece of land. It's a terrific desert track--except for the eighth, ninth, seventeenth and eighteenth holes, which are flat and play along the water's edge to truly startling effect given the arid, rolling terrain of the preceding holes. Reflection Bay is a truly inspired name for this golf course.

Par & Yardage:72, 7,261
Phone: 877-698-4653
Greens Fee: $175

Rio Secco

These are the most difficult greens in the region without a doubt, bent on playing hell with any but the most exquisitely struck putts. Then again, many of the slopes that make long putts difficult also curl approach shots toward the holes, so just placing the ball and putting at random, as I did, is a little misleading. When playing number five, remember that this green, tough as it still is, has been rebuilt following a number of recorded debacles. But I don't want to scare anyone. This is a perfectly fine way to set up a golf course.

Par & Yardage:72, 7,332
Greens Fees:$190 for guests of the Rio Suites hotel; other out-of-towners out of luck; $300 for residents of Clark County

Royal Links

I base my assessment solely on a tour of the course with developer Billy Walters, but I don't believe I'll live to regret it. If the holes are "accurate," and that certainly seems to be the case, how can the architecture be faulted?The main question here is the same as it is with Shadow Creek: Is the basic concept legitimate? I believe that it is.

Par & Yardage:72, 7,029
Greens Fees:$195 weekdays, $225 Fri.-Sun.

Shadow Creek

As sheer spectacle, it's in a class by itself. Is it worth the famous $1,000?It certainly comesclose, and it probably makes as much or more sense than sitting down with that much money at one of the tables. About the seventeenth hole, Wynn writes in his book, "I'm not sure people will believe that Mother Nature created something this nice. Had we delivered this kind of treatment too often, it might have been excessive. But it was irresistible to do it once." He thus nails one key fact about Shadow Creek: It's incredible but not too incredible. And it is a perfectly "playable" golf course, with few forced carries anywhere and generous landing areas. The 1998 NCAA cham-pion University of Nevada-Las Vegas men's golf team plays its home matches here. The coffee-table book about the course, available at the pro shop, is highly recommended.

Par & Yardage:72, 7,239
Greens Fees:$1,000, including the suite for the night at the Mirage. Rates differ somewhat for the other hotels in the group: Treasure Island, the Golden Nugget, the Bellagio.

Tournament Players Club At The Canyons

Wonderful, creative use of the canyon terrain here, which, naturally, creates a downside: The course is difficult if you're not hitting the ball fairly straight--or if you're not playing the right tees. Like all the TPC courses, it's a full-out challenge but a fair one. And it has as many intriguing holes as any of the other layouts in the Las Vegas area and perhaps the most intriguing one of all, the par-three second with the island green down in the canyon itself. The club has taken extraordinary measures to protect the offi-cially "threatened" desert tortoise. The Paiute Resort has an exceptional record in this regard as well, but TPC Canyons and the adjacent private club, TPC Summerlin, are the only courses in Nevada certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Par & Yardage:71, 7,063
Greens Fees:$140 weekdays, $170 weekends

What About All That Water?

The thirty-plus golf courses in and near Las Vegas use "only" 4.5 percent of the valley's total consumption, according to Vince Alberta of the local water district. This water is expensive, costing some venues well over half a million dollars annually, pushing one million in certain cases, even though the turf-per-hole average for the area is 6.5 acres versus the national average of 8.3 acres. In fact, water costs here are seven to eight times those in Palm Springs, which is also a desert, and that cost premium is often cited as one reason for the high average greens fee. Owners are now under a mandate to switch in the next few years to the use of effluent water, which is better for the environment. The bad news is effluent water is harsh on equipment, and maintenance costs will go up. Bottom line: Golf is expensive in Vegas.

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