As we come to the close of 2014, I have a new No. 1 on my bucket list of courses to play: Shadow Creek. The “it” course of the 1990s was hotelier Steve Wynn’s vision and architect Tom Fazio’s execution. When it debuted in 1990, there was no course anywhere, private or public, where an invitation was so coveted.
Hewn from a poker table-flat, lifeless plot of desert in North Las Vegas, Nev., 30 minutes from The Strip, Shadow Creek retains an air of mystery. No longer cloaked in secrecy, but still a tough “get,” the course is technically public, because it’s open to anyone — anyone that spends sufficient coin in the MGM/Mirage casinos.
If you happen to be a past or present U.S. president, own a few gold records or perhaps wear an NBA Championship ring, you can also find your name on the tee sheet. In fact, President Obama played here with Derek Jeter a few weeks ago. Yes, it’s “public,” currently ranking No. 18 on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play, but it’s not terribly accessible. Trust me. I’ve tried.
The rumors, whispers and stories from Day 1 were legendary. In those days, you had to be personally invited by then-owner Steve Wynn. Exotic animals roamed the grounds. Sitting presidents were turned away. There was no phone listing, no photos, no slope or course rating. The restaurant and bar menu had no prices. Guests simply helped themselves to whatever they wanted.
Eventually, in March 2000, Wynn was divested of his Mirage holdings and he was forced to hand over Shadow Creek to new owners MGM. The mystique changed forever, but the course itself remains the same.
Tom Fazio once stated if a designer has the money and the imagination, there’s nothing he can’t do. What Fazio and Wynn did still seems unimaginable. Where there was once flat, featureless desert, there appeared a Hollywood set come to life, complete with rolling terrain, thousands of pines, bursts of flowers and a network of creeks and lakes. From what I’ve read and heard, the 564-yard, par-5 18th illuminates Shadow Creek’s virtues perfectly. From an elevated tee, the ambitious player will contend with a water carry on both shots via a series of three lakes separated by waterfalls. Choose the three-shot route and you still must fly over water to a long, narrow green surrounded by grassy hills, pine trees, mountains and flowers. Desert? What desert?
I was invited to play there in 1990 — then uninvited by a hostile general manager, who was later fired. Next, architect Gary Panks invited me to come along, with his design partner David Graham, but I had a conflict and couldn’t go. Tom Fazio’s associate Andy Banfield invited me up, but my sister was getting married that weekend. No go.
In 1993, Steve Wynn’s brother Kenny invited me to play. He had read a story I had written and told me he thought I would appreciate their golf course. I finally took him up on the offer, calling him back — in March 2000 just as Wynn was losing the course.
At long last, in 2005, I thought I finally had nailed it. I signed on to do a story on MGM entertainer Danny Gans. Mark Brenneman, the Shadow Creek GM, was able to slot a tee time for me. We arranged for a car pickup at the MGM, because you have to stay at an MGM/Mirage property to play Shadow Creek. They send a limo for you.
Brenneman rang my house in Phoenix, two days before I was to come up and told me, “I’m afraid your bad luck continues. We’ve had to clear the course that day.” Clear the course? What the heck did that mean? Do they do that at Augusta National or Cypress Point? Doubtful. What was certain, however, was that I did not get to play Shadow Creek. There were no forthcoming details about the “course clearing.” Who? Why? And there were no more invitations to play Shadow Creek.
Part of me wants to write off Shadow Creek for good. I’ve played the Top-25 ranked courses in the world. Another part of me remains curious, nearly 25 years later, on what all the fuss was about.
I’m not a big bettor, but I’ll wager that I’m going to get back to Las Vegas before long. Shadow Creek, I’m eyeing you.