It's only appropriate that the most talked-about golf course in Las Vegas, Bali Hai, happens to sit directly under one of the flight paths of McCarron International Airport. Sure, it's a little loud and distracting at times, but the symbolism is utterly unavoidable.
On one side of Las Vegas Boulevard, wave upon wave of jumbo jets whisk tourists in from as far away as England, Australia, and Japan, while on the other side sits a course built to resemble the tropical environs of the South Pacific.
What was barren desert wasteland just a few decades ago is now the world's most popular 24-hour playground.
During the daylight portion of those 24 hours, the main outdoor attraction is golf. Not that the casinos are complaining of lost business -- just the contrary. Most of them are affiliated with one or more courses, offering yet another high-end amenity to guests.
And in a city where mega-hotel and casinos are more like mini-theme parks -- New York, New York; the Paris; the Venetian; Caesar's Palace, to name a few -- the golf courses similarly take on themes of their own. If you can think of an idea for a course, chances are it exists, or has been tried, somewhere in Las Vegas.
This opportunity to transport yourself to an ever-expanding variety of playing environments is the greatest strength of Las Vegas golf. It adds up to a golf experience that is a feast for the senses. And in the last five years, an impressive crop of new courses has been unveiled that is a feast for your game as well. Several of the world's leading golf architects have contributed, with more on the way.
Any new course entering the Vegas scene from here on in will have to live up to the standard set by DragonRidge, which opened in May 2000 on a hillside overlooking the valley floor and casino skyline.
An anomaly in a town where glitz gets headlines, DragonRidge's peaceful location and subtle design are a welcome refuge.
Originally built as an exclusive private club, DragonRidge recently announced that it will remain semi-public (a limited number of memberships are still being sold). That is great news for visiting golfers, who will have access to a Jay Morrish/Dave Druzisky masterpiece that rises and falls over boulder-encrusted hills that resemble a black lava moonscape.
The 7,039-yard design has a wonderful rhythm and continuity, with tough holes right where you'd expect them and easier holes just where you need them. Though straying off the fairway means contending with rocks, scrub brush, and rattlesnakes, the landing areas are generally wide and player-friendly.
A fine mix of risk/reward options are highlighted by the short par-four sixth (driveable by long hitters) and the intriguing 10th, where a split fairway offers both aggressive and cautious routes to the punchbowl green.
The greensites at DragonRidge are well-guarded and difficult, and include several shaved collection areas where off-line approaches often end up. The wind is frequently a factor, particularly on the more-exposed front nine.
Tee boxes perched high on the hillsides provide great views of the city and surrounding mountains -- at least until the next wave of palatial mansions comes in.
Even if such housing options are merely a dream, playing a round at DragonRidge can make you feel like a king, if only for a day.
To understand just how much of an undertaking Bali Hai was to build, consider that Las Vegas, with its dry climate and rocky desert floor, isn't exactly an agronomist's dream. Yet, as soon as you enter the gates of this multi million-dollar oasis anchoring the south end of the Las Vegas Strip, it's clear that those concerns were mere trifles in the eyes of Bali Hai's owner, Bill Walters.
Walters has built quite a golf empire in Las Vegas (other courses include Royal Links, Stallion Mountain, and Desert Pines), and a spare-no-expense attitude shows at Bali Hai.
Truckloads of bright white sand, honeysuckle plants, 2,500 palm trees, and large black rocks were all imported to give the place an otherworldly feel.
It succeeds in doing so, even with the Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand casinos looming closely in the distance.
Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley, an Arizona-based design team that has achieved a large presence in Las Vegas, are responsible for the layout at Bali Hai.
It plays 7,015 yards from the tips, but the grass is kept at fairway height to allow a little more room off the tee. The contrast between the bright white sand and the lush green is a visual stunner, while a series of small lakes helps to fortify the challenge.
Across town at Royal Links, Scotland, not the South Pacific, is the desired theme. Royal Links takes its cue from great holes found on British Open venues, including those in the current rota and a few which are no longer used for the championship. Architect Perry Dye made several trips to Great Britain to enhance his knowledge and appreciation of the holes' design and playability.
While not all are exact replicas, knowledgeable golfers will certainly be able to pick out the famous holes that inspired the Royal Links (and if not, there are informative plaques at each tee box that explain the connection).
Awaiting players are 127 sod-walled bunkers, some of which are so deep you'll need to play out sideways. Large, sloping greens and tall grass also characterize the layout.
Ultimately, the 7,029-yard Royal Links is fun to play, especially in the hot desert wind, because the holes are very good approximations of the real thing.
Yet some of the facility's ancillary touches, from the imposing electronic gate at the front entrance to the over-anxious army of bag attendants, $100 forecaddies, and valet parkers, remind you that the true spirit of Scotland is as far away as a cool breeze blowing in off the North Sea.
Rounding out the Walters Golf offerings is the 54-hole Stallion Mountain Country Club and the aptly named Desert Pines. Stallion Mountain is essentially a members' club, but you can play the three courses (Citation, Man O' War, and Secretariat) by staying at one of the facility's area hotel partners.
Desert Pines, also crafted by Perry Dye, is another course where the true Vegas environs seem a world away. Thousands of Carolina pine trees were brought in to enhance an attractive, challenging layout.
Twenty miles southwest of the Strip, in Henderson, sits the pristine Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas Resort and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Reflection Bay Golf Club.
Opened in 1998, the 7,261-yard beauty sits like an emerald necklace of fairways amidst the stark canyon surroundings and waters of Lake Las Vegas.
The thought-provoking layout is hilly, challenging, and nicely routed to take advantage of the site's natural features and eye-catching views. Strategic options were incorporated into several holes, forcing players to think about the placement of their shots rather than simply bomb away with a driver.
The nines are laid out in almost a mirror image, with gentle opening holes rising up the hillside eventually giving way to a two-hole waterfront finish on both the eighth and ninth and 17th and 18th holes.
Though the course carries many of Nicklaus's favorite design elements -- plateau greens, steep-faced bunkers, plenty of mounding -- the wide fairways and few forced carries make it an enjoyable rather than strenuous test. His use of fairway bunkering is superb on holes where they are needed, but he also left them out entirely on holes that are already demanding.
Reflection Bay is the public-access centerpiece of the entire development (the Nicklaus-designed SouthShore Golf Club across the lake is private). But it soon won't be alone.
A new Tom Weiskopf course, scheduled to open in spring 2002, is taking shape near the entrance to the resort on a site marked by mountainous terrain. Along with the luxurious Hyatt hotel that sits prominently on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, the addition of the Weiskopf course will go further in making this resort a destination in itself.
Though all of Las Vegas can officially be considered a boom town, the west side has been slow to see the same growth in golf as other sections of town. The new Siena Golf Club and development should go a long way towards changing that.
The delightful 6,816-yard layout was also done by the Schmidt/Curley duo, yet it has a completely different feel and look than Bali Hai. But that doesn't mean it's any less enjoyable.
Beginning with an opening hole that falls downhill towards the casinos in the distance, it's clear that the visual experience of playing Siena is going to be quite different.
Thanks to copious amounts of grass, even well off the fairways, the feeling here is more like Florida than the desert. Florida, with hills, that is.
Sloping fairways make the course play longer than you think on many holes, and can kick balls into the surprisingly thick rough fairly easily.
Siena has a straightforward design that allows for good scoring, but it is not without its danger zones.
The most common of these are undoubtedly the greenside bunkers. They are impeccably shaped and are a huge presence, both in size, depth, and number. Still, the course doesn't seem like a bear, even though off-line approaches will make for a tough up and down.
Heading north out of Las Vegas, you feel as if you should be traveling in a covered wagon rather than rental car. All of a sudden, the casinos, strip malls, and relative civilization simply stop, with nothing but mountains and barren desert in view.
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The 27-hole facility anchors an expansive community of stucco mini-mansions that signal the growing sprawl of Las Vegas. Luckily, the course's northern boundary is bordered by protected parkland, so architect Robert Cupp smartly routed many of the holes so that this unspoiled horizon could be used as a backdrop.
The three nines at Silverstone can be played in any combination, and the holes are an intelligent collection of short, gambler's par fours mixed in with long par fives and tricky par threes.
The fairways are lined by a series of mounds, small, deep bunkers, and very few trees, which can make it tricky to score when the wind is howling. A wide drainage channel zigzags through the layout.
Twenty minutes past Silverstone is the far-flung but charming Las Vegas Paiute Resort, with 36 holes built by Pete Dye on the grounds of the Paiute Indian Reservation.
One more course is on the way (see "New & Noteworthy" sidebar), making it the only 54-hole public-access facility in Las Vegas. Plans are also in the works for accommodations on site.
Dye made waves in 1995 with the opening of the Nu-Wav Kaiv ("Snow Mountain") course at Paiute. Wide fairways, gentle bunkering, and large greens -- this couldn't really be the same Pete Dye responsible for tracks like PGA West's Stadium or the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, could it?
The fact is, Dye showed his versatility when he created Paiute, responding to the fact that the course sits in a wind tunnel created by surrounding mountain ranges, and was built to accommodate visiting public play.
Though four large ponds come into play, the 7,146-yard Snow Mountain allows plenty of chances to score. Not to say it's a pushover. Fairway mounds kick drives into the rough every so often, and Dye's characteristic railroad-tie bunkering appear on a few choice holes.
The follow-up to Snow Mountain was Tav-Ai Kaiv ("Sun Mountain"), a 7,112-yard layout that has many similar traits to its predecessor but typically plays a few shots harder.
Though there is less water, there are more bunkers on Sun Mountain, and the fact that they are often clustered near the greens ensures you'll find your share of them. Risk-reward options abound, especially on the split fairway of the 365-yard 15th hole.
The twosome at Paiute complement each other perfectly, a situation we hope will continue as Paiute expands its golf offerings in the future.
Two courses south of town in the foothills of the Black Mountain Range offer contrasting styles despite their close proximity.
The first, Rio Secco Golf Club, is essentially a private club that allows limited public access to guests staying at the Rio Hotel & Casino 15 minutes away. It's worth making those room reservations for the chance to play this uncrowded, immaculately kept beauty that winds through and across rock-encrusted canyons.
Rees Jones's layout at Rio Secco measures a daunting 7,332 yards from the tips, and the estimable Jones pulled out all the stops to ensure Rio Secco plays tough but fair. Instead of forcing golfers to carry their shots over the canyons, Jones routed the front nine along the canyon's fault lines, creating fairways that extend through dramatic natural amphitheaters of rock and desert scrub. Bring your camera when playing late in the day, as the afternoon light gives a red glow off the rocks.
The back nine rises onto the property's highest points and lays out across the tops of the canyons, bringing the ever-present wind more into play.
Rio Secco is also home to the Butch Harmon School of Golf, so if you happen to play there the week before a major, don't be surprised to see Tiger pounding balls on the expansive practice range, under the watchful eye of his teacher.
The Revere at Anthem, designed by Billy Casper and Greg Nash, opened in 1999 and stretches to 7,143 fun-filled yards. This roller coaster of a course bobs and weaves across rugged terrain, with a few blind shots that help make it a challenging test.
Holes 16 through 18 provide a thrilling finish. Beginning with the 534-yard 16th, the holes play uphill to the huge clubhouse, so save some energy if you want to close out the round in style.
A pond and stream guard the green at the 166-yard 17th, whose green slopes steeply toward the water. The 431-yard 18th is a classic finale marked by bunkers on both sides and an approach shot that plays dead into the prevailing wind. The hilltop pond and clubhouse is the source for the many calming waterfalls that cascade behind the greens.
You may be someone who never thought about going to Las Vegas for golf. If so, you're not alone.
But those old assumptions have fallen by the wayside, as course developers respond to demand with layouts that are light years ahead of what was found here just 10 years ago.
Discovering the jackpot of high-quality courses feels like suddenly finding yourself up $1,000 at the poker tables -- except this run looks like it might last a little bit longer.