WHEN it comes to expensive golf, Sin City is the Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods of golf destinations.
We're talking three courses that charge $500 for a single round of golf, a clutch on either side of $300, municipal courses that sneak up near $100 when you toss in range balls, cart, a couple of dogs at the turn and a Bud or three, and an average greens fee, according to the National Golf Foundation, that is tops in the nation.
"Las Vegas is a very unique destination," says Joe Massanova, marketing director for the TPC Canyons golf club, "and standard rules which govern the rest of the country do not apply."
The watershed moment occurred in October 1989 when Steve Wynn opened, however narrowly, the gates to Shadow Creek. Once solely the domain of invited guests, Shadow Creek eventually allowed public access to the tune of $1,000 per round. Now it's down to $500. But Shadow Creek is a special place.
"The saying was, 'Steve had an unlimited budget for Shadow Creek and he exceeded it,' " says Dwaine Knight, men's golf coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "Whatever it took to make the place special, they did. It is a must-see type of experience in golf."
There's not a throwaway hole or even a single shot at Shadow Creek. The piney woods-in-Vegas effect works because no corner was cut in bringing it together. The course is an entirely new world created from scratch.
Almost every hole is self-contained. Lakes are crystalline. The eponymous stream looks as though it's always been there.
Wynn later gave up Shadow Creek, but his latest, Wynn Las Vegas Golf Club at his new hotel, now is among the ranks of the half-grand courses, so a three-round getaway costs a pretty penny even without taking into account caddie fees, limo driver and locker-attendant tips, trinkets from the pro shops and three nights of accommodations, food, drinks, gambling and entertainment in Vegas.
Another dozen-plus courses charge $225 to $325. It's staggering how pedestrian tracks wedged between rows of houses seek and get $150 or more.
"Las Vegas has a considerable percentage of affluent visitors willing to pay higher greens fees. Money takes on a different meaning in Las Vegas," Massanova says. "When someone is betting $500 or $5,000 a night in the casino, some would view a $300 round of golf over the course of five hours the cheapest five hours they spent here."
And as golf rankings go, it seems the investments pay dividends. Golf Digest's list of "America's 100 Greatest Public Courses" puts Shadow Creek in third place, Mesquite's dynamic Wolf Creek Golf Club at 27th, Cascata at 69th and Reflection Bay Golf Club at 86th. TPC Canyons is a PGA Tour event-hosting facility. And Wynn made the top 50 in Golf Magazine's assessment of best public courses.
"Within the past decade, Las Vegas has seen an explosion of high-end resort golf as well as top-tier designers. People may have wanted to play golf in the past, but the product was not readily available," Massanova says.
It certainly is now -- even if you have to call your financial advisor before booking a tee time.
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Go midweek, tee off late
HERE are a few ways to ensure that at minimum you'll have enough coin left for that get-you-home tank of gas.
Play twilight. Daylight is at a premium this time of year, and you'll never get in 18 teeing off at 2 p.m. But snag one of the first available tee slots when twilight rates kick in and you'll be Jacksons ahead of the game.
Let your fingers do the walking. That's on the computer keyboard, not leafing through the Yellow Pages. Discount agents like www.golfnow.com can typically save you 10% to 30% on select courses, with the advantage of advance booking.
Patience. If you don't mind not knowing where you'll play until the day before or the day of, get to know Stand By Golf. The company works with 30 courses and offers discounts of 20% to 60%. Stand By also offers the same spread for 90-day advance reservations at eight courses. Info: www.standbygolf.com, (866) 711-2665.
Stay and play. Guests of the several properties at Lake Las Vegas get a big cut (about a third off) on the going rate for golf at Reflection Bay and its sister courses, the Falls and in-the-works Rainbow Canyon. The JW Marriott Las Vegas and the Primm hotels partner with courses, so ask about packages.
Save midweek. Besides avoiding the traffic snarl on Interstate 15, midweekers can save $20, $30 or more playing Mondays through Thursdays.
-- Ken Van Vechten
Buy, buy birdie: Value at several price levels
Vegas golf pricing has undergone a sticker-shock-inducing shift of San Andrean proportions. Thankfully, not all that glitters is gilded, and great plays can be had for five Bens or even just one.
With its service, conditioning and layout, as well as a parkland setting that steps so far past the boundary of incongruity that it looks, smells and feels perfectly native, Shadow Creek simply excels. Purists might scoff, but every player needs to make a life's journey to Shadow Creek as surely as to Scotland's St. Andrews.
(866) 260-0069; $500 plus caddie tip and the cost of a required stay at one of the MGM Mirage properties.
With three courses by Pete Dye and a to-the-horizon setting worthy of a John Ford western, Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort just might be the best, most complete golf spot in southern Nevada. Snow Mountain, the resort's first course, is an exercise in sleight-of-hand routing, risk-reward doglegging and the occasional nod to old-school design, as in the cape hole 10th.
www.lvpaiutegolf.com, (800) 711-2833; $169.
There are two types of holes at TPC Canyons: attractive and attractive-scary. The shared attribute comes courtesy of the course's all-of-Vegas views. The second condition is a function of the word "canyon" in the course's name. And by canyon, grand, albeit with a lowercase "g," comes to mind. On the outward nine, the canyon is a broad arroyo through which holes are snaked. Coming home, it's a chasm to be avoided at all cost.
(702) 256-2500; $275.
If you've never played a Nicklaus course, Reflection Bay Golf Club is as good an introduction as exists on the public side of life. The course is approachable and potentially explosive, and coughs up no illogical well-we-gotta-link-the-12th-green-and-14th-tee holes. No track in the desert consigned to coexisting with housing does a better job of not messing up the course for the houses. Besides, it is just flat-out nice out in Lake Las Vegas.
www.lakelasvegas.com/golf_reflection.asp, (877) 698-4653; $285.
There have been times during the summer when Primm Valley Golf Club could be had for one-tenth the price of Shadow Creek ... hmmm, 10 rounds of Fazio golf versus one? OK, Primm isn't Shadow, but even at high-season rack rates, it is a best-of-Vegas selection, despite the fact that it's actually in the Golden State. The Lakes Course gets most of the attention; save the trees, lakes and flowers for the Carolinas and play the enthralling Desert Course.
(702) 679-5509; $175.
Boulder Creek Golf Club is a sleeper, offering upper-level desert-style play at decidedly lower-level rates. It was purchased by Boulder City several years ago. Boulder Creek offers 27 holes in a manner that is coolly down-tempo electronica to the typical municipal's Muzak.
(702) 294-6534; $110.
-- Ken Van Vechten
Greens fees quoted are winter rack rates, which, in most cases, are as high as they get -- except for Shadow Creek, where the rate is year-round.