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 pierced the air. There is no place I would rather play golf than the desert.
We finished just as the sun was dipping behind Mount Charleston, a 12,000-foot peak. By the time we had showered and changed clothes, we barely had time to grab a sandwich at the Stage Deli before making the Celine Dion show at Caesar’s Palace. It ended after midnight Texas time, and we had a 6:50 a.m. tee time at Royal Links. No exciting gaming action tonight.
Royal Links proved to be my favorite of the four courses we played. For legal reasons, the holes can’t be exact duplications of their British cousins, but the differences are slight: a few yards here and there, manicured fairways—and, alas, no wee bonny gale from the North Sea to chill the desert air. The Scottish-style pot bunkers with their vertical sod faces were all too real, and so was the gorselike rough that swallowed errant shots. In addition to the Road Hole, which I bogeyed (all I intend to say about my game is that I regard a bogey as a good score, not a bad one), you can play the Postage Stamp par three from Royal Troon that Gene Sarazen aced at the age of 71 in his last British Open.
Onward to Bear’s Best. It was all the way across town, right up against the western mountains. We drove through In-N-Out Burger, the best fast food in the West, and arrived just before our tee time. The pro shop had assigned a single to our twosome, and he handed us a business card that said he was in risk management for one of the big casino companies. “What does that mean?” I asked, and his answer was not one that I cared to follow up on: “I just try to keep somebody from getting killed.”
One look at the first hole told me that Bear’s Best wasn’t going to be mine. It was a long uphill par four from PGA West in La Quinta, California, curving leftward around a lake to an elevated green. I stayed right and took a dry double bogey. That was the beginning of my struggles. This was one tough course: 7,194 yards from the back tees with a slope of 147 and Jack demanding every shot in the bag. Two of the best holes were from the Old Works course in Anaconda, Montana, where the bunkers and waste areas are black copper-mine slag. Faithful to the last detail, Jack had brought slag to Bear’s Best. It was fine and powdery on top but firm underneath, and I never did solve how to hit out of it. The greens were another challenge; the nearby mountains—a Mars-scape of desert rubble—affected every putt. If you play here, bring your A game.
I must have gotten acclimated to the heat, because I finished the second day fresher than the first. For dinner we agreed upon an old-style Vegas steaks-and-chops restaurant called Hugo’s Cellar, at the Four Queens downtown. It turned out to be perfect for our Vegas-theme trip: lots of showbiz, with our waiter providing single red roses for Sarah and Laura, preparing the salad at our table—offering the choice of additional ingredients ranging from anchovies to pine nuts—and peppering us with constant quips (“Man down!” when I fumbled the salt shaker onto the floor).
One more round to go. We teed off at Bali Hai at six-thirty in the morning and admired the transformation of brutal desert into tropical paradise. Palms lined the fairways and strange-looking plants teemed in the environmentally sensitive zones beyond the rough. I was playing pretty well until my cell phone rang on the twelfth hole, causing me to shank an approach shot into a bunker; after that, my body refused to obey my mind, and my game, such as it is, was gone. We raced through the last holes, picked up Sarah and Laura, and before heading for the airport, went for a drive in the desert. It looked like it would make a great golf course.