Yesterday I was looking back at my Las Vegas golf photos. Sin City is home to some of the most superbly conditioned resort-style spreads on the planet, offering a buffet of lush manicured dreamscapes that belie their not-too-much-agua-round-here setting. Once you get beyond chipping distance of the strip, there are rugged desert courses with ribbons of green fairway snaking through scorched earth as badass as Chuck Norris. These are golf courses strewn with volcanic rocks, dried up arroyos and kickass red Mountains as backdrops.
I played a Sin City mini-golf marathon, a six-course daylight bender over 36-hours where the only wagering going down was of the going for the hole rather than laying up variety. Before getting down to it, Vegas' illustrious history of O.G.'s and gambling is well known, but the region's pivotal role in golf history gets too little play.
In 1953 Vegas pioneered the PGA's Tournament of Champions concept featuring a field restricted to the previous year's winners. This format persists today with the tour event held at Kapalua in Maui. In its inaugural running, the player atop the leaderboard received a wheelbarrow filled with $10, 000 worth of silver dollars. Thanks to an outsized prize for the era and a gallery of golf fans filled with the glitziest stars of the day—Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dean Martin to name a few—the event shone a spotlight on Vegas, illuminating the burgeoning golf gem in the middle of the desert.
Thirty years later Vegas upped the ante, turning golf into the big money sport it is today with the Panasonic Pro Celebrity Classic. The tournament awarded the first million-dollar purse, double the fattest payout of the time. The tournament (still played in Vegas, and now known as the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open) prodded PGA sponsors to collectively up the stakes of the game.
And it's only fitting that a town known for conjuring Lady Luck would also provide the setting for the game's greatest player of our generation to jumpstart his pro legend. While getting lucky in Vegas for this golfing great may have different connotations today, back in 1996, a skinny 20-year-old Stanford dropout with a prodigious swing named Eldrick "Tiger" Woods was playing the Las Vegas Invitational on a sponsor's exemption. While too young to shoot dice on the strip, Woods was having no problem rolling the ball into the cup, shooting 64 in the final round to tie for the lead. He then outplayed Davis Love III on the first hole of the playoff to score his first PGA Tour victory. Afterward, a prescient Peter Jacobsen exclaimed: "If this is how he is every week, it is all over. He's the greatest player in the history of the game."
Now back to my personal Vegas odyssey. After growing accustomed to the abundant eye-caviar and soaking up Vegas' PGA pedigree, it was time to write Nevada's next golf chapter by getting up on that bent grass and smacking the snot out of some white balls.
BALI HAI You really have to be a seasoned card player to step into the tee box of the first hole of this South Pacific themed gem without betraying your poker face with a bedazzled, "am I about to walk on a fairway to heaven?" sized smile. Practically on the strip, the back of Mandalay Bay frequently rears its gleaming and golden self in the distance. While proximity to the airport means giant Airbuses frequently entering your field of vision, what might sound like an unwelcome distraction actually adds to the island ambiance. Distant enough to not hear, the majestic metal birds add to the picturesque scene.
On the 11th, a picturesque 190-yard par 3, they've set up a no lose proposition, provided that you intend to take home a souvenir or two at the pro shop. I wager $30 that I'll hit the green. If I miss the mark, I'll still get my money back in store credit, but if I stick it I'll double up.
The hole itself is a bit of a gamble with a large strip of sand buffering a pool of water to the left and a safe landing area adjacent to the other side of the green. You can either safely aim to the right side of the green, a low risk shot at par even if you miss your mark, or man up and attack the flag head on. The pin position didn't happen to be on the more forgiving side of the green that day.
While choosing the cowboy route, I manage to hook my ball way left and end up on the other side of the water a few meters from a tee box where a startled foursome glare in my direction.
"You're fine, I would have yelled fore for you if they were in danger," the genial man who took my bet pipes up. "Hey, maybe you can pull off a heroic par from there," he shrugs.
After apologizing to the foursome for giving them a scare, I settle down for my next and manage to flop it three feet from the hole for the chip of the trip. I then tap it in for a hard fought three.
It's remarkable to walk through the bustle of the Wynn casino and end up on a tranquil 7,042 Tom Fazio designed golf course whose beauty will simply take your breath away. It's just incredible that this 137 acre tract which required 800, 000 cubic yards of earth to be fussed over to create the elevation changes, is ensconced smack dab in the middle of the strip.
The Locker room area has a spa vibe with fruit to nibble and coffee to sip on before your round. If you didn't lug your clubs or shoes along, loaners are provided at no extra cost. There's also a good chance the shiny set they'll lend you are more formidable for the test that awaits than the graphite puppies you usually tote around. As a nice added touch, an assortment of beverages come packed in a cooler attached to your cart.
My caddy, Brad, a PGA of America member, hops on the back of my cart and we're good to go. Brad goes well above and beyond helping me with club selection, raking bunkers, and repairing divots. He pretty much recalibrates my swing and fine-tunes my tempo. Brad's tutelage shaves 10 strokes of my scoresheet and on occasion, when I shank an errant shot out of bounds he runs like a gazelle to locate my lie. The difference between relying on your own powers of observation versus having a caddy who knows every inch of a course is hard to overstate.
On one hole on the back nine I was setting up for a chip, maybe 30 feet from the flag when Brad told me to aim for the far right of the green. He caught my incredulous reaction and so tossed a ball onto the green where he had pointed. It proceeded to counter-intuitively make a figure eight as it wended its way back toward the cup.
When we got to the greens, his reads turned complex multi-breaking humdingers into putt-putt child's play. "Mike, hit it as hard as if the hole is here," he'd say while pointing to the midway point which turns out to be spot on. He also corrected my tendency to lift the toe of my club. By the end of the round I was hitting some smooth rolling long distance cup-seekers. The fairy tale ends with a Disney-esque waterfall that you pass through on your way back to the clubhouse.
In 2005 when Wynn opened you needed to be a hotel guest to play. There were literally no exceptions. At the country club while munching on a jicama salad for lunch, director of golf Brian Hawthorne relays a story about having to politely enforce the guests-only rule to a secret service agent who was trying to squeeze
Bill Clinton in for a tee time.
"You realize this is the former leader of the free world right?" the exasperated earpiece wearing man in black barked after Hawthorne politely informed him of the rigid policy. The rules have since been relaxed and visitors not staying at the hotel can now book to play up to 30 days in advance.
During my Vegas golf Odyssey, I also played Rio Secco (where you can hire a T-Mate—a cheerleading caddie who looks like a swimsuit model); the desert canyon masterpiece that is Dragonridge, and the solid and very reasonably priced duo of Highland Falls, and Palm Valley (two thirds of a trio of Billy Casper/Greg Nash designs rounded out by Eagle Crest) in the suburb of Summerlin. I'd rate these four respectively 9, 9.5, 7.5, and 7.5 but they're all well worth your time—Vegas golf does not disappoint.