It's always been a pit stop, but now Mesquite gives you plenty of reasons (and courses) to stay

It’s always been a pit stop, but now Mesquite gives you plenty of reasons (and courses) to stay

Falcon Ridge in Mesquite, Nev.
Brian G. Oar/Fairways Photgraphy LLC

MESQUITE, Nev. — This town has always been a pit stop.

Pioneers stopped here because the Virgin River meandered past, and water was life in the late 1800s, when settlers first tried to live off this land.

Mesquite, 90 miles slightly northeast of Las Vegas, is a different kind of pit stop now. A river still runs through it. So does I-15.

A quiet little village of 1,871 residents as recently as 1990, Mesquite now has more than 15,000 and is gaining popularity as a retirement area.

It has multiple stoplights. It has two exits on I-15. It has several major casinos, assorted hotels, a cartel of nine area golf courses, booming housing subdivisions under construction and even its own giant Wal-Mart. It’s home to the annual ReMax World Long Drive Championship, which is contested on a grid built into the side of the picturesque, salmon-colored mesa wall that highlights this stark but beautiful valley.

Golf and gaming and entertainment and quality of life are what Mesquite is all about. Since Las Vegas went upscale, Mesquite has taken over as a destination where everything is affordable, from the gambling (penny slots are alive and well) to the hotels (no glorified theme parks here) to the golf (especially when compared to the pricier Vegas greens fees).

Here’s the part you’ll care about — the golf courses are spectacular. There is no other word for them. I haven’t toured the whole nine-course circuit that makes up the marketing group known as Golf Mesquite, but I played four tracks in four days. They’re worth the trip and frequently camera-worthy.

My first stop was the Coyote Springs Golf Club, about 45 minutes from Mesquite. I wrote about this Jack Nicklaus design for when it first opened two years ago, and I’ve been waiting for a return trip.

This is one of my favorite spots in golf. It’s not just the course, which has a bit of a Rube Goldberg feel because of the many slopes that allow you to play bank shots (can you say ground-hook?) and funhouse greens. Whether you think the greens are riotous fun or semi-unplayable may depend upon where you putt from, but hey, nobody stays away from Augusta National and Oakmont because the greens have too much slope. These putting surfaces are wisely kept at speeds well below those iconic courses. They’re very playable; they’re just not easy.

The reason I’m partial to Coyote Springs is the setting. I haven’t seen another course this remote or this quiet. There are mountain views in every direction, and the sprawling valley is barren, stunning and majestic. Best of all, the golfer selfishly said, the housing development that was supposed to help create a city of up to a quarter-million residents crashed with the recession. They built this course first, as a selling point for the homes. There’s a water treatment plant and a recreation center and a golf shop. That’s about it. Big Sky plus Big Empty equals Big Awesome. This spot always reminds me of that old America tune: “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…”

It is so silent on the course that when the occasional patrolling hawk screeches or a breeze rustles or a prairie dog skitters across the pea gravel, the noise is startling. You’ll feel like you’re playing your own private course.

The course has a waterfall. Normally, desert-course waterfalls are one of my pet peeves. Why not just put in an igloo while you’re at it? I’m making an exception for this one because it’s so well done, more of a long spillway. The water has a turquoise shade normally reserved for South Pacific islands. Plus, you get to drive your cart over it. I’m hereby shortening my official pet peeves list.

I’ll take the fourth hole as my favorite, a lengthy par 4 that bends right. You tee off across a pond — not a problem if you can get the ball airborne at all. There’s desert wash along the right side, and from the tee you’re staring at a gaping set of bunkers on the right corner, which is the aiming point. The more you bail left, the harder this hole gets. You’ve got to suck it up and hit a shot. On my first trip two years ago, I pushed a tee shot right and caught a narrow strip of rough between the bunkers and the desert — sort of a Hogan’s Alley thing. (I couldn’t repeat that shot with a hundred tries, so I don’t recommend it.) It’s just a daunting, good-looking hole, pretty much like the other 17.

Don’t skip this course because it’s out of the way. That’s actually the best part about it.

The next stop, and the first round of a media tournament I was playing in, was Falcon Ridge. It’s built into some natural red cliffs, has great views and is right near the popular Wal-Mart. One hole I can’t wait to play again was the first hole I faced in the shotgun start — the par-5 16th, 549 yards. The temperature was in the low 40s, and the wind was blowing in the low 30s. It stung.

Anyway, the 16th is a scary hole in that wind. For one thing, you can’t see where you’re going. Cliffs drop off to the left, and cliffs tower above the fairway on the right, which makes a sort of safety net, like a handball wall. The fairway drops off from the tee, then rises to a crest where a black-and-white striped stake indicates where you should aim your drive. Into the wind, our scramble foursome (their names have been withheld due to litigation regarding our lousy performance… but I’m not bitter) barely managed a drive to the stake. From there, it’s a blind shot over the crest and downhill to the green.

With the wind howling into our faces and the ground firm, it was a tough shot. Several of us hit what we thought were pretty good layups. It turns out that down near the green, anything on the right edge of the fairway bounces hard right–toward the cart path and, just past that, down a 60-foot slope to some homes. Oops. That falls under the category of Information We Could’ve Used Sooner.

The downhill slope on the second half of the hole makes it an easily reachable par 5, but with a strong element of risk. I think it may actually be a pretty terrific hole now that I know where it goes. But that wasn’t what I was thinking while we butchered it as a group. No, I was thinking, “Hand warmers!”

The next hole was another attention getter. Luckily, the tournament rules indicated that my handicap (0) meant I had to play from the black tees (the tips). So I was the only player in my foursome who got to enjoy the wonderfully elevated tee on the 232-yard, par-3 17th, straight into a freezing gale. A long, drawn-out Y-shaped bunker guarded the front of the green. It was so cold and windy that I choked up an inch and hit driver off the tee. Now that’s a manly par 3. I got it pin-high left, not bad, but the man we called Dave (not his real name–or is it?) got one on the right fringe from the closer tee and we played that.

The 18th was a hole I’d seen from the road driving to the course. It looked scary then, and it was scarier on the tee. The fairway was separated into three stairstep tiers — left, right and center — as the hole climbs a steep hill toward the clubhouse atop the cliffs. This, too, was into the wind and played laughably, ridiculously long. There is a pond right of the green, too. Our play on this hole resembled something from Bataan until the man we called Ed holed an absurd downhill, big-swinging putt from off the green that hit the pin like a speeding locomotive and dropped in for a sweet net birdie.

Three holes played, three holes I’m not likely to forget. That’s all you need to know about Falcon Ridge. It is a collection of memorable holes up, down and around the red cliffs. I can’t wait for a rematch.

Round two of the media tournament moved to St. George, Utah. It was a 40-minute ride to the next course, Coral Canyon, and the road from Mesquite to St. George ranks with America’s most scenic drives, wandering through a massive gorge that had me humming the Indiana Jones theme while my Sports Illustrated colleague John Garrity gawked in amazement as he drove the car. He was amazed by the scenery — not my crappy humming. How cool is this drive? Others have shot videos of their ride through the area and posted them on YouTube.

Coral Canyon is a relatively flat course nestled among the red rocks north of St. George, a popular retirement area that has a population of around 150,000. To reach the Coral Canyon entrance, Garrity maneuvered the car past some sort of office-warehouse layout whose side streets, he noticed, featured unique names–Bowling Alley, Alley McBeal and Alley McGraw. There was no Kirstie Alley, Garrity noted.

Coral Canyon was one good hole after another. The underrated Keith Foster designed it. There aren’t many courses you play where you don’t stand on at least one tee and wonder, “What the hell?” Coral Canyon is one of them.

It’s a scenic spot. The mountains to the north were snow-capped and photogenic when seen across a sprawling valley filled with homes. The only flaw in the picture was the busy expressway in the distance, where double-trailer trucks often passed each other, which was entertaining in its own way. Coral Canyon was the course Garrity and I voted as the one we’d most like to play every day for the rest of our lives. We reached that conclusion even before we played our final hole in the shotgun outing, the par-3 sixth. It must be Coral Canyon’s signature hole, a shortish 122 yards from the blue tees to a small green encircled by a rugged collection of red rock formations. With the sun low in the sky, it was a postcard waiting for a stamp. Wow is the appropriate word.

The Conestoga Golf Club, located back in Mesquite in the hills near the long drive grid, may be the most spectacular layout of the four. After four holes, the foursome in front of my group was three holes behind the group ahead of them. After they left the first green, my group hit four approach shots, two chip shots and putted out. When we got to the next tee, two women in the group ahead still hadn’t teed off. It had to be camera-related. Most of Conestoga’s front nine begs to be photographed.

This course is a trip. The front nine winds up and down and around rock formations and arroyos, almost a lunar-like landscape. It’s like playing golf on the moon, but with full gravity.

The second hole is, indeed, something to behold. It’s 162 yards from the gold tee and pretty much straight down, a 100-foot drop to a postage-stamp green. I won a closest-to-the-pin contest there with a well-struck pitching wedge, but it’s all about picking the right club, which is a total guess the first time you play it.

Conestoga’s front nine is a series of eye-poppers. The sixth hole is a winding par 5 that requires carrying a ravine-like wash twice, with a right side bordered by huge foothills. The fourth is a medium-length par 4, but the tee shot is blind. If you’ve played it before, you’ll know you can smash a driver and carry 237 yards over a wash to leave yourself a pitch to the green. If you haven’t, you’re likely to timidly lay up with a 200-yard shot to the end of the fairway, which is atop a 50-foot plateau and leaves you with a 170-yard approach to a green guarded by a deep bunker left and a rock wall in back. This hole should come with a tour guide.

The seventh is another fun hole, a drivable par 4 (286 from the gold) that’s blind. All you can see are a couple of deep bunkers in the distance. They’re well short of the green but provide visual intimidation. I invoked the I-didn’t-come-2,000-miles-to-lay-up rule and hit driver, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover I was on the green and putting for eagle.

Like Falcon Ridge, Conestoga has spectacular holes. A second round, once you know where you’re going, would help your comfort factor and your enjoyment level.

The back nine is pretty good, too, but plays through some sections of housing and past some areas where they’re putting in foundations for more homes. The views aren’t as stunning on the second nine–how could they be?–but the holes are fun and, from the back tees, more challenge than you probably need.

Four days here equaled four days of spectacular golf. I wasn’t expecting anything this good. It was a nice surprise and an eye-opener. Mesquite is a totally legit golf destination, one of the better ones, in fact, and I haven’t even finished the whole circuit yet. Sand Hollow in St. George looks terrific, and Wolf Creek in Mesquite is rumored to be as good as any course here.

Damn. Guess I’m going to have to come back next year for another pit stop.