2005: Features - The secret is out

Las Vegas

Today, we break an age-old maxim held sacred for generations. For we have discovered that when it comes to golf, what happens in Vegas absolutely should not stay in Vegas. There is quality golf in abundance. So much so that it would be egregious to keep the experience to ourselves.

“There is only one Las Vegas,” said Joe Massanova of TPC at the Canyons. “There is off-the-charts, high-end golf, more affordable golf, desert golf, golf on the Strip, golf that attracts PGA Tour players and resort golf. It’s all over town. As much as anywhere in the country.”

So, listen closely. We’ll tell you what you need to know: the best tracks in town, a little insight into Sin City’s golf culture and a few other tidbits that can help you turn a long weekend in Las Vegas into a surprisingly fine golf trip.

Massanova knows about big-time golf markets. He worked at the TPC of Scottsdale (Ariz.) for 16 years, immersed in a community that is loaded with golf. The difference? Scottsdale long has been a well-known golf mecca. Las Vegas, with so many other baubles with which to entice tourists, is not a golf-first destination.

Unless you want it to be.

Paiute, Bali Hai, TPC at the Canyons, DragonRidge, Painted Desert, Primm Valley, Reflection Bay and Rio Secco offer outstanding golf options in and around Las Vegas.

Those inclined to burn some serious blackjack winnings on even more decadent golf experiences can satisfy their whims at Cascata or Shadow Creek. Golf in Vegas, you will find, is no gamble.

“If you make golf the reason you come to town, you can put together as solid a golf vacation as anywhere in America,” retired biochemist Dr. Al Benson said during an early-morning round at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. “There are great courses all over the joint.”

Those include the three courses at Paiute, though the resort can be surprisingly frigid at 6:30 a.m. in winter months. But the beauty of the desert is that the chill soon gives way to the emerging sun.

Cool winter mornings and roasting summer afternoons aside, golf in Las Vegas is a 365-day-per-year operation. That includes Paiute, where that something-special feeling hits you miles before you get to the course. The Paiute Resort is about 20 miles from the Strip, and barren desert interspersed with fledgling housing developments fill most of the journey. But as you approach Paiute, there is a green orb on the horizon that appears like a mirage in the Spring Mountains. The closer you get, the more anxious you become to to seek temporary sanctuary from the casino hubbub.

“There are no homes out here, no traffic, no noise,” said Byron Cone, the head pro at Paiute Resort. “Just peace, quiet, mountains . . . and, oh yeah, some really top-notch golf.”

The resort is owned by the tiny Paiute Indian tribe and features three courses designed by Pete Dye.

Snow Mountain, Cone’s favorite, was Dye’s first Paiute creation in 1995. Seven holes feature water hazards (yes, water in the desert), the par 4s are short but spicy, and thinking is the name of the game. Sun Mountain was added the following year, with a more traditional feel than its predecessor, most notably because of the longer par 4s. Paiute is enveloped in tranquility, helping visitors muster the concentration demanded by Sun Mountain’s opening stretch.

It was five years before Paiute added its third course, and the Wolf is the monster of the bunch.

“It’s our tournament course,” Cone said. “It plays 7,600 from the tips and it’s as tough a golf course as you’ll find in Las Vegas.”

Difficulty is a factor on the Wolf, but what sells the Paiute experience is its separation from the Strip.

“It’s a different world when you are out on the courses,” Dye said. “A different world altogether.”

Not only is there quality amid the vast number of Las Vegas courses, but the contrasts of the landscape offer something for golfers of all wonts. While Paiute preaches removal from the action, Bali Hai Golf Club relishes its selling point as a great place to play right on the Strip.

It’s almost surreal to drive past sunrise gamblers, bypass the casinos’ ostentatious entrances and take the next driveway down the Strip into a...golf club. And the experience isn’t just some muni tucked downtown. Yes, you use the Mandalay Bay Resort as an aiming point for a few holes (and as an aiming point, the golden megastructure serves fairly well), but the golf course is in outstanding shape. It’s not what you’d expect when the rest of the immediate area is concrete and steel.

The contrast, as you might imagine, is not happenstance.

Bill Walters, who made a fortune as co-founder of a sports-betting syndicate, spent a good chunk in building Bali Hai. Walters Golf comprises four Las Vegas courses, and Bali Hai is its Strip special.

Walters dropped $32 million to build Bali Hai and give it a South Pacific feel that once seemed unlikely. Some 3,500 palm trees and more than 100,000 flowers were planted, and black lava rock aids the ambience. Seven lakes with beach-style bunkering, two creeks and $300,000 worth of crushed white marble contribute to the South Seas feel. And don’t forget the $500,000 annual water bill.

“Bali Hai is a breath of fresh air for Las Vegas,” said Adam Owen, the resort’s general manager. “Most of the other courses around are desert golf, and of course that makes sense. But we’ve proven that there’s another way.”

That “other way” was expensive and some of that cost has been handed down in the form of green fees as high as $300. But you can’t beat the convenience and lush experience right on the Las Vegas Strip.

Another facet that makes Bali Hai unique is its journey to being a par-72 layout. There are five par 5s, five par 3s and eight par 4s. The par 4s leave the most distinctive golf-specific memories at Bali Hai. They are a virtual Murderer’s Row, including the 468-yard third, the 482-yard eighth and the 486-yard 17th.

“You can take out the driver here,” Owen said. “And then take it out again, and again, and again.”

OK, so you’ve played the quiet desert courses at Paiute, then experienced the Bali Hai tropics in the midst of a concrete jungle.

Now what?

A suggested finisher to a golf vacation worth remembering would be the TPC at the Canyons, which co-hosts the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas, a PGA Tour stop that visits each October.

“There definitely is an increased interest in golf in Las Vegas, and with that comes a bigger fight for the golf vacationer,” Massanova said. “We have the advantage of the TPC brand and the assurance of quality that comes with that. That doesn’t mean we rest on that brand. To the contrary, it means that we put even more pressure on ourselves to live up the reputation it carries.”

If the reaction of an early-morning foursome is an indication, TPC at the Canyons is holding its own.

“When you play a TPC course, you expect the best,” said Bill Woodley, on a six-day visit from Toronto. “This place is immaculate. It’s rocky, it’s scenic, but the conditioning is out of this world.”

TPC at the Canyons lulls you in with its opener, a 359-yard par 4 that is well maintained but fairly nondescript. But you awaken quickly at the second, a 196-yard par 3 played over a 90-foot rock gulch that gobbles up errant shots.

“What a hole,” said Woodley, shortly after making par.

Woodley is not alone in his assessment of No. 2. Massanova lists No. 2 as one of his favorites, but also gives a nod to No. 14, a 365-yard par 4 that is guarded by a 50-foot canyon.

The course plays host to approximately 40,000 rounds per year, and could handle “about 50,000 and still be comfortable,” Massanova said.

These numbers are an example of the elevated stature Las Vegas is gaining as a golf destination.

Plenty to see in Vegas. Plenty to do. But, more and more, all the playing is not done at night. With the proliferation of quality golf cropping up in seemingly every corner of the city, there’s also plenty of fun to be had during the day.

And you can repeat the stories. Even after you leave town.

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