Different Strokes in the Nevada Desert

Different Strokes in the Nevada Desert
View of the first hole from the second tee at Wolf Creek in Mesquite, Nev., an hour northeast of Las Vegas. (K.M. CANNON / For The Times)
I stood on a patch of turf 11 stories above the desert floor. The crisp, thin air was silent. My heart raced as I peeked below.

The panorama of colors brightened by the morning sun was breathtaking: giant puffs of cottony clouds. Red-rock canyon walls. Lush green fairways. Sparkling blue ponds.

Wow. This is what it must feel like to stand on top of the world. Soaking in the landscape, I almost forgot why I was at the second tee.

I have played some of the most scenic and challenging golf courses in the country--Cypress Point overlooking Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula, Pinehurst No. 2 nestled in the North Carolina sand hills, Ocean Trails on the bluffs of Rancho Palos Verdes and Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., home to Tiger Woods.

Put Wolf Creek at Paradise Canyon near the top of that list. To get a sense of the sheer natural beauty, imagine laying down 18 holes inside the Grand Canyon. "It's as dramatic and spectacular as they come, and if there's any golf on a grander scale, we haven't seen it," raved Links magazine.

I had never heard of Wolf Creek before planning a weekend in Mesquite, an hour's drive northeast of Las Vegas. A small town that didn't install its first stoplight until 1998, Mesquite is fast becoming a popular golf destination. Within minutes of one another are five courses, including the Oasis, designed by Arnold Palmer. A sixth course is to open later this year.

Brochures promote Mesquite's camping, fishing, hayrides, skeet and trap shooting, access to nearby Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and "the nightlife of the casino adventure," all at low prices. Last month my wife, Willow, and I took advantage of Presidents Day and spent a three-day weekend checking the place out.

The standard Mesquite stay-and-play package offers three rounds of golf and three nights' lodging starting at $330. I signed up for a two-night, two-round package with surcharges for playing Wolf Creek at peak season. With a third night of accommodations, we paid $421, including taxes. Considering that Wolf Creek greens fees run $150, the package seemed like a bargain.

Willow recently began taking golf lessons but chose spa treatments and extra sleep while I played Saturday and Sunday mornings. We filled out the weekend with an afternoon drive to scenic St. George, Utah, and time at the blackjack tables--but more on that later.

We arrived late Friday night after clogged freeways tacked on two hours to an expected five-hour drive from Los Angeles. The two hotels available with our package, the CasaBlanca and the Oasis, are across the street from each other. We wanted to stay at the CasaBlanca, the newer and nicer property, but it was booked.

At the Oasis, the voucher for my Saturday morning round of golf had mysteriously vanished, and the computer showed my Sunday morning round scheduled for 3:17 p.m. The desk clerk assured me that the hotel manager would fix everything by morning.

Our third-floor room was cramped and spartan. No coffee maker. No hair dryer. Not even a box of tissue. The view outside our window consisted of murky ponds surrounded by litter.

Saturday morning, after the hotel manager failed to produce a golf voucher, I headed out to the Palms Golf Club for a 9:20 tee time. The pro shop had no record of my golf package and demanded the $95 greens fee.

My "stay and play" package had suddenly been converted to "pay, then play." I pulled out the credit card and headed for the first tee, ready to swing my Callaway driver at anything and anyone.

On the fourth tee, a pro shop attendant drove up to explain that golf packages were not available on a holiday weekend, the clerk who had issued my reservation had been fired and management had wanted to stick me with the bill. But he had appealed on my behalf and gotten my $95 refunded.

Two holes later, a woman in a beer cart informed me that the head golf pro had approved free beverages for me and my assigned playing partner, Mark Dillard. It wasn't yet 11 a.m., but Dillard, a strapping Nevada fire captain, and I weren't about to pass up this opportunity. Besides, my game and my nerves needed a drink.

We ordered a couple of beers, kicked back and enjoyed the round. By the time Dillard ran into the beer lady on the 17th hole, we had consumed three complimentary beers apiece. When he ordered a fourth round, she said the golf pro had rescinded the offer. "It's not like we were drinking double scotches," he cracked.

The Palms is the oldest course in Mesquite, and it shows. The front nine is flat and boring, while the back nine has elevated tee boxes and is a bit more challenging. Patches of dead grass dotted the fairways, and brown spots marred the greens.

Back at the hotel's spa, Willow had a better time with a massage and a facial. She gave the hotel high marks for a soothing couple of hours. The staff was friendly, the robes were fluffy and the masseuse hit all the pressure points.

We spent Saturday afternoon taking a 30-mile scenic drive northeast on Interstate 15 to St. George. Willow and I marveled at the sunlight reflecting off canyon walls, then were drawn to the gleaming white dome of St. George Temple. Inside the visitor center, elder Leo Elkins spent a good half-hour recounting the fascinating history behind the building, which was ordered built by Brigham Young in 1871 and is the oldest Mormon temple in the world.

We headed back to Mesquite and checked out four casinos, all the same: smoky rooms filled with gamblers of all stripes. To my astonishment, I spotted a $1 blackjack table.

We didn't win much, but we had better luck picking restaurants throughout the weekend. Even the Oasis' "Slot Player's Special"--two eggs cooked to order, bacon, toast and hash browns for $1.49--made for a tasty breakfast one day.

Dinner on Saturday was at Los Lupes, a Mexican dive tucked in a strip mall. The cilantro-laced salsa was delicious, and the carne asada came with a slab of sirloin big enough to feed a family of four.

As surprising as the restaurants were, the weekend's highlight was still Wolf Creek on Sunday morning.

The full page of fine print on a liability release hinted at what was in store. "WARNING: Use golf teeing areas appropriate to your health condition. If you have heart, respiratory or other debilitating health problems, do not attempt to use the elevated teeing areas."

Caution is appropriate. Elevation changes are so sharp, speed bumps are built into downhill cart paths to keep drivers from going too fast and veering off course.

Wolf Creek ([702] 346-1670, provides a supreme test of skill. The longest tee boxes measure 6,994 yards and carry a 154 slope rating, among the most difficult awarded by the U.S. Golf Assn. Fortunately the layout features four other sets of tee boxes. The shortest is 4,169 yards, making it accessible to duffers of all skills.

On the first tee, the view of the 504-yard par 5 through sandstone cliffs was stunning.

To get to the second tee box, I climbed 118 steps. It takes about a 230-yard tee shot to carry the canyon and reach the fairway. I envisioned the sweet sensation of launching a Titleist into orbit and watching it glide for several seconds before landing safely on the short grass. Instead, I hooked the ball around a rocky cliff, and it quickly disappeared.

Most resort courses have a signature hole that stands out as the most scenic. At Wolf Creek, a dozen holes could compete for that title. After the round, Willow and I enjoyed a buffet brunch and Bloody Marys at the Baileyi grill inside Wolf Creek's clubhouse. Later we returned with a request to ride up to the second tee for sunset.

I had raved so much about the No. 2 hole that Willow's expectations were high. The view did not disappoint. We sat on the grass holding hands and watching the sunset.

That night we ate at the Redd Room, a steakhouse hailed by the Oasis concierge as the finest dining in Mesquite. The dress code was casual, the decor a mix of red velvet, mirrored ceilings and purple lights. Appearance aside, the restaurant served excellent food: lobster bisque, Caesar salad prepared tableside and filet mignon, cooked to perfection. The bill for four courses was less than we expected: $81.56 plus tip.

Walking back to our hotel through a parking lot jammed with motor homes, tractor-trailers and dusty cars from neighboring states, Willow and I decided that Mesquite isn't for everyone. But for anyone looking for a spectacular golf course and good food at reasonable prices, it proved to be above par.

Glenn F. Bunting is an investigative reporter for The Times.