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Loving Las Vegas

Go to Sin City to gamble if you want, but for my money the best bet is the golf

By: George Peper

Appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of LINKS.

Here’s something I’m not particularly proud of revealing, but  why not: I never fill up the gas tank of my car until the last possible second—long after the warning light’s come on, even after the gauge says zero miles left. In fact, one of the most satisfying moments of my automotive life was the day I sputtered into a Shell station on nothing but fumes. 

I realize this is utterly childish, contrary to all good sense, and detrimental to the well-being of my car, but I do it anyway. Why?  I’m a gambler.  I love taking risks, challenging the odds, putting something on the line and seeing whether, through a mix of guile and good fortune, I can win. 

I’ve played poker for nearly half a century. I’ve hit casinos from Mexico to Monaco, bet on horses, hounds, and jai alai, and when I lived in the UK, where the bookies will help you take a flutter on just about anything, I became borderline compulsive, betting on not just golf and football but a wide range of idiotica—like the time I wagered 10 pounds that Queen Elizabeth would wear a blue hat to the opening of the Ascot races. (Sadly, she went with pink.)

Incredibly, however, until a few months ago I’d never spent any time in the gambling capital of the world—Las Vegas—and so it was with great excitement that I set off on a brief visit, the ostensible purpose of which was to sample Sin City’s best golf offerings.  

My base was Aria, one of the top hotels on the famed Vegas Strip and appropriate for me inasmuch as it was the backdrop for the recent movie Last Vegas in which Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline stumble through sort of an AARP version of Hangover. Aria’s press kit said it had 4,004 guest rooms, 568 luxury suites, and four swimming pools, not to mention, uh, 150,000 square feet of gaming, a major swath of which I had to navigate in order to reach my room. I was tempted to stop but had arrived late in the evening so a bed beckoned more than a bet, especially since I had a dewsweeper time the next morning. 

Fortunately, I didn’t have far to go—Bali Hai is the only golf course smack on the Strip. Its architects were Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley, who in the last decade have become the most successful designers in China (see page 64). Clearly, at Bali Hai they got their Asian mojo going while also learning how to conquer a challenging site—with an obscene budget. What they produced is a $35 million faux Indonesian paradise, crammed between the Mandalay Bay Hotel and McCarran International Airport. Surely nowhere else in golf can you wend through lush corridors of Balinese vegetation while using blinking neon billboards as your aim points and waving topassengers on arriving jumbo jets. 

Despite its Vegas flamboyance, Bali Hai is a very good golf course, in top condition with plenty of charm and challenge and some very strong holes. I did find a bit of sameness in the last half of the course—several of the long holes tended either to dogleg right uphill or dogleg left downhill. The par threes, however, were all charmers. 

I’d been paired with three other singles and being the first group of the day we’d set a torrid pace, reaching the tee of the 140-yard 16th in about three hours. There we were met by an assistant pro who, this being Vegas, invited us to put a little something on our ability to hit the island green. 

“Normally I’m at the 11th hole, which is a lot longer,” he said, “but you guys played so fast you beat me to that tee, so you get an easier shot. Hit the green and I’ll double whatever you bet in pro shop credit—miss it and you still get to spend your wager in the shop.” 

The other guys had no interest, but I sprung for $50. I’d been hitting the ball reasonably well, needed to buy some balls anyway. After watching all three of my compatriots find the green, I smoothed my 8-iron into the back bunker. My first Vegas gamble and I was a loser—not a great omen. But true gamblers know how to move on, and by the time I returned to Aria I was ready for some blackjack. 

During my visit I would have three epiphanies regarding gambling in Vegas, and the first came that Saturday morning: Gambling has become very expensive. I’d been expecting to find a $5 blackjack table, but nowhere in the Aria could I get in the game for less than $25 a hand. 

“It’s the weekend,” a pit boss told me. “Come back on Monday and you’ll see better numbers.” That sounded like a good bet, as did a lazy afternoon at one of the four pools. 

Rio Secco and Cascata are semi-private clubs but offer access and special rates to anyone staying at Caesars Palace, and their Rees Jones courses rank on just about every Vegas top-10 list. 

Rio Secco (Spanish for “dry river”) sits on a plateau in the foothills of the Black Mountains about 20 minutes southeast of the Strip. Its 18 holes meander along a river bed, leap across canyons, and plummet from cliffs, producing some very high-stakes assignments. The first one came at the chasm-crossing 180-yard 3rd, where I was able to pull off the perilous tee shot, only to leave a lightning-fast downhill putt of over 100 feet. I did two-putt, but there was a chip in between. 

Tiger Woods is the course-record holder here with a 64 he shot the week before winning the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes. His best moment came at the 378-yard 10th, a hole that could have come out of a Road Runner cartoon, its tee perched on a rocky peak 100 feet or so above the fairway. Woods drove the green and made a ho-hum eagle. I wedged on and was quite happy with par. Much excavation was done in crafting this course, nowhere more dramatically than at the 16th, a par four whose last 50 yards are set deep into an immense rock face. To stand in the center of that green is to feel as if you’re in golf’s equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. 

Rio Secco is one of Vegas’s higher-profile golf venues, home of the Butch Harmon School of Golf, longtime host of the Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge, and proud purveyor of the T-Mates, a collection of attractive young women who, for $200, will serve as your “golf concierge and hostess.” (I opted for a cart as there are certain risks even I won’t take.)

Cascata may be Rio Secco’s sister course but it bears about as much family resemblance to it as a dry river to a waterfall. Architect Jones and his crew were able to pump water to the top of the property so it could tumble back down more than 400 feet through a network of long-dormant river beds. As a result, water flows everywhere—on the golf course, on the practice tee, there’s even a stream running through the Tuscan clubhouse.

What doesn’t flow easily, because of the severity of the high-desert terrain, is the journey from hole to hole. Walking is not an option and at times even the carts have a tough slog through the canyons. There are eight and a half miles of cart paths at Cascata; the haul between holes 7 and 8 alone is a two-minute ride. But the reward for all this desert-trekking is a superb golf course where the holes are distinct, the landing areas are ample and well defined, the fairways themselves rarely climb or plummet severely, and the vistas are magnificent. From the tee of the par-five 3rd hole, you can see 50 miles. 

Besides, it’s not as if you can’t take a caddie—in fact, you must take a caddie. He’s included in the hefty green fee but he’s invaluable, at least mine was. Steve, an aspiring Tour pro, knew every inch of the course and every break in the lightning-fast greens, and despite also attending to the two other guys in my group, he was always at the ready with help, advice, and information. 

In large part because of Steve I played well, at least until the signature hole, No. 14, where I got a bit aggressive on the tee shot and caught one of those meandering streams. The result was a quick triple. Still, at 18 I had a chance to break 80 but needed a birdie: Happily, it was a reachable par five, albeit with a pond-fronted green. 

Hoping to cut the corner of the leftward dogleg with a big high draw, I instead hit a big high push. Two mediocre shots later I was six feet off the green and 20 feet from the hole. Then the unlikely happened and the fourth shot found the cup. This was by far my best round of the trip and—no surprise—Cascata my favorite course. 

Which may not be fair to Las Vegas’s certified gem—a course I’d played before so reluctantly opted not to cram in this time—Shadow Creek. The 1989 collaboration of casino magnate Steve Wynn and Tom Fazio billed as the most expensive course ever built, it was for more than a decade among the most private courses in the world as well, accessible only to the biggest spenders at Wynn’s Mirage, Treasure Island, and Bellagio casinos. Now it’s open to the public but only to a handful of players a day and they must be resident at one of the MGM-owned Vegas resorts.

The green fee is $500 but consider that it includes a limousine ride from your hotel to the course, where you’re greeted by Director of Golf Mark Brenneman, who introduces you to your personal caddie for the day, also included in the fee. Shadow Creek is a 15-minute drive from the Strip but a world away from Vegas. Everything is studiously understated—no signage, no yardage markers, no course ratings, just a simple white wooden clubhouse with dark green trim. Think Augusta National.

As for the course, although it sits in the middle of a desert wasteland, once inside the gates you’d swear you’re in North Carolina or Colorado. Thousands of mature trees—all imported and implanted—line not only the fairways but the entire perimeter of the property, creating an ambience of blissful isolation. All that’s visible beyond the tree line is a range of snow-capped peaks. 

The lush fairways weave among fake lakes and mock mountains, but somehow it all looks natural, a testimony to both Fazio’s artistry and Wynn’s deep pockets. The postcard hole is unquestionably the 164-yard 17th, played from an elevated tee to a green fronted by a lake, ringed by rocks and bunkers, and backed by a waterfall cascading down a tree-clad hill. All this splendor is matched by playing conditions that bring to mind what Dan Jenkins wrote when he first saw Muirfield Village: “I’d sooner stub out a cigarette on my baby’s tummy than on one of these greens.”

Back at Aria, I was ready for a bit of gambling and decided to start out simply, with the slots. I began pumping in $1 tokens, lost a quick $25, then suddenly hit a mini-jackpot and was $80 ahead. That prosperity lasted another half hour before I was back to zero. In all, I pumped in close to $200 and made the machine chirp only twice. 

Epiphany Number Two: Gambling is a lot like golf. You pull the lever and nothing happens, pull it again and again and again with less than positive results. Then suddenly everything clicks—lights flash, bells ring, and cash falls into your hands. The feeling is so good, so addictive, you freely subject yourself to another humiliating string of disappointments in the desperate hope of another pure strike. It’s what the psychologists call selective reinforcement, and why we golfers are all what Bobby Jones called dogged victims of inexorable fate. 

Being a confirmed morning person and a fast player, my idea of Nirvana is having the first tee time of the day. I was therefore delighted with my 7 a.m. start at TPC Las Vegas—but wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else, at least not on a clear day. The first three holes head directly east into the rising sun. It was most disconcerting for my group at the 2nd, a pretty little par three (at least that’s the way it looks in photos—I wouldn’t know) where we were so blinded we had to listen for our tee shots to land, making our best guess at whether they hit green, sand, or rocks.

That aside, this is a fine and fun course, a parkland-desert blend built around several canyons (its original name was TPC at the Canyons) that taunts and teases with a succession of forced carries and risk-reward Cape holes. My favorite—despite the 7 I carded on it—was the 13th, a 439-yard, gulch-jumping par four where I bit off more than I could chew on the drive and became engorged in Death Valley. And lest you forget, this Bobby Weed/Ray Floyd design is a TPC course, it ends with the cookie-cutter finish, a 448-yard par four with a huge pond—the only water on the course—hard by the left side of the green. 

Having lost more gambles on this course than I’d won, I decided I was due for a win at the casino so sidled up to one of the $5 blackjack tables. I had a system, albeit a less than original one: if I lost the opening hand, I’d double the bet on the second in order to get my money back; if I lost that hand, I’d double again, and keep doubling until I got back even.

The fallacy, of course, is that this can get expensive quickly: Lose a dozen hands in a row and you’re suddenly down more than $20,000. My limit was closer to half a dozen—and I reached it immediately. I lost six hands in a row.  

“Really bad luck,” said my dealer as I exited the seat I’d taken only five minutes earlier.  

Epiphany Number Three: Gambling isn’t as much fun as it used to be. For me, at least, the casino world had lost some of its luster. It wasn’t just that I’d lost; the whole activity didn’t seem to hold the attraction it once did. Interestingly, I learned that my experience reflected what has been a sea change throughout the Las Vegas market. Ten years ago, two thirds of the traffic came from people wanting to gamble. Now, it’s just the opposite—two thirds of the tourist dollars are spent on Vegas’s other attractions. 

I could see why. The truth was, I’d made some bad bets, but I hadn’t played a bad golf course or for that matter had a bad meal or a bad time anywhere outside the casino. In fact, I’d had a succession of superb meals—a luscious Caesar salad with prosciutto at La Cave in the Wynn Casino, a perfect pizza at Five50 (Aria), and, right up my alley, a series of amazing rare steaks at the Gordon Ramsey Pub (Caesars), She by Mortons (City Center), Tender (Luxor), and Heritage (The Mirage). Indeed, the food is what surprised me most: Las Vegas may have a broader array of top-quality restaurants than anywhere but Manhattan.

I’d taken advantage of the splendid Aria gym in the mornings and lounged at its tropical pools on a couple of afternoons. One evening after dinner, I’d seen the mind-blowing Cirque du Soleil (Aria) and another a performance of “Jersey Boys” (Paris Casino) that was so good, the minute it was over I wanted to see it again.

Oh, I’m still a gambler, but these days I think I get all the fix I need on the golf course, trying to shave corners of doglegs, stretch carries over hazards, pull off recoveries from trees and rough, fire at sucker pins. One bet I will make, however, is that I’ll return to Las Vegas—not to play the slots or the tables but to play a few of the courses, see a few of the shows, and try a few of the restaurants I missed.

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