The Chase at the PGA Golf Club Coyote Springs: A Jack Nicklaus design in the middle of a city on hold

The Chase at the PGA Golf Club Coyote Springs: A Jack Nicklaus design in the middle of a city on hold

No. 6 at Coyote Springs.
Lonna Tucker

COYOTE SPRINGS, Nev. — Ignore this dateline. There is no Coyote Springs, Nev. Not yet, anyway.

Oh, there’s a nice cluster of planted palm trees and an entrance wall emblazoned with the Coyote Springs name. There’s a golf course, a sprawling Jack Nicklaus design that is every bit as difficult as it is spectacular. There is a stark, empty desert valley flanked by majestic mountains — the Sheep Mountain Range in one direction and the tilted gray limestone bands of the Arrow Canyon Range in another.

But there is no Coyote Springs. At this point, it is simply a grandiose dream. If all goes according to the master plan over the next half-century, Coyote Springs could have almost 160,000 homes, six golf courses (it is zoned for as many as 16) and a population in excess of a quarter-million. All this in a remote, uninhabited wilderness 50 miles north of Las Vegas. (I’m told that it’s not that far from Area 51, the suspected home of captured alien spacecraft and little green whatnots.)

Coyote Springs is a real-world SimCity, a metropolis made from scratch. But the Great Recession has this city of the future on hold. Harvey Whittemore, a former lobbyist from Reno and a friend of Sen. Harry Reid, is the developer behind this massive project, and he still intends to make it happen. At the moment, though, Coyote Springs consists of a few temporary golf course structures, a sewage treatment plant, some graded lots and the frame of the town recreation center. (That should be a lot more fun when there’s a town to go with it.)

How remote is this place? Everything at the golf course is powered by diesel generators.

It doesn’t matter whether Coyote Springs is a visionary idea on the order of the original Vegas or a giant mistake in the desert. What matters is the golf course, christened The Chase, the first track at the PGA Golf Club Coyote Springs. (A second course, a collaboration between Nicklaus and Pete Dye, has been routed but not begun.) A marketing expert would say the name should have been more descriptive and less corporate. Maybe End of the World Golf Club or The Links at the Middle of Nowhere. Better yet, Area 51 Country Club.

Then the name would match the uniqueness of the course. No words arranged by me can paint the epic sweep and isolation of The Chase. Beneath big sky, the course is barren, breathtaking and beautiful. During my first round there, I watched mottled gray clouds pour over edges of the Sheep Mountains like angry, buzzing bees. What resembled sheer, gray lace curtains shimmering across the peaks were waves of rain showers, but we were across the valley floor and only a few scattered droplets dared reach our foursome. There’s a reason this place is a desert, after all.

When I returned the next morning for an encore round before I flew back to Pittsburgh — ahh, Gray Sky Country — I was met by bright sunshine, postcard views and assorted bouncing (meep-meep) roadrunners.

A golf course should be judged on its merit, and The Chase has plenty. But the panorama here is so big and the desert so hauntingly quiet that the setting is hypnotic. This is more than just a golf course; it’s a golf experience. When the homes start going up, whether that’s 18 months or five years from now, they’ll go up en masse and the Jeremiah Johnson-like wilderness feeling you get now will be lost. The remoteness helps makes The Chase special. It’s a daily-fee course that feels like your own private desert.

It’s a feeling that builds on the drive from Vegas. It’s only 50 minutes from downtown (a little applause, please, for the 75 mph speed limit), and by the time you exit onto Hwy. 93, you’ve passed the last signs of civilization — a quarry operation and a huge power station. Then you’re on a lightly trafficked two-lane road that stepped out of a romanticized car commercial, a piece of unswerving pavement that goes straight to the horizon and beyond.

You pass scrubby, disheveled desert flanked by mesmerizing mountains on the left. They appear to have been sculpted with Indian designs but no, that’s just the handiwork of nature, the wear and tear of thousands of years of wind and occasional rain. Beautiful.

The distant hills get closer only very, very slowly. This is big country. Westerners are used to it. Us flatlanders can’t help but marvel.

Warming up on the practice range with my designated foursome, which included club pro Michael Sizemore, a big guy who was a big hitter even with a couple of herniated back discs, I suggested the new-city idea be junked. Leave this place just as it is, I said, it’s perfect. He understood but judged me guilty of felonious wishful thinking.

The remote location and the modest stream of visiting golfers give the feeling of playing at an exclusive private club. The secluded setting is so appealing that some of your favorite poker stars tee it up here on a regular basis — Erick Lindgren and Daniel Negreanu, among others. Lindgren booked the course for a whole day last August for a birthday party. Not surprisingly, golfaholic Michael Jordan has played here, a sentence that has become the 21st century equivalent of “George Washington slept here.”

When I finished my second round, Sizemore glanced at the lineup of SUV’s in the tiny parking lot and announced, “I see the poker boys made it out again today.”

It is a course you should discover for yourself, so consider this a spoiler alert. The Chase is remarkably playable, even from the back tees at 7,471 yards, because the desert air is thin and the ball rolls forever on the firm, dry turf. Length isn’t a problem. Also, Nicklaus wisely provided some of the widest desert fairways you’ll ever see. Driving the ball here is a joy. Except maybe at the ninth hole, a bending par-4 with rocks and water down the left side. There are big bunkers, like coffee spills, on each side of the fairway and another in the middle. I’m not a big fan of bunkers in fairways since I have this crazy idea that the middle of the fairway is where I’m supposed to aim, but maybe I’m just bitter because I hit into this one. (I still salvaged a par.)

Without trees, desert courses need bunkers for definition. The Chase isn’t over-bunkered, by that definition, merely very well-defined. The greens are a riot. Nicklaus drew criticism for the undulating greens he designed for Dove Mountain in Tucson, the resort course that hosted this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. He pushed the greens almost as far at The Chase.

However, he atoned for the difficult putting slopes by providing options. That is, he recreated shot values from the pages of links golf. This isn’t a links course, obviously, since there’s no handy sea. Yet I can think of few courses in America where you can play as many shots along the ground.

The eighth hole, for instance, is a dramatic 233-yard par 3 guarded by a pond. If you don’t carry the steep bank fronting the green, your ball will go bounding down the slope into the water. I speak from experience. Nicklaus offers a less daunting option, though. Aim just left of the green and the slope will kick your ball dead right and onto the green. That’s right, you can hit the green by missing the green. It’s downright Scottish.

The Chase is full of similar bank shots, backboards and angles you can play if you’re not in the mood for forced-carry target golf. It can be a lot of fun if you know where the secret places are. That’s why you need a good forecaddie, a requirement at The Chase. (Ask for Thomas. I made an unforgivable number of putts thanks to his green-reading skills.)

At the 13th hole, assuming you miss the big fairway bunker (Lighten up, Jack!), there is no need to challenge the gaping trap guarding the front of the green. You can run a shot around it on the raised right side and the ball feeds back to the middle of the green like some kind of pinball game. It’s an especially good play if the wind is howling, not uncommon out here in the wild, wide-open West.

The best-looking hole may be the fourth. You start on an elevated tee, and the fairway curves to the right around a massive bunker. A narrow swath of turf, just big enough for a golf cart, separates the bunker from the adjacent ball-eating desert. It’s Hogan’s Alley for The Chase. I’ll buy you dinner if you can hit that little walkway from the tee, although there is no sane reason to try given the acres of fairway to the left. It would be a cliche to dub this a manly hole, so I’ll call it womanly — as strong as it has to be and smarter than you. From the tips, it was a driver and a 6-iron. From the blue tees, it was a reasonable driver and a 9-iron.

The nastiest hole would be the 14th, a 450-yard par 4, sharp dogleg left between a couple of mounds that line up like a gunsight. Then you’ve got a long iron approach uphill. (Or, all you can hit and then some when facing a gusting 40-mile-per-hour wind, as we did the first day.) This is the one green on the course that needs to be blown up. How to describe this putting complex? Hmm, picture Baby Godzilla dropping dead on a freeway off-ramp and then being covered with dirt and grass. It’s a great green for a video game but over the top for non-virtual beings.

The finishing hole isn’t a grand finale, just scary. It falls away from the tee and you’ve got to carry a pond and a line of fairway bunkers. The fairway looks unreachable and tiny. In fact, it is reachable and roomy. From there, you’ve got a short iron to a green that is divided by what could be a pair of buried station wagons.

One thing you should know: you are not going to buzz around The Chase in three hours. The course is big, stretched out, heavily bunkered and surrounded by desert. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to look for balls in the rocks, trudge out of bunkers and putt frequently. The pace of play can’t be rapid. Thank Mr. Nicklaus for that. The scenery is so stunning, though, that you won’t be in a hurry to leave.

Speaking of that, it seems like it takes only half as long to get back to Vegas from The Chase. It’s a phenomenon. As we drove back at dusk, the mountains faded into the twilight and slowly disappeared as the lights of the power station signaled a return to civilization. Across a wide valley a few miles later, the distinctive Vegas skyline twinkled like a sophomore’s fantasy.

I’m going back to Coyote Springs as soon as I can fit it into my schedule. As a selfish golfer (a redundant phrase, obviously), I like this oasis just as it is, so I have a message for the builders of this city of the future: Take your time, fellas. There’s no rush, no rush at all.