LAS VEGAS — It may have been paranoia, but there was a distinct feeling of odd glances being cast my way when I requested lunch outside on the terrace of the The Country Club at the spectacular Wynn Las Vegas on the infamous and ever-changing Strip.
The solitude in the blazing heat confirmed that the denizens inside preferred air-conditioned comfort, not a bad choice considering the rich woods and classy décor of a bistro that lives up to its name, both inside and outside, where the waitress was offered an apology for making her venture into this midday furnace.
Whoever floated the idea that it’s not the heat, but the humidity, has never been to the desert in the summer. Once the mercury hits a certain temperature, it doesn’t matter whether it’s humid or dry – it’s just hot, but Canadian golfers don’t need to endure this heat, depending on which time of year they choose to visit.
Sitting in the shade, enjoying the fine spray of the overhead misters, the terrace offered a view that is not unlike most country clubs, but with a unique and picturesque twist with the 18th green backed by a 37-foot waterfall, which made the decision to dine outside in this distinct golf setting the right one, even in the heat.
The green carpet that rolled majestically in front as I sampled the delicious fare of The Country Club is one example of a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself in its efforts to maintain its status as one of the great playgrounds in the world.
Those efforts are understandable in the business world, but pull at the heartstrings of the nostalgic, who recall a time of glitz and glamour that exists today, only differently. The Wynn Golf Club sits on the site of the former Desert Inn Golf Club, which opened in 1952 and hosted the biggest names in golf and entertainment over the years.
The golf course and the legendary hotel and casino it was part of were purchased by Wynn in 2000 and the Desert Inn went the way of several Vegas landmarks when it was imploded shortly afterwards. However, the resort’s namesake, Steve Wynn, is a renowned fan of golf.
Instead of developing the valuable land that the Desert Inn golf course sat on, Wynn collaborated with Tom Fazio for an overhaul that was introduced in 2005 at par 70 and 7,042 yards and costs $500 to play, a price that includes rental clubs, golf cart, beverages and a caddie.
While over 100,000 new shrubs were planted, consideration was given to the land’s past as 1,200 existing trees remain on the site. “I think it would have been a bad decision to not try to retain some of the trees that we had,” says director of golf Brian Hawthorne.
“There are a number of trees out there that are 40, 50 years old, so they incubated a large number of the trees and worked them into the routing and other ones, they just worked the routing around because they were so spectacular,” said Hawthorne, adding that the routing was changed considerably from the original.
“Almost all the holes ran east-west, which in laying out a golf course, is not ideal because you’re going into the sun, going one direction or the other. Now, all of our holes, but essentially two, run north-south. There was 800,000 cubic yards of earth moved to create a lot of elevation changes and contour that didn’t exist previously.”
There is plenty that didn’t exist previously in Vegas as the Strip is ever-changing in its attempts to entice visitors to shows such as Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular “O” at the Bellagio and Le Reve at the Wynn and into spectacular hotels/casinos at the Flamingo, Treasure Island, Mirage and Caesar’s Palace, among others.
It’s a place to take both a kinesis class devoted to muscles used in golf or get a relaxing massage at the Canyon Ranch Spa inside the Venetian on Las Vegas Blvd, or enjoy the sumptuous fare of an outstanding restaurant such as the Strip House, just down the road at Planet Hollywood.
Above it all these days are cranes that are putting together the largest privately financed development in the history of North America. When it opens next year, the dazzling CityCenter, a collaboration between MGM Mirage and eight acclaimed architects, will once again change Las Vegas.
Among its features will be a 61-storey, 4,000-room resort casino, two non-gaming hotels, approximately 2,600 luxury residences and a 5,000-square-foot retail and entertainment district sitting on 67 acres between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo resorts.
The golden era of the ‘50s and ‘60s are gone, but not forgotten.
It was an era of legendary casinos and hotels, many of which, like the Desert Inn, have since been imploded, and the show-stoppers who performed there, including the legendary Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, among others as notorious for their nightlives as they were for their talents.
It may have been these guys who inspired the famous “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” credo, but then again, it could have just been some guy who didn’t want his wife finding out about his indiscretions.
“I think (the Rat Pack) would be charmed by a lot of the things that have been preserved and the way they’re held in high regard,” says Hawthorne. “We just did a Sinatra stamp not that long ago and the city really embraced that. I think, as a market, we’ve embraced what they brought to the town,” he adds.
There are still remnants of old Vegas, The famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign still welcomes visitors on Las Vegas Blvd., but many of city’s famous signs are kept at the Neon Museum, affectionately known as the Boneyard.
There’s even a Liberace Museum devoted to that flamboyant performer and Fremont Street, considered the heart of old Vegas, is now an “Experience,” mixing the golden era of the city with a spectacular lights and sound show on the overhead Viva Vision canopy that spans the length of five football fields.
Meanwhile, the legendary Golden Nugget, which touches on to Fremont Street, maintains much of the charm it had when it first opened in 1946, yet continues to modernize around a pool that includes a mammoth aquarium with live marine life. A new hotel tower will be added by next year.
So, a blend of old and new is available to all generations in an ever-evolving city that is all about options in dining, entertainment and gaming and a golf vacation offers the same choices. While the Wynn and Bali Hai offer golf on the Strip, there are a total of 60 courses in the area.
The Strip is indeed the beehive of activity, but a 25-minute drive outside the city to Henderson, Nev., offers a quieter, more family-oriented golf vacation that allows quick access to Vegas from hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort, with its meeting/banquet facilities, restaurants, spa and fitness centre and recreational facilities.
Loews sits on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, a man-made lake that offers a scenic backdrop for golf, often making the ambience more like Florida instead of the desert. Both Reflection Bay, a Jack Nicklaus design, and The Falls from Tom Weiskopf offer panoramas of the sparkling water.
“It’s a very friendly golf course,” says Reflection Bay head professional Jon Spatz of that 7,261-yard, par 72 layout.
“It’s one of the more friendly golf courses for ladies and we do have five sets of tees, so it can play anywhere from 5,800 yards all the way up to 72 and change if you want to play it all the way back,” says Spatz, adding that the 7,250-yard, par 72 Falls offers a different experience in terms of terrain.
“The Falls, I think, is 180 degrees opposite of Reflection Bay. It plays through the mountains, so there’s a lot more elevation change – there’s about 400 feet of elevation change on the back nine. None of the holes play along the big lake, but there are some water hazards and some water features on the golf course.
“I think The Falls is much more demanding off the tee because of the desert. Because it’s surrounded by desert on both sides, the fairways appear to be a little bit more narrow than Reflection Bay,
“There’s a lot less turf at The Falls for the overall development, so I think your tee shots are much more important at The Falls, whereas I think your approach shots at Reflection Bay, you need to pay a little more attention to,” says Spatz.
Nearby is the par 71 SouthShore Golf Club, a Nicklaus design that stretches to 6,917 yards and features elevations ranging from 1,410 to 1,750 feet. Also underway is the Rainbow Canyon Golf Club on the resort’s northern shore.
Also not far from the Vegas Strip is the JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort and Spa in Summerlin, where the jagged peaks of the mountains surrounding the breathtaking Red Rock Canyon provide a spectacular backdrop at any time of day for the green carpets that roll out around the resort.
The Marriott features an array of shops, restaurants and magnificent guest rooms, not to mention the 40,000-square-foot Aquae Sulis Spa and a 50,000-square-foot casino, but golfers have the convenience of the resort’s executive golf desk that can book them on to any one of a dozen area golf courses.
Among the crown jewels in the Marriott collection is TPC Las Vegas, part of the network of PGA Tour properties that includes TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
Designed by Bobby Weed, Raymond Floyd and Chris Gray of PGA Tour Design Services, TPC Las Vegas has hosted Champions Tour and PGA Tour events since its opening in 1996. The par 71 TPC Las Vegas stretches from 5,039 to 7,080 yards.
The green of the TPC Las Vegas fairways is accentuated against the rough terrain of the desert and offer generous landing areas.
The obvious elevation changes make several holes more visually intimidating than they really are and several holes required forced carries. For that reason, it’s a good idea to take advantage of TPC’s fore caddies, who are available for $25 plus gratuity.
TPC Las Vegas isn’t only about playing the game, but learning it as well through the Tour Academy, which offers not only instruction, but technology, as well. Short game notes provided by instructor Sean Lanyi are still something I review after he got me straightened out around the green.
Badlands is another course offered through the JW Marriott and its ominous name is entirely appropriate. With design contributions from Johnny Miller and Chi Chi Rodriguez, these 27 holes are definite desert target golf and not for the faint-hearted, with its forced carries and a premium on accuracy.
Renowned in the area for its toughness, some have called it over the top, but whatever way you look at it, a yardage book is critical and any plans for success may not be realistic until you’ve played Badlands more than once.
More moderate, but still challenging, is the picturesque par 72 Siena Golf Club, which throughout the course, offers outstanding views of the Spring Mountains and the Las Vegas skyline as it rolls gently to between 4,978 and 6,843 yards, offering five sets of tees.
Those are just a few of the golf courses available through the JW Marriott, but with all of the options available to guests, it’s a good idea to take a quick trip out to Red Rock Canyon, famous for its red sandstone and outstanding desert and mountain views, where hiking, cycling and rock-climbing are common pastimes.
Adventure Photo Tours (APT) leads excursions from Las Vegas, not only to Red Rock Canyon, but also offers the Grand Canyon, including helicopter tours, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley and the Hoover Dam, among other destinations.
A golf vacation need not be all about golf in Las Vegas. Shows, gaming, fine dining and spas are among the many options the city has to offer and, in the time that it took you to read this story, it’s quite likely there’s yet another new option in the planning stages to help keep the constant evolution of the city going.