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A Golfer's Mirage

In the desert outside Vegas, sand traps await on two picturesque Primm courses

October 01, 2000|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is film critic for the New York Daily News

PRIMM, Nev. — I hate sand. Always have. As a kid, I couldn't play in a sandbox for five seconds without getting the stuff in my eyes. At the beach during Southern California summers, I couldn't walk five yards without searing the soles of my feet in it. And as a weekend golfer, I can't get through a round without finding every trap on the course.

Last March, in fact, I was up to my ankles in sand--in one of the deepest bunkers I've ever seen, in some of the softest sand I've ever felt, on one of the toughest courses I've ever played. There was consolation in the fact that all three of my playing partners were up to their ankles in it too.

We were on the 10th hole of the Lakes course at Primm Valley, a golfing oasis--if not yet mecca--in the middle of nowhere, behind a row of artificial dunes off Interstate 15 at the California-Nevada state line, about 40 miles from the Strip.

Looking at this stretch of the Mojave Desert from the moon, you'd think you were looking at a mirror. The area seems as lifeless and barren as the lunar surface. From ground level, it's a rolling sea of low-slung manzanita, cactus and scrub brush, flanked on the horizons by ragged mountains.

Gary Primm--whose father built the three casino hotels making up Primadonna Resorts just east of the state line--looked at this desert-scape and envisioned a world-class golf facility, with lush championship courses and a first-rate teaching academy. Friends might have been forgiven for thinking he'd spent too much time in the sun.

But there are no doubters now. After spending more than $50 million, relocating millions of yards of earth, laying 200 miles of irrigation pipes, putting down enough fresh sod for 72 football fields and importing 6,000 trees and who knows how many tons of sand, Primm's dream has become a reality.

Lakes, a pond-and-creekside layout that ranks 43rd on Golf Digest's list of recommended public courses, opened in February 1997. The Desert course, sculpted around the contours of the natural terrain, followed in May 1998. My friends and I, seven guys whose handicaps range from six to infinity, caught up with both last spring.

We were on a golf package, which is the only way we'd consider playing a course with greens fees as high as $195. By staying at one of the Primadonna hotels--Whiskey Pete's, Buffalo Bill's or Primm Valley Resort--we each got a two-night stay and two rounds of golf for $298 on a weekend. (Fall rates, good through Nov. 19, are $129 to $159 a night, single occupancy, depending on the day of the week. From Nov. 20 through Jan. 14, the rates are $99 to $139.)

Golf packages are available at slightly higher rates for guests staying a half-hour away at the MGM Grand or New York-New York in Vegas. Like the Primadonna resorts, they are owned by Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Grand Inc.

Even without a package, greens fees are reduced for guests at any of the hotels. Through Nov. 19, greens fees for Primm Valley Resorts guests are $115 Monday through Thursday, $135 Friday through Sunday; guests from MGM Grand resorts pay $140 or $165. (All other golfers pay $165 or $195.)

For this trip, we checked in at the Primm Valley, across the street from Buffalo Bill's.

My group made the turn at Lakes, and all four of us had driven into one of the hole's yawning traps. All 36 holes at Primm bear names, and this one is called Temptation. It's a short, par-four dogleg left, with an elevated green and tee. The smart play is a midiron layup shot to the fairway, followed by a wedge to the green. But the temptation is to take the shortcut and go directly for the green, about 230 yards away. That shot requires a 215-yard carry over a lake, and, lest your ball veer right or left, there are eight hideous sand traps ready to swallow it. The second trap on the right had mine.

Golf architect Tom Fazio scattered 60 sand traps over the Lakes layout, and some of them must contain more sand than the coast of Rhode Island. Fazio set out to approximate for amateur golfers what professionals face on tour, and he came up with two looks on the same site.

Lakes--with its pine-lined fairways, and ponds, waterfalls and creeks coming into play on nine holes--is the more photogenic of the two and the more in demand. Like facade-filled Las Vegas, Lakes is a bit of an illusion, a playable mirage of what appears to be a valley course but plopped in the middle of the desert.

Distinguished by its rolling, meticulously cut bent-grass fairways, elevated greens and those gaping traps, the par-71 Lakes will give a good game to scratch golfers hitting from the championship tees (distance: 6,945 yards) and everyone else hitting from the blues (6,444), whites (6,008) or women's tees (5,019).

Primm's literature says the longer, par-72 Desert, which ranges from 5,397 to 7,131 yards, is the tougher of the two courses, and it can be if you pound your drives into the uncharted Mojave surrounding virtually every hole.

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