Every story about Las Vegas should feature a blackjack dealer named Dino who’s built like a bull terrier and growls in a voice rough with stogies and Johnny Walker Black. I met my Dino on the first tee of the Lakes Course at Primm Valley Golf Club, a forty-minute cruise from the strip. After knocking his tee shot into a steep fairway bunker, Dino said to his Callaway driver, “You, Mister, are headed for the penalty box”– an area in his golf bag reserved for misbehaving clubs. By the looks of his bag Dino’s Callaways had been racketeering, so they felt right at home in Vegas, a city whose cast of characters comes right out of a police line-up. At one point, when I asked Dino what hole we were on and he said, “number three,” our other two playing partners stepped forward.
Of course, only locals really experience the shadowy underside of this city that can be anything visitors want it to be: smooth and classy as Sinatra, glitzy as KISS, hotter than a lap dance, solidly respectable as . . . well okay, maybe not solidly respectable. You want Paris? Venice? Pirate ship? Pyramid? Yeah, they got that. But the best way to find the best of Vegas is to learn what the dealers and caddies and cocktail waitresses prefer. After all, for whatever reason, they live here.
Although my new pal Dino claimed he wasn’t a gambler, he took some long-shot chances on Primm Valley’s cheerful 6,945-yard Lakes layout, designed by Tom Fazio. The course features an extensive lake and river system set against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fazio moved mountains himself in constructing valleys of natural sand and an actual oasis. The course features small, tiered greens and plentiful steep, severe, yet fluffy bunkers that lend a pure feel. While the holes on the Lakes Course carry names like “Cactus Springs” and “Rock Bottom,” Dino invented a few names for his clubs, such as “!@#$%!” and “*^%!!!!.” He filled the penalty box on the boisterous par-four 15th hole, which stretches 450 yards arm -in-arm with a stream. Primm is also home to Fazio’s equally dandy 7,131-yard Desert Course, which plays tougher and longer amid cacti, palms, native grasses and plateaus.
As I was lining up a putt on the fourth hole of the Bali Hai Golf Club, located at the south end of the Vegas strip, a plane flew so close overhead that the flight attendant asked me if I preferred chicken or beef. Designed by Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley, and incorporating 4,000 trees and 100,000 tropical plants and flowers, an island green and a stunning Polynesian-style clubhouse, this 7,015-yard venue still falls short of what you’d expect from such inflated green fees. Though I may get whacked for saying so, $34.5 million didn’t buy more than mediocre golf holes, though it purchased plenty of blinding white sand that you’re not even allowed to play out of. Several holes here seem reminiscent of others, yet most are still forgettable. On the positive side, you could be tying your golf shoes in Bali Hai’s parking lot fifteen minutes after stowing your tray table. And you’ll enjoy service worthy of an emperor.
Only in Vegas can you rush from Polynesia to the British Isles just by driving across town. I headed to the Royal Links Golf Club, executed by Dye Designs, for an afternoon game with Shawn X (Real Name Deleted), a floor supervisor at the Aladdin Casino. We met outside the stately Scottish castle/clubhouse and were joined by Doug (no way he’d want his name used), one of the best caddies I’ve ever had the pleasure of strolling alongside. In addition to dispensing yardages and strategic advice, and describing the position of every hidden bunker on the course, Doug told jokes, recommended restaurants, and shared plenty of stories that I can’t repeat.
Royal Links offers a collection of replica holes from British Open courses, and a compelling yardage book that describes a great moment from each. The layout, encompassing 107 pot bunkers and overseeded to lend that bare British winter look, stretches to 7,029 yards.
We started with number ten from Royal Lytham. Shawn nearly drove the green, but his second shot, a short pitch, traveled nearly as far. When we reached the third hole, the Royal Links pro was waiting on the tee. This being Vegas, he offered us 2-1 odds on a pro-shop purchase that he could knock it closer to the pin. He won, we moved on– to holes from Troon, St. Andrews, and Prestwick. We dodged pods of invisible bunkers, and Shawn educated me about the casino business (note: the casinos usually win) as a brisk wind kicked up off the North Atlantic– or at least it felt that way.
Though I am usually willing to play expensive golf courses if they are great, many Vegas locals prefer to play at the affordable DragonRidge Golf Club— and not just because it’s a good place to bury a body. Located twenty minutes from the action, this 7,039-yard Jay Morrish/David Druzisky design hosted Tiger Jam 2000. Expansive views and dramatic elevation changes characterize a remote venue crafted out of the McCullough Mountains. The very playable course sports many directional bunkers which shouldn’t worry you nearly as much as the difficult Bentgrass greens; sidehill putts are as prevalent here as cologne at a $2 craps table. My companions at DragonRidge were a couple of tough guys from back east who didn’t talk much.When I asked the fellow with the black tee shirt and size-24 neck what line of work he was in, he whispered “broker.” Later, when I asked his companion if he was a broker too, he said, “Waddaya mean, broker?” I left it at that. However, they were generous enough to share their sandwiches, which they’d had flown in that morning from “the best friggin’ deli in New Jersey.” How could I say no?
The front side at DragonRidge is smart and handsome, but number ten blows a nine-hole winning streak. A 368-yard par four with a wash running down the center, the hole offers a choice between two options that you can’t see, but what you think is a well-struck shot to either fairway might still end up in the quarry. The thirteenth hole, at 375 yards, features a tiny desert island green with a lone but dangerous pot bunker. Overall, DragonRidge doesn’t breathe fire as much as it puffs magic.
Although it seems unlikely that heaven would be located anywhere close to Las Vegas (not counting a heaven-themed casino with leggy angel waitresses, roulette wheels floating atop clouds, and slots ringing with harp music), Shadow Creek Golf Club is probably a pretty accurate facsimile thereof. Once the private enclave of celebrities and high rollers, now any knucklehead with cash (and who’s staying at an MGM/Mirage property) can enjoy the most astounding example of golf and excess ever dreamed up. Architect Tom Fazio claims he was given an unlimited budget for Shadow Creek and exceeded it.
Fazio essentially manufactured an entire ecosystem, creating a rocky creek with waterfalls, a lush, rolling Carolinian landscape, and huge elevation changes on a formerly flat desert wasteland. While mystique is part of Shadow Creek’s draw (you’ll spot Michael Jordan’s and President Bush’s lockers inside) it’s also one of the most sublime courses you’ll probably never play.
Choose from only three sets of tees, and rely on your caddie (included– as is limousine transport– in green fees) because there are no yardage signs. You’ll see few other golfers because management limits play to a max of 80 golfers daily, according to GM Mark Brenneman, who is an engaging partner in addition to running a frappe-smooth operation. Watch for exotic pheasants as you tee off beside the lovely creek. Admire the gentle bunkering and the snowy mountains in the distance. Note the lake on the par-five third hole, where a renowned caddie was pulled into the water by an apparently ferocious bass (we may assume he took a penalty drop and lay three when he climbed out). The fourth hole somehow plays over a pine forest (Fazio imported 21,000 mature trees). On number eight, called Shangri-La, John Daly once asked for a do-over when he missed the green. The back side opens with two short, easy feel-good holes. A few more gullies and ridged greens and drop-dead gorgeous fairways will bring you to #17, a steep par-three with a tiny green lurking behind a lake and beside a jungly waterfall. Shadow Creek’s timeless beauty and extraordinary ambiance are likely to stay with you long after your caddie dries out from his inadvertent swim.
Hard-hitting Shawn X (who was hitting it particularly hard by heading from the casino night shift to the first tee) joined me again for a round at the well-crafted TPC Canyons Course, designed by Bobby Weed and home of the Las Vegas Senior Classic. The 7,063-yard course opens gently, by which I mean it didn’t confront us with a forced carry until the second hole. By number eight, as a cold rain fell, the layout really cinched down with a 458-yard uphill par four into the wind. Shawn and I talked about lunch, soup, skipping our scheduled afternoon round. From number ten on, nearly ever single hole grew progressively tougher, with more and longer forced carries over deep arroyos. On the signature 14th, 365 yards over an arroyo and bunker with an approach to a green perched on the lip of another arroyo, Shawn hit his drive so hard it sounded like an F-15. Suddenly he thought maybe the weather would clear for the afternoon round after all. We were actually sorry to leave this excellent layout, but we had other rows to hoe.
When Pete Dye completed his third golf course on the windy high-desert Paiute Indian Reservation, there was one hole for every member of the tribe. Paiute Golf Resort’s Snow Mountain course is the kinder, gentler layout, designed with pot bunkers, lakes, and the occasional flair of railroad ties. Scrubbier than most Vegas courses, this 7,146-yard track has a refreshingly remote feel. Nearly every hole seems to dogleg, and many require big drives to carry various hazards. The solid course finishes with three waterside holes. Eighteen presents a 445-yard par four with a green hiding behind a skinny neck of grass between bunkers and lake. Breathe in the clean scent of sage and catch your breath before heading out on the equally perky and well-designed 7,112-yard Sun Mountain course as an encore.
Vegas locals revere the Revere Golf Club, which climbs in and out of canyons, clings to cliffs, scoots over lakes and waterfalls, and showcases the talents of architect Greg Nash. The quiet setting attracts all sorts of Vegasites to this Del Webb community on the outskirts of Henderson. Nash created two courses with a gigantic wow factor; you might utter that word three or four times just on the 625-yard eleventh hole on the Lexington layout, which drops faster than the NASDAQ market from canyon rim tee boxes, plays over or around a desert island, and finishes at a green and bunker complex that recreates the Japanese yin-yang symbol when seen from above (click here to read my story about actually designing this hole!). Incredible water features are just the icing on the wonderful, intricate cake that is the Revere.
Cost aside, Rees Jones’s Rio Secco Golf Club (to read another great Rio Secco story click here), near the Revere, is also fabulous as all get-out. Featuring six plateau holes, six canyon holes, and six holes winding through broad desert washes, there’s no shortage of startling variety. The course stretches to 7,332 yards from the tips, and its 240 acres in the foothills of the Black Mountains encompass two acres of lakes, 92 acres of grass, and 88 traps. The rest is desert: you do the math.
Rio Secco is not for the feint of heart– or driver. Hackers will suffer here (sorry, Dino). But decent players, or those who don’t care about score or lost balls (ladies and gentleman, welcome Shawn X) will rave about this excellent and unique venue. Unfortunately, the green fees will make you suffer too.
After a small collection of forced carries, contemplate the delightful 7th hole, which begins from extremely elevated tees aimed at a visually tricky landing area. The approach is played into a natural caliche amphitheater. The tenth hole begins with a shot that must reach toward the Stratosphere (the hotel, not the cosmic zone). Number twelve will rocket your pulse rate with a required launch over a ravine so steep that the echo of your tee shot may startle the group behind you when they eventually reach the tee. Holes sixteen through eighteen play over and around blue lakes and in view of the stately clubhouse, providing a feeling that you’ve commenced your desert journey and returned to civilization.
At least until you drive back to Vegas.
Favorite courses of a caddie I met in a bar:
- Shadow Creek
- Rio Secco
N9NE Restaurant Server Par Excellence Troy Holland’s favorite shows:
- Mystere, at Treasure Island
- Love, at Treasure Island
- Jersey Boys, at The Palazzo
Favorite Restaurants of a pit boss I met in another bar:
- Lupo, at Mandalay Bay
- Tao, at The Venetian
- Yellowtail, at Bellagio
Blackjack dealer Dino’s (last name withheld by request) favorite casinos:
- The Mirage
- The Aladdin
- The Venetian