LAS VEGAS — Spend enough time in this oasis of a town and you’ll end up thinking it’s for real.
Or so it seems – which is pretty good for a faux city that has erased the line between nature and culture, between artifice and substance.
A round at Wynn Golf Club, just off the Las Vegas strip, should be enough to convince anyone that given unlimited imagination, money and nerve, you basically can create something out of nothing. In this case, a Tom Fazio layout, ranked No. 16 on Golfweek’s Best Casino Courses list, that’s good enough to draw 17,000 rounds per year at a green fee that runs $300 to $500, depending upon the season, plus caddie. If that seems expensive, and it is, my advice is to just go elsewhere. There are plenty of other places to play golf in Las Vegas – but none that evokes quite the creative sensibility that animates life and death along the Vegas Strip. Out here, anything is possible and acceptable. The recipe for this city is not that complicated. Take the uncompromising ambition of Howard Roark, the barely fictional architect in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” pump him up to a steroidal mania and then build whatever schemes he comes up with, regardless of cost, and you’ll end up with something like this city.
This is, after all, an arid, barren, dead-flat landscape where 1.2 million residents get by on 4 inches of annual rainfall – plus whatever they can siphon from Rocky Mountain snowpack hundreds of miles away. Fifty years ago, this town was little more than a few tawdry casino hotels necklaced with neon lights. Now it’s a jangling architectural pastiche that includes towering glass palaces, an
Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Egyptian pyramid and 1,000 Elvis impersonators.
Having elevated kitsch to the level of fine art, Las Vegas is now regarded as the epitome of the profoundly superficial. The critical appreciation started with Robert Venturi’s fawning 1972 treatise, “Learning from Las Vegas,” a book that celebrated the effort of feckless investors capitalizing on sheer spectacle.
With Wynn GC, it’s time to recognize how golf design, like building architecture, can itself become performance art. There’s plenty of room elsewhere for those traditionalists who prefer the ground game of naturalistic linksland. Here in the Mojave Desert, if golf were really natural, it could never be played at all. The tone was set by Shadow Creek Golf Club in North Las Vegas, Steve Wynn’s golf mirage designed by Fazio and opened in 1990 (Shadow Creek ranks No. 1 among our Best Casino Courses). It was essentially a three-dimensional diorama writ large, where the depth perception
was created by bulldozers, 21,000 trees (at $1,000 apiece) and the deep backdrop of neighboring mountains.
Wynn GC takes that depth of layering to a whole new level of art. Because the course sits amid urban chaos and a less-than-pleasing skyline, the design strategy was to build up a densely textured playing surface and frame while neutralizing the city’s backdrop.
When Wynn bought the old Desert Inn in 2000, he sought to make the parcel – on the east side of Las Vegas Boulevard – a showcase for his grand imagination. Eventually, he created twin hotel towers, called Wynn (620 feet high) and Encore (632 feet), joined to form a luxurious casino, restaurant and entertainment complex that has 2,716 guest rooms and suites. The stark, bronze-toned towers look like giant mica chips.
“They are actually inverted arcs to each other,” said DeRuyter O. Butler, executive vice president for architecture at Wynn Development, the in-house design firm that planned the resort complex. “We think of them as dancing with each other in the skyline, and as you see them from many angles as you approach, they constantly change their relationship and perspective.” That’s
especially the case as you walk the golf course and watch the spacing and shadows of those buildings play themselves out in the bright daylight.
The old golf ground, affectionately called the “D.I.” by locals, was famous only for its location, certainly not for its desultory routing and tired routine of palm trees. Wynn plowed it all under and had Fazio build a layout that filled a 137-acre envelope that virtually brushes up against surrounding streetscape and buildings without the golfer having the slightest awareness of their proximity.
The trees, creeks, lakes, ornamental shrubbery beds and 60 feet of elevation change were all created from a featureless site.
“Normally you put a golf course into an environment,” Fazio said. “At Steve Wynn’s suggestion, we created an environment first and put a golf course in it.”
I first saw the golf course from a back-stage vantage point during a ride on the Las Vegas Monorail, a four-mile elevated commuter link. The stretch from the Harrah’s/Imperial Palace Station to the Las Vegas Convention Center Station wraps around the east side of Wynn GC and offers a tantalizing view of what looks like a miniature park. But things look and feel totally different when you arrive, as I did, via taxi, and walk along what felt like miles of dazzling casino space.
The first moment of calm comes at the pro shop, which director of golf Brian Hawthorne keeps in quiet light and muted tones – more evocative of a contemplative spa than of a modern golf resort. And when you walk out by the patio overlooking the course and step onto the first tee, it’s as if a whole new landscape universe suddenly has been unrolled and placed at your personal disposal. And with it, the city lights dims, the cacophony of Vegas hype stills, and you have this meticulously tended garden to peruse at your whim for the next four hours.
The bermudagrass tees, fairways and rough, overseeded for winter play, feel like an immaculate carpet. There’s color bursting everywhere from ornamental flower beds and perennial shrubs. The full scope of the mounding is obscured by the thousands of mature pines and palms that fill the site – making you forget you’re playing golf on a city block. It’s like a complex amusement ride, and one of the best shows in town.