At Shadow Creek, seeing is believing

No. 9 at Shadow Creek

No. 9 at Shadow Creek

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – There’s little doubt that esteemed Shadow Creek boasts a higher class of golf clientele than most, Exhibit A being one of its visitors last week, a certain former Washington executive now residing in Crawford, Texas. The golfer held up a small white orb on the scenic first tee and playfully inquired, “Anyone playing a TaylorMade 43?”

George W. Bush, No. 43 himself and a solid player, would utilize his Vegas stage to make his first public comments regarding Osama bin Laden’s capture and execution (“a good call”). As many of life’s A-Listers do, he also used his time in the city to unwind a little – namely, with 18 holes at tranquil Shadow Creek.

Las Vegas is all about glitz and glitter, lights and volume. Vegas is high-paced action. Shadow Creek (ranked No. 1 among Golfweek’s Best Casino Courses) is The City of Lights’ low-watt, green-carpeted antithesis. Driving 15 minutes off The Strip, down hardscrabble roads that pass through unkempt vacant lots, remote blue-collar businesses and closed-down buildings, one turns down a side road, passes a modest white security hut, and Voila! – from a once-barren desert floor, tall pines suddenly fill the sky and colorful vegetation, animal life, pine straw and foliage (leaves in Las Vegas?) greet the senses. Inside, nirvana awaits.

“Kind of like Jurassic Park,” laughs Mark Brenneman, describing the sobering contrast that exists inside the insulated property, its land sunken and hidden by a berm. Brenneman is a PGA professional who has been Shadow Creek’s general manager and gracious host for half of the club’s 22 years. “The casinos are intimidating, and everything in this town is so big. People expect this place to be very flashy. It’s not.”

What architect Tom Fazio and Vegas visionary Steve Wynn created here in the late 1980s (MGM Grand acquired the property in 2000) stands as a testament that, indeed, anything is possible. Initially, there was pushback to celebrate a creation so contrived and man-made. But Fazio said people got over it; when he visits today, the emotion stirred inside him still is one of wonderment.

“I’ve always told people, it’s hard for me to talk about it, that words are only words,” Fazio said. “I always say, ‘Seeing is believing.’ Why don’t you go play it, and then we’ll talk about it. The place is fabulous.”

From the opening tee, where a beckoning par 4 bends gently along the soft-flowing waters of Shadow Creek, one can sense a treat awaits. There’s a terrific variety of holes, and a set of green complexes that demand sharp attention. The par-5 fourth hole doglegs left, and confronts golfers in a gambling town with not one, but two risk/reward wagers: How much to cut off on the tee shot, and whether to go for the protected green in two.

At the ninth, a par 4 that stretches to 460 yards, the omnipotent purplish mountain range and postcard scenery is far more settling than the exam ahead: a creek left, a gaping fairway bunker right and perhaps the most demanding second shot on the course awaiting. The dilemma: Use the antiquated bright red English phone booth near the tee to dial up lunch – or to change into a cape? Shadow Creek’s finish is breathtaking, too, starting to build at the 205-yard 13th, the layout’s most testing par 3. It finishes with a reachable par 5 that matches any craps table for adrenaline rush.

There’s a cloak of mystique at Shadow Creek; the course hosts fewer than 12,000 rounds per year, mostly played by invited high-roller casino guests, and maintains strict policies for play (registered overnight guests at MGM Resorts International properties can tee it up for $500). The guest list always has intrigued, from Clint Eastwood on Day One to late pop icon Michael Jackson dropping in to view the exotic animal life. Bill Clinton, George Clooney and Phil Mickelson have lockers here.

Last month, the 10th Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational came to town; it was historic. For $25, locals not only got to see Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and other celebs, but they finally got inside to see first-hand what all the fuss is about below those treetops one eyes off Losee Road.

“It exceeded expectations,” Brenneman said. “For one week, it didn’t do anything to diminish the mystique here. If anything, there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I saw a lot of smiles.”

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