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The Best Bets in Vegas

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.


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