GOLF IS NOT NORMALLY THE first thing that comes to mind when you think of Las Vegas. Casino owners have invested billions of dollars to keep you playing indoor games; they want you thinking about slots, not shots. Despite these odds, Las Vegas is becoming one of the top golfing destinations in America. The courses are fabulous, the summer greens fees are affordable, and best of all, you will have a far easier time enticing your preferred companion who doesn’t play golf to accompany you to Vegas than to a destination like Myrtle Beach. Or even Pebble Beach.
So a Friday afternoon in mid-June found my wife, Sarah, and me on a nonstop flight to Vegas, where we would meet Greg and Laura, a couple with whom we have traveled frequently over the years; the husbands play golf and the wives wonder why. The plan was a 48-hour blitz that would include four rounds on the links and some of what the instructional TV channel in our hotel room called “exciting gaming action.” Sarah likes to feed the slots, and I usually put down a bet or two at the sports book, but what we like most about Las Vegas is the people-watching: the loud, drunk Texans at the craps tables at Binion’s Horseshoe, the newlywed playing the slots in her gown, the glassy-eyed granny who stares at the keno board for hours, the women who have come here to win money and lose their inhibitions.
Our friends met us at the airport, and Greg and I headed out to play our first round, leaving our wives free to explore their favorite Vegas haunts. On previous trips, we had played some of the best-known courses, such as Reflection Bay, designed by Jack Nicklaus. This time we tried something different: courses that capture the spirit of Las Vegas. Call it theme-park golf. Just as casinos have themes, from Roman at Caesar’s Palace to Egyptian at the Luxor, so do some of Vegas’ most intriguing golf courses. Who could resist Royal Links, whose eighteen holes are close approximations of originals at British Open courses, including the Road Hole at St. Andrews? How about Bear’s Best? That’s the Golden Bear, Nicklaus, bringing you replicas of his favorite holes from western courses he designed. Or Bali Hai, right on the Strip— a hidden nook of 2,500 palm trees, several lakes, and bunkers stocked with white beach sand. Our first theme, though, was the desert—and this was no fantasy environment. We headed north on the Reno highway into the magnificent emptiness of the Paiute Indian reservation.
Off to our right was a jagged range of barren brown rock. Somewhere out there was the Paiute complex of three Pete Dye courses, but from the highway I could see only a few Joshua trees and dagger plants rising bravely above the desert floor. The Paiutes’ history of mistreatment and neglect by the federal government is dismal even by the standards of U.S. Indian policy, and as we turned into the reservation and began to encounter the mounds and swales and thick clumps of flora that are the designer’s trademark, it occurred to me that luring the white man to pay $99 for the privilege of playing a Pete Dye layout in 103-degree heat was not a bad sort of revenge.
We played the newest of the three courses, called Wolf, after a Paiute deity. From the tournament tees, Wolf measures 7,604 yards, with a daunting slope of 149, but we played it from a more benign length of 6,483 yards. Around us the desert lay flat and featureless, but on the course it was hard to find a square foot of level ground. I was amazed at the variety of the holes: never straight, never dull, traversing waste areas, the fairways canted at odd angles to the tee box. As the afternoon wore on, welcome breezes kicked in and jackrabbits broke out of the wildflowers to bound across the fairway. Now and then a bird call