2005: America’s Best

Las Vegas

Anyone who doesn’t love Las Vegas is either an ascetic or a year-round resident of the place. I cannot imagine spending much time here, but in two- or three-day doses it’s the perfect antidote for urbane sophistication. No place in the world comes close to the crazed neon sensibility of the gaudy Strip. How can anyone not be enamored with a desert oasis (unfit for human habitation) in which three-quarter-sized versions of the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge share space with 2,000 Elvis impersonators?

For years, golf was nothing more than a diversion that kept high rollers busy between long stretches at the casinos. Shadow Creek turned the game into a spectacle – a 250-acre mirage. Now golf is settling in for the long run.

When Southern Highlands opened in 2000, the seven miles between the front gate and downtown was desolate. Now, regional development has brought new homes, shopping malls and Starbucks virtually leapfrogging past the golf grounds.

The Southern Highlands property occupies a 2,300-acre parcel on the west side of Route 15, the main highway into Southern California, and includes 6,200 residential units – everything from two-bedroom townhouses to 15,000-square-foot palaces. Only a tiny share of the homes are near the golf holes. The course occupies a tenth of the total land, including 110 acres of maintained turf and an 11-acre practice area, with the rest taken up by lakes, a waterfall, naturalized roughs of wildflower and tall fescue, and unmaintained desert floor.

Did we mention sand? Like 92 bunkers, spread over 7 acres, filling the inside dogleg of landing areas and, when viewed from above, creating the illusion that the course got overrun by cauliflower on steroids.

The course, a private facility, is a collaboration of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. – the last project the elder Jones, who died in 2000, worked on.

In fact, the 177-yard, par-3 12th hole is commemorated with a plaque indicating that it’s the last hole that the grand old man of American architecture designed.

Jones Jr., ever lyrical in his imaginativeness, playfully describes the aesthetic at Southern Highlands as “purple mountain majesty with greens of tilted plains.”

Southern Highlands sits at 2,600 feet above sea level. The elevation, coupled with the dry air, makes the course play somewhat shorter than its 7,510 yards might suggest.

The flatter front nine offers less definition in landforms, with lots of up-and-over tee shots to semi-blind landing areas and holes framed by large houses set well back from the fairways. Players who carry drives 280 yards can fly the kick points of many fairways and enjoy a ground bonus in yardage.

The back nine, with much greater range of interesting topography, renders tee shots and approaches that are better defined and that don’t have that mid-fairway turbo-boost. Many of the holes on this side play against a theatrical mountainous backdrop. This slope heavily influences long shots as well as the break on the putting surfaces. The launching pad at the 500-yard, par-4 11th hole, 100 feet above the fairway and with a good look into downtown Las Vegas, creates a culminating moment in the round. It’s one of many points at Southern Highlands where spectacle merges with sound strategy to create a memorable round.

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