Before folks in Las Vegas offered up the $1,000 round of golf, I refused to be sucked in by any suggestion that this might be a place to tee it up. Before the $1,000 round, I relegated any notion that this might be a "golf destination" to the same dark corner as that "family destination" nonsense. As in: Sorry Siegfried. Sorry Roy. Good try, but I ain't joinin' you in no foursome no time soon. This place is about greed, not greens; suckers, not swings; hustlers, not handicaps; blackjack, not bogeys . . . . That's what we like about the place.
No, in my mind, if the fair game was going to be associated with this unfair town, I'd just as soon cling to the image from the old days at the Las Vegas Country Club, where an FBI surveillance plane landed on the 17th fairway while snooping on Lefty Rosenthal, or where Jay Sarno, who built Caesars Palace and Circus Circus with a little backing from the Teamsters, waited out the verdict of his trial (something about offering a "gratuity" to an IRS agent) wagering with his lawyer on the putting green. Now that was Vegas golf.
Then they started building a slew of courses in the '80s after Atlantic City made rumblings about being, heaven forbid, a rival. Next came the buzz a few years back when Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who helped bring about this new Vegas--the one built around hotels-as-theme parks--gave a leading golf architect a blank check to transform a chunk of Godforsaken desert.
Some golf gurus quickly declared Wynn's creation, Shadow Creek, among the top 100, 50--perhaps even the top 10--courses in the world. But who knew for sure? The only people allowed to play it were his celebrity buddies and the highest rollers at his hotels--the sort of blokes who get private baccarat tables. They wouldn't even let the press sample it, saying they wanted to "maintain the mystique."
Mystique? You couldn't help but wonder whether you'd arrive at the 17th hole and find a huge fake volcano, like at Wynn's
Mirage hotel. Or chrome-bedecked golf carts--like Rodney Dangerfield might have driven in "Caddyshack"--with slot machines built in. Rumored to have cost $43 million, how could Shadow Creek be anything but a giant parody of a Goofy Golf miniature golf course?
Then, this summer, Wynn announced, in essence, "You wanna see it? Come on." He was opening up his course. Taking it public. With one catch: Shadow Creek would be the most expensive round of golf known to man.
Oh, your $1,000 also would get you a suite at the Mirage, a limo to the course and--once there--a caddy. But that begged some questions. For $1,000, would they throw in a fruit basket, perhaps with a package of Steve Wynn golf balls amid the plums and bananas? What kind of caddy would you get--a sequined showgirl? And what on earth would you tip that caddy atop a $1,000 greens fee? How many other palms would have to be greased?
All of which raised the final obvious question: How could it possibly be worth it, a round of golf costing more than three times the $295 charged to play the undisputed shrine to the game, Pebble Beach?
So I had to check it out--not only Shadow Creek but the whole Vegas golf scene as well.
I take a Thursday morning flight from L.A., pick a rental car with ample trunk room (namely for my oversized "old man's" putter) and head for the logical starting point, the Desert Inn--the last place where you can tee up right on The Strip.
The Desert Inn is a trip back in time--one hotel here that's not become an exotic zoo, mall or mini-Disneyland. With 700 rooms, it's cozy in comparison to the new 5,000-room monoliths. Its course, in turn, dates to 1952, when golf was entering its postwar boom as a sport suitable for more than the super-rich. A year later, the DI began hosting an annual Tournament of Champions for the winners of all the Professional Golfers Assn. competitions. Then television discovered golf. So decades before made-for-TV events like the Skins Game would be used to give visibility to new resorts and real-estate developments, this place understood the promotional potential of golf. Most tournaments were on exclusive private clubs. Here you could watch on the tube as Arnie (three times) or Jack (two times) captured the crown, then use your vacation to play the same holes yourself.
Arriving before check-in time for rooms, I go directly to the pro shop. Its location--a chip shot from the spa, lagoon-like pool and tennis courts--suggests the something-for-everyone resorts common to Palm Springs. But that's an anomaly here, since two other Strip courses, the Tropicana and the Dunes, were bulldozed for hotels.
At the DI, guests are invited to reserve tee times a year ahead, and for prime morning hours, advance planning is wise. An L.A. plastic surgeon recently made that discovery that when he had to call course after course seeking space for 12 players coming to town for a bachelor party. It would be easier to get the proverbial stripper for their party, he decided, than tee times for such a group.