Travelin' Joe's Guide to Las Vegas Golf Courses

"Ching Ching Ca-CHING!" Ah, there's nothing like the sound of cash money, and there's nowhere else it echoes with more enthusiasm than in Las Vegas, Nev., America's entertainment capital. These days, however, the reverberations of cash drawers and clanking coins aren't quite so deafening, yet even in a down economy, Las Vegas remains a premier playground in the U.S. — and that applies to golfers as well as slot jockeys.

At long last, Vegas has beaten the odds and joined the inner circle of outstanding desert golf destinations. It can't quite match Arizona or Palm Springs for sheer quantity, but where quality is concerned, Vegas golf can hold its head high. The last word, naturally, comes from David Feherty, who sagely observes, "The value for your money in Vegas is extraordinary, because when you're on the golf course, you're only losing two, three hundred bucks in a 6-hour period, which isn't bad."

What's New in Town
As with many major resort destinations in the U.S., Las Vegas has witnessed new course construction hit a brick wall. Nonetheless, there's a flurry, if not a storm, of activity these days. Most notably, Vegas' gold standard track, Shadow Creek, re-opened in mid-December, following a 7-month shutdown for maintenance work and some minor design tweaks by original architect Tom Fazio. New bentgrass greens, trees trimmed back to open up long-lost vistas and the addition of 321 yards to the tips were among the changes.

On the downside, The Falls at Lake Las Vegas Resort, a 7-year-old wild ride through the desert, courtesy of Tom Weiskopf, is facing an uncertain future, due to the bankruptcy of the resort itself. Closure is imminent — so if you're entertaining any thoughts of playing it, call ahead.

The newest Las Vegas-area layout is a superb, if awkwardly named Jack Nicklaus design called The Chase at PGA Golf Club Coyote Springs. Opened in May 2008, the Chase caught GOLF Magazine's No. 4 ranking in the Top 10 New Courses You Can Play. The experience starts with a lonely 50-minute ride up U.S. 93 through barren, if eerily attractive desert. If you continue straight instead of turning right where 93 meets State Route 168, you're headed straight towards the U.S. Air Force's highly secretive Area 51. There's nothing quite so mysterious about the Chase. This is a wonderfully low-key design, with fast, undulating greens, an army of strategically deployed tattered-edge bunkers and just enough bells and whistles in the form of lakes, waterfalls and mountain views to lure potential homebuyers to the new PGA Village at Coyote Springs.

My favorite marketing gambit comes from OB Sports Golf Management, which makes available a pair of motorcoaches to take groups from Strip hotels right to its three area courses, Angel Park, The Legacy and Aliante. Given the price of cab fares — and multiple cabs — and the hassle of rental cars in this traffic-choked city, the motorcoach shuttle is the rock star's way to travel — with the band along for the ride.

"Most improved" goes to Bali Hai, a Walters Golf facility that boasts incredible access to the Strip and to the Airport, as well as Cili, the best golf course restaurant around. What's new, however, is a superintendent that's figured out how to keep the grass green, while making the turf play much firmer and faster than ever before, thus vastly increasing shot options and short-game skills required.

There's plenty of on-going construction on the Strip, but you'll have to stay tuned and monitor economic realities as to if and when these projects will come online. The newest lodging experience in the vicinity is the Aliante Station Casino + Hotelin North Las Vegas that opened November 11, 2008. The 202-room hotel sports a 700-seat showroom and is next door to the enjoyable Gary Panks-designed Aliante Golf Club.

The Trophy Collection
If you're a serious course connoisseur — or just a big winner at the tables — Shadow Creek, Cascata and Wynn Las Vegas are in a $500 league by themselves. Perhaps Shadow Creek no longer has the mystique it enjoyed when it was next-to-impossible to get onto, but the course is still one of the nation's best. In contrast to the lush, almost Carolinas-like atmosphere that Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn created at Shadow Creek, Cascata is draped dramatically across stark mountain slopes and soars 3,200 feet above the desert valley. Tour-quality caddies, Bighorn sheep sightings and a river that runs through the clubhouse are among the attractions, as is the current Sunday through Thursday rate of $350, for you bargain-hunters. Wynn Las Vegas is open only to guests of Steve Wynn's eponymous hotel and with the first tee just steps from the lobby, there's no question this is Sin City's most convenient great golf experience. Just how great the design really is spurs debate, but what's undeniable is that its oasis-in-the-desert ambiance with its only-in-Vegas landscaping and water features makes it a must-play.

Best of the Rest
Angel Park is the most versatile facility in town, with two mostly affordable, reasonably challenging Arnold Palmer-designed 18s, along with the Cloud Nine Short Course and an 18-hole, all-grass putting course, both of which are lighted for night play. Testifies comedian George Lopez, a frequent Vegas golfer, "I think Angel Park is great. You don't have to have waterfalls to have a good time."

Perhaps Las Vegas' most distinctive course is Royal Links, where architect Perry Dye fashioned 18 holes that pay homage to holes found on British Open courses, such as Troon's "Postage Stamp" and St. Andrews' Road Hole, with plaques on each tee box to educate as well as entertain. The faux-castle clubhouse serves up that ubiquitous Scottish treat — the hot dog — that is not to be missed. It's big, it's grilled and it comes on a seasoned, buttered bun. Says Mr. Feherty, "You go out there and if you close your eyes and forget that you really came here for the slot machines — you can really believe that on a cool day, maybe that you're floating around Scotland. I mean hell, they've got pirates, they've got the Eiffel Tower, they've got the pyramids ... Why the hell shouldn't you be in Scotland, and if you're in Scotland, you should be on a golf course."

Rio Secco is a Rees Jones design with perfect greens and a stunning back nine through desert canyons. Perfect and stunning also describes Vegas resident Natalie Gulbis, who you might see at Rio Secco from time to time on the practice tee at Butch Harmon's Golf School. Just take a right-hand turn after the first hole for a potential glimpse of paradise.

Las Vegas Paiute Resort boasts three wind-blown Pete Dye designs that are free of homes and invariably in superb condition, but the highlight of the round could be the post-round beverage in the handsome clubhouse, where giant floor-to-ceiling picture windows let you gaze across the desert floor clear out to the mountains.

Southern Highlands is a very private Robert Trent Jones Sr./Jr. collaboration that's studded with massive bunkers, but you should try to talk your way in just to check out the palatial clubhouse.

Finally, Badlands truly polarizes players with several cramped, lay-up holes, but it also tosses out several memorable examples of dramatic, forced-carry, desert target golf, a surprisingly rare commodity in Las Vegas. Shock-rock golfer Alice Cooper, who plays off a 5 handicap, smiles when he recalls this 27-holer, designed by his pal Johnny Miller and says "If you want to get beat up, Badlands can take care of that for you."

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