Is the mystique of Shadow Creek worth its high-roller price tag?

October 26, 2012

What happens at Shadow Creek stays at Shadow Creek.

That's the unwritten rule at this hush-hush desert hangout, prime migration grounds for Las Vegas whales and Michael Jordan's home away from home.

Officially, of course, the Tom Fazio design is public access and has been since it opened in 1989, with greens fees pegged at $1,000 (the price has since been slashed in half). But more than two decades later, the course remains willfully under-the-radar, the golf world's answer to Area 51.

To land a tee time, you not only have to cough up $500 (that includes limo transport to and from the Strip but not the caddie whom you're required to take), you also have to be a guest at an MGM-owned hotel. If your name isn't, say, George W. Bush or Justin Timberlake, play is limited to Monday through Thursday. And even then there's the chance you'll be bumped by a bigwig, someone with the clout to claim the whole joint to himself.

(Related Story: Travelin' Joe's Las Vegas trip guide)

A former Shadow Creek employee once told me that the club often uses the VIP excuse to keep pesky members of the media at bay.

"Sorry, we'd love to have you," the line goes. "But we've got this high-profile guy in town…"

On my recent trip to Vegas to check out Shadow Creek, I lucked out. Bill Clinton and his ilk must have been playing elsewhere, because no one called last-minute to tell me I'd been trumped. It probably helped that the Strip was quiet, engulfed as it still was in summer-like weather, with temperatures surging into triple digits. Nor did it hurt that I'd agreed to play at daybreak, when most Vegas high rollers were just bedding down.

At the appointed hour, up rolled my limo outside the Aria Resort & Casino, and off we went, on a 15-minute drive through suburban sprawl. The first thing that strikes you when you get to Shadow Creek, the ultimate Vegas golf course, is how unlike Vegas it is. In contrast to Cascata, its high-roller rival, whose clubhouse has a waterfall running through it, Shadow Creek goes for understatement. No outlandish architecture. No garish themes. A gated access road, shaded and serene, winds toward a clubhouse whose wood-paneled siding, with green trim, calls to mind Butler Cabin more than anything else.

(Related List: Top 100 Courses You Can Play)

Among golf-architecture geeks, the knock on Tom Fazio is artistic sameness: very pretty courses with paint-by-numbers trappings that cause them to blur together in your mind. Play Shadow Creek, with its big, beautiful doglegs blending one into the other, and you understand that gripe. But mostly what you do is marvel at the setting — a giant man-made dug-out in the Nevada desert, split by creeks, dotted with lakes and populated with thousands of imported trees: an engineering feat of such magnitude, it's been called the seventh wonder of the golfing world.

Fazio may have moved a planet's worth of earth, but he didn't move that earth into goofy places. The fairways have an easy, natural lilt, and there's nothing silly in the contour of the greens. The false fronts here appear less doctored than many you encounter along the Strip. Even the man-made waterfalls could pass for natural wellsprings. Take the cataract that flows behind the par-3 17th. It could pass for run-off from the Sheep Mountain Range, which frames the green on the horizon.

Not that the club really cares about my take. No public-access course in the United States — not Pebble, not Pinehurst — is so immune to the court of public opinion. At least, no other acts so self-assured. Mark Brenneman, Shadow Creek's director of golf, says that he and his staff ignore the rankings (for the record, the course rates 17th on GOLF Magazine's list of top 100 you can play ). Better, they feel, to be left alone.

"We're honestly not trying to attract attention," Brenneman says. "It's actually the opposite. My feeling is that the spouting whale gets the harpoon."

True to that motto, Shadow Creek doesn't advertise. Looking for photographs of the course is like searching for snapshots of J.D. Salinger. They don't sell yardage books as mementos, and because the layout has no slope rating, you can't post a score after your round.

(Related Story: Tiger breaks ground on course in Mexico)

All of which, of course, is its own kind of advertising: the lower your profile, the greater your mystique. But here's the real question: is it worth it? In almost any context, $500 is too much to pay for golf. But it's also what you'll spend in a few bad hours of blackjack. Besides, this is Vegas, where, unless you're paying residents' rates, you're dealing with notoriously terrible golf value. Within minutes of the Strip, you can easily drop $250-plus on rounds on awful, tricked-up courses that fade from recollection the instant you putt out on 18.

Shadow Creek is different. No, I can't play back the entire routing, yet the surreal experience of being there lingers.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but not your memories of a bucket-list round.