Viva Las Vegas

The brightest lights--and best bets--in Las Vegas are the hot new golf courses

Note: This story was originally published in the October, 2000, issue of Golf Digest

View directory of Las Vegas Golf Courses

The Strip is a par 5, four miles long, with a slight dogleg to the right. It's best played at night, when neon signs light up the entire length.

Long, aggressive players--the gamblers, naturally--can go for the green in two. If you are conservative, you will want to carve a gentle fade off the tee to match the shape of the street.

Either way, you're sure to find plenty of diversions. Starting at the famous "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign, the Strip is strewn with landmarks. The green facade of the MGM Grand, the largest hotel in North America, for instance, or a facsimile of Paris' Eiffel Tower, which guards the corner of the dogleg.

Steer too wide of the Eiffel Tower and you're likely to end up in the man-made lake fronting the opulent Bellagio hotel. The nine-acre body of water is home to Fountains of Bellagio, a confluence of light, music and 240-foot-high sprays of water. To the right, a different type of water hazard awaits, in the canals of the Venetian--singing gondoliers and all.

Then there's the Mandalay Bay, the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York, and the Liberace Museum. This is a city rife with excess. You may find the lagoon at Treasure Island and be caught in a sea battle between the pirate ship Hispaniola and the H.M.S. Britannia, complete with pyrotechnics. From there, it's a straight shot toward the end of the Strip and the 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere, which dominates the skyline and more than adequately resembles a flagstick.

No stretch of road defines and dominates a city the way the Strip does Las Vegas. New York's Broadway, Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard and New Orleans' Bourbon Street seem timid and watered down when compared to the Strip, a boulevard of lights, glitz and revelry, plus some broken dreams. The Strip is the epicenter of the only true 24-hour city in the world.

The appeal of "gaming," as the industry likes to call itself, attracts more than 30 million visitors a year to the valley on the edge of the Mojave Desert that holds Las Vegas. Gaming is evident everywhere in Las Vegas, not just on the Strip. The clank of slot machines greets arriving passengers at the airport; at 7-Eleven, you can try a couple of pulls along with your Slurpee.

But Las Vegas is not really all about gambling ... er, gaming. Now that casinos can be found everywhere--in the forests of New England, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, even on the Internet--Las Vegas has had to diversify. Its edges have been softened with mints on the pillows, full-service spas, Wolfgang Puck eateries and performers noted for their talent instead of what they aren't wearing. If it were a movie, Las Vegas would have received an X-rating in its early days. Now, it's lobbying hard for a PG rating--and is close to receiving it.

In the new Las Vegas, it isn't enough just to build a hotel and a casino. The hotel must also have plenty of entertainment value. Whether it is in the form of the Roman empire of Caesars Palace, the Egyptian pyramid of Luxor, or the boulevards and cafes of Paris, the hotels of Vegas more resemble amusement parks than purveyors of sin.

From gambling to golfing

Nowhere is Las Vegas' shift from gambling mecca to multifaceted resort more evident than in its offerings of golf. In the past decade, the number of courses has tripled. And this theme-park city, naturally, is spawning theme-park courses. Bali Hai Golf Club, a tropical-theme course with holes reminiscent of the South Pacific, opens in November. Meanwhile, Royal Links is a collection of 18 holes modeled after the great layouts of the British Isles, featuring holes like the Old Course's Road Hole and Royal Troon's Postage Stamp. (It is also one of the few courses in the area to provide caddies, along with ultra-upscale Shadow Creek, the best game in town and technically a public-access course, albeit with a four-figure price tag. The Tom Fazio-designed Shadow Creek, ranked 20th among America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, is incidentally itself as fabulously fake as the rest of Vegas, with its creation of a lush jungle in the middle of the stark Mojave Desert.) At Royal Links, my caddie, Leon, greeted me with a strong handshake. He made me feel like a tour pro. Leon told me he'd caddied for Ben Hogan--"He never said a lot," Leon reports--including at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, which Hogan nearly won. Leon also said he was on Tommy Aaron's bag when he won the 1973 Masters. I was curious, and called back a few months later to check those stories. I was told that they were all true, and also that Leon had left Las Vegas for pastures new.

Northwest of the Strip is Summerlin, a planned community--down to the last pebble, apparently--stretching out for miles along the desert floor and a symbol of the city's growth. "The city is twice as big as it was when I went to school here," says tour pro Skip Kendall, who graduated from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1987. We're standing outside the clubhouse of the private TPC at Summer-lin, the venue of the PGA Tour's late-season Las Vegas event. "See all this?" he asks as his arm sweeps through the air, over a sea of roofs that end only at the foot of the mountain. "This was nothing. There was nothing here. Just desert. I can't believe it."

The fastest growing city in America, Las Vegas, now home to more than 1.3 million, draws thousands of new residents every week. The infrastructure can barely keep up, and a daily caravan of trucks hauls building supplies to burgeoning communities like Summerlin, where the sidewalk truly ends.

While Summerlin has several private courses, visitors can play the TPC at The Canyons. As indicated by its name, a deep canyon is in play on the back nine and must be traversed several times, including on the tee shot at the 12th hole, a long, tough, intimidating par 4. Thankfully, not every hole is this severe. To play here, it may help to stay at the Resort at Summerlin, an off-Strip locale that opened in late 1999. The Resort controls half the tee times at The Canyons.

Farther north of Summerlin lies Las Vegas Paiute Resort, which is fast growing into one of the biggest golf complexes in town. Already there are two terrific Pete Dye-designed layouts built on 4,000 acres of land owned by the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, and ground has recently been broken on two more, plus a 300-room hotel, casino and other resort developments, all scheduled to open in 2002. In other words, a terrific desert golf experience is about to get even bigger and better.

The mini-Vegas phenomenon

Vegas is spawning mini-Vegases all across the valley. One is the rapid growth spurt city of Mesquite, 80 miles away near the border of Arizona, which is definitely worth a day trip for its cluster of great new courses.

The 36-hole Oasis Resort boasts the Arnold Palmer-designed Oasis Golf Club that plays through stunning canyons and desert, and not far away are two other brand-new additions at the Paradise Canyon Golf Club: Falcon Ridge and Wolf Creek, which open in October/November. Then there's CasaBlanca Golf Club, part of a large casino-hotel-spa complex.

Another mini-Vegas, just 15 miles southwest of the Strip, is Henderson, now the second-largest city in Nevada and home to several more great new courses, such as Rio Secco, built among the canyons and ravines beneath the Black Mountain. If your game is off, you can visit Butch Harmon, whose golf school is based there. You may even find yourself hitting balls next to Harmon's ace student, Tiger Woods. If Harmon can help Woods improve his swing after the 1997 Masters, the golf equivalent of giving Elle Macpherson a makeover after her first Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, he can probably help you.

Also in Henderson is the Jack Nicklaus-designed Reflection Bay Golf Club, the public course at Lake Las Vegas, which is anchored by another off-Strip resort, the Hyatt Regency. The holes that run along Reflection Bay are some of the most stunning in the valley. The 164-yard 17th is all carry to a peninsula green, and the 561-yard 18th is a brutal closer.

Closer to the Strip but still in Henderson is The Revere at Anthem. The holes are situated in valleys and are very user-friendly: Nearly every tee is elevated and wayward drives carom safely back into play.

Besides inspiring confidence, the elevation gives Revere stunning views of the Strip, less than 15 miles away. The Strip also dictates strategy; all putts break toward the Strip, according to the starter. So a missed putt inevitably prompts someone in the group to call out, "Everything breaks toward the Strip!"

Although it got tiresome by the third hole, it was fitting. Like a black hole, the Strip's pull is all-powerful.

Hunki Yun

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