There’s not many places in America where cultures collide as much as Las Vegas, Nevada. Where else can can you find your typical meathead in a muscle shirt, moms pushing strollers, glammed-up fashionistas, dorky dads, the black socks and sandals senior crowd and a large international contingent of all kinds sharing the same space. Only in Vegas. Strolling through a casino, it isn’t anything out of the ordinary to see a goon with too much hair gel sharing a blackjack table with a middle aged guy in mom jeans who’s sneaking in a quick hand while his wife and kids are at the breakfast buffet. Vegas is truly a surreal place and one of the very best people watching environments I’ve ever found.
About a 20 minute drive away from the casinos, shows and neon lights of the Las Vegas strip is a little oasis in the middle of the desert. Vegas entrepreneur Steve Wynn wanted to build a golf course and in typical Steve Wynn fashion he made sure that it was something special. How much does it cost to make something special in Las Vegas?? The long time joke is that Wynn gave Tom Fazio an unlimited budget and Fazio still ran over budget. The word on the street is that it cost somewhere between $40 million and $60 million . . . funny money in Vegas.
So who gets to play at Shadow Creek? Are there members? Is it public? These are the questions that I wanted to find the answers for. Golf Digest lists it as a public course on their Top 100 list, but I had always heard that it was impossible to play there which is quite contrary to the public model. Inquiring minds want to know, so I started poking around to see what I could turn up.
After a little research I found that MGM now owns Shadow Creek and the course treats the “high rollers” and “whales” at the MGM properties as its members granting them access to the facilities. Regular folk like me who are guests of an MGM property are able to play the course now for a steep green fee if the tee sheet is not too full and provided that the course is not hosting a special event. With that information I booked a room at the brand new Aria Hotel, set a tee time and booked a flight for Sin City.
Over the years I’ve been to Vegas a number of times. I’m not sure how many, but its enough that I’m not really sure. Having been to Vegas numerous times I have to admit that the prospect of going to Vegas wasn’t that thrilling to me. I’m not much of a gambler any more since I started squandering my financial resources traveling around the country and playing golf. That being the case I thought it would be fun to make a whirlwind day of it. I can’t imagine there are many people who fly to Vegas from the East Coast to play Shadow Creek and then fly home the same day . . . at least not anyone that is flying commercial l like I would be. In looking at the airline schedules I discovered that I could leave Richmond at 6:30AM and land in Vegas at 10:30AM. That very same night I could catch the redeye back to the East Coast at 10:20PM. During the 11 hours and 50 minutes I was on the ground in Vegas I would work in a game at Shadow Creek.
With my plan in place for December 16, 2011 the day started at 4AM when my alarm clock went off. Fortunately all the planes ran on time and I was standing at the baggage carousel at the Las Vegas airport just after 10:30AM. After a quick ride to the Aria Hotel I checked in but didn’t have time to go to my room before I was scheduled to be picked up and taken to Shadow Creek.
As I waited at the cab stand for my ride to the course I was a little surprised when the bell hop said “here’s your ride” and carried my golf bag over to a silver stretch limo. When I set everything up they said a “limo” would pick me up, but I am used to a much more liberal use of the word limo. I’ve always used the word limo as a generic term for any auto transportation that is not a taxi cab. I assumed the “limo” that would be taking me to the course would be a van or a Lincoln towncar – I didn’t really expect a full on stretch limousine.
Once we drove through the gates at Shadow Creek and I got a glimpse of the property during as we wound our way to the clubhouse I was already in awe. At the clubhouse I was greeted by the staff and escorted to the locker room to change shoes and then out to the practice tee. After hitting a couple of balls on the range we headed to the 1st tee.
I wasn’t sure of the photo policy, so I checked with the head pro and he said that their policy had recently been changed and that photos were now allowed after years of being prohibited. That said, he specifically asked me not to post photos on the internet as photos don’t really do justice representing the course. As per his request I’m not going to post any photos here.
What I can say about the course is that it literally blew my mind. Anyone who has ever been to Las Vegas is well aware that the prevailing topography of the area is flat, scrubby, desert wasteland. After walking a couple of holes it didn’t take long to see where Steve Wynn’s millions had gone. Shadow Creek features rolling terrain, valleys, creeks, pine trees, gulches as well as any other topographical feature you can imagine and all of them were sculpted from the once flat desert wasteland. No wonder they went over budget on the unlimited budget. Interestingly, the only sand to be found was the bunker hazards on the course. There was nary a grain of sand to be seen lining the fairways as is typical of courses built in the desert. If I hadn’t driven through the barren wasteland to get there myself, I would never believe that I was in the middle of the Nevada desert.
The course featured a lot of excellent holes and I thought the par 3s were done particularly well. Being a course for gamblers the course ended with a heroic par 3 and a risk/reward par 5.
The 17th hole is a shortish par 3 that plays 154 yards from the back tees and requires a full 130 yard carry over water to a very shallow two tiered green. The green bears a striking resemblance to the 12th hole at Augusta National but is tiered with the right side being a bit higher than the left. A flag on the lower left side of the green makes for an opportunity to either take dead aim and be very precise or play to the right which is a little more forgiving but may require a difficult two putt or up and down.
The 18th hole is a par 5 playing 529 yards from the tips with a major risk/reward tee shot. From the tee, players must decide just how far right they wish to hit their drives. The further right a player elects to hit the ball, the longer the required carry is over a pond and bunkers on the bank of the pond. Players who elect to be bold with an aggressive line are rewarded with a significantly shorter approach into the green and a higher likelihood of making birdie or even eagle. I’m sure there has been many a match that came down to this hole and ended with great triumph or an equally as great tragedy. Personally speaking my round was a bit more of the tragedy side all day. I alternated between pars and double bogeys all day but reminded myself that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” so I forgot about score and had fun. That’s usually my style anyway.
Since I was in Vegas and I knew that Shadow Creek must be loaded with legendary gambling stories, I asked my caddie about the big money games he had witnessed over the years. He responded by regaling me with tales of million dollar holes and $350,000 putts for which he had nervously provided reads. I don’t suspect there are many places other than Shadow Creek that see the type of action he was describing. It’s all part of what makes Shadow Creek a unique spot in golf.
After I finished my game I had a quick sandwich in the grill and then the limo arrived to take my back to Aria. I had already checked in but had not been to my room yet so I toted my bags through the casino and up to my room. I had another pleasant surprise when I arrived to my room and found that upon opening the door that the lights turned on automatically, the curtains motored open and the stereo clicked on. Only in Vegas. I also shouldn’t call it a room, it was a full on suite with a living room, dining room/bar, bedroom and one and a half baths. All that for less than $150. I guess it pays to visit Vegas in December. Too bad I was only going to be here for 3 hours.
After checking my email and catching up on all the work I missed while I was living the high roller life on the golf course I caught a cab to the airport and hopped the red eye flight back to the east coast. At 9:30AM the next morning I landed back in Richmond just a short 27 hours from when my flight out of Richmond lifted off. From the 27 hour travel itinerary to the desert oasis golf course, I think the only word I can use to describe the day is surreal . . . and, pretty dang fun.