Las Vegas - Swinging on the Strip
Playing golf might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “play” and “Las Vegas” in the same sentence. However, there are some quite stunning golf courses just a tee-shot away from the Strip, so grab your woods, irons and wedges and go clubbing with a difference on some of the most expensive and exclusive golf courses in America.
Money doesn’t just talk in Las Vegas – it positively shouts. America’s brashest city flaunts itself with the same bravado as its buxom, feather-bedecked showgirls, assaulting the senses with its bewildering array of glitzy resort hotels, its dazzling lights, its mind-boggling choice of top-drawer entertainment and restaurants, and its high-octane party atmosphere. Inside the luxury hotels, the vast lobbies are cathedrals of gambling, resonating to the cacophony of endlessly jangling slot machines and buzzing gaming tables that heave with the faithful, all praying to Lady Luck. Finding your way to the guest room lifts involves negotiating a labyrinth through the slots and tables, testing your own faith and resolve. Day or night, the disciples are still there paying their dues 24/7 and hoping their numbers will come up.
SEX IN THE CITY. If ever there was a city on speed, Sin City is it – and I love it, probably because of rather than despite its excesses. Perhaps also because I come from Essex’s answer to Las Vegas: Southend. Las Vegas even celebrates its notoriety, which dates back to the days of the Mob and the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra and co. The new Mob Museum tells the tale of organised crime in the city and across the US. Sex has always been a big part of its appeal, and remains so with raunchy shows and strip clubs among the alternatives to homely favourites like Celine Dion and Elton John. The city even sells itself with the brazen slogan “What happens here, stays here”. Its famous Strip (as the 4.2-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard through the heart of the city is known) is the hub of the action, although you should also check out the Fremont Street Experience downtown with its illuminated roof displays. At night, the traffic crawls past the iconic buildings fronting the Strip while the pavements throng with people heading out on the town or watching the free roadside spectacles that include the dancing fountains at Bellagio, the volcano eruptions at The Mirage and the pirate ship battles at Treasure Island.
HIGH ROLLERS’GOLF. Yet, tucked behind the Strip and unnoticed by the vast majority of the millions who flock to this latter-day Eldorado rising from the Nevada desert, are two verdant golf courses where you can swap the pizzazz for peace and quiet. The courses lie at either end of the Strip and their holes are framed by landmark casino hotels, some of which are outlandish pastiches of international monuments. Bali Hai Golf Club is at the southern end, right by the runways of McCarran International Airport, allowing a round before your flight back home. The Wynn Golf Course, near the northern extremity, is part of the refined Wynn Las Vegas resort hotel and across the Strip from the Fashion Show Mall’s designer labels. The course is restricted to guests staying at the Wynn and its elegant sister hotel, Encore. A round will set you back $500, although rental shoes and clubs are included. This is seriously high rollers’ golf. But considering that the Wynn Las Vegas cost a record $2.7 billion when it opened in 2005, and that the shiny Ferraris and Maseratis on show in the dealership inside the hotel cost up to $1.6 million each, you can understand why.
HEAT WAVE. The course, covering 142 acres of prime real estate, was designed by leading architect Tom Fazio, who also collaborated with owner, casino entrepreneur Steve Wynn, on the exclusive Shadow Creek course in North Las Vegas before he sold it along with his Mirage casino hotels to MGM Resorts. I was fortunate to play both the Wynn and Bali Hai while in Las Vegas for a trade show in late June. Even normally, the temperature at that time of year is searing. During my visit, a record heat wave pushed the thermometer to a scorching 113º F (45º C) as we teed off at lunchtime on the Wynn course. Besides the oven-like heat, what struck me was how green and luxuriant the landscaped course was: the tee boxes and fairways immaculate, greens as slick as glass and all edged by trees, flowering shrubs, lakes and meandering streams. The course also had some surprisingly dramatic elevation changes.
SOARING BACKDROPS. A challenging Par 70 that tips 7,000 yards, every hole was a visual delight, whether playing with the curved bronze towers of the Wynn and Encore hotels, the Italianate Venetian hotel or the soaring Stratosphere Tower as backdrops. Memorable holes include the par-4 dogleg 3rd that skirts a stream, the pretty par-3 6th where you have to fire your tee shot over a lake to a green cupped by grass slopes, the par-3 15th hole, with water on three sides of the green, and the 18th, which has a stream flanking the left and a gushing waterfall beyond the green. Buggies are well stocked with drinks to help keep you hydrated and forecaddies are assigned to every group, to help give guidance on hole layouts and the tricky, sloping greens.
TROPICAL ISLAND FEEL. Bali Hai, part of the Walters Golf chain, is open to all with green fees from $179-$349, depending on the season and when you play. I had actually played Bali Hai on a previous visit. Because the early morning tee times were busy, even in June, I had time to hit some balls on the range. Highly compact, it has netting above and at the end of the short practice area, but the best bit is that it is automated, with the range balls popping up on a tee from under the ground to a height you select. More open and less undulating than Wynn, the course is peppered with palm trees, water hazards, wide white-sand bunkers and waste areas that combine to give it a tropical island feel. Except that no tropical island course has a skyline like Bali Hai. The holes near the clubhouse are so close to some of the Strip hotels, it feels like you can reach them with a lob wedge.
STRIP SKYLINE. I was staying at the closest one, Mandalay Bay, and as I looked back from the first green, my temporary Vegas home (I moved to the ARIA casino resort in the huge CityCentre complex for the trade show) loomed large over the course, its golden façade glinting against the cloudless sky along with that of sister property THEhotel and between them the glass pyramid roof of the Luxor casino resort. Bali Hai’s open aspect gives sweeping panoramas from holes such as the par-3 6th, where you fire your tee shot over the edge of a lake to green next to a cascading stream with desert mountains in the distance. The 8th and 18th holes give the best Strip skyline views as you tee off, while the view from behind the bunker separating the 2nd and 11th greens is also worth a Kodak moment. Although its wide fairways are forgiving, water challenges including the island-green par-3 16th by the clubhouse punish errant shots. After a while you don’t notice the aircraft flying overhead at regular intervals from the adjacent airport. Service is with a smile throughout, especially from the friendly beverage cart girls. Allow time to eat in the clubhouse, too. The bar snacks are a meal in themselves and there is fine dining in the Balinese-themed Cili restaurant.
OTHER COURSES. Beyond the Strip is more excellent golf. In the Summerlin community to the north, TPC Las Vegas is a challenging desert course with lots of exposed rocks and cacti and scenic views of Red Rock Canyon that I played on my last visit. Nearby are the Arnold Palmer-designed Arroyo Golf Club at Red Rock course and Bear’s Best Las Vegas, with 18 holes hand-picked by Jack Nicklaus from his 270 designs worldwide. Desert resort Las Vegas Paiute, an hour north-east of Vegas on a tribal reservation, has three 18-hole Pete Dye designs. Of Bali Hai’s two sister Vegas courses, Royal Links is the most notable; a links-style course, it features replica holes from 11 Open Championship courses, including the Road Hole, from the Old Course’s Postage Stamp at St Andrews and Royal Troon.
MINI-SKIRTED CADDIES. Casino hotel giant Caesars owns two Vegas courses, both by Rees Jones. Cascata, laid out through desert canyons near Boulder, is one of the area’s best. Rio Secco, home to the Butch Harmon Golf School, offers golfers the option to book mini-skirted female forecaddies called T-Mates, for $200 excluding tip and green fee (from $99 to over $200). Shadow Creek is only available to guests staying at MGM’s hotels on the Strip, unless you’re a high roller or celebrity, and costs $500 a round – but that does include the limo ride there and back.
DIVE WITH SHARKS. Vegas has an endless array of things to do when not golfing. By day, you can hit the pool. Mandalay Beach has 2,700 tons of real sand and a beachside casino, MGM Grand’s Wet Republic has eight pools with party cabanas and DJs rocking dance platforms in and out of the water, and Encore’s adult-only European Pool allows topless bathing and its private cabanas come with mini fridge, plasma TV and a sofa. Shop at stand-alone malls or in themed shopping areas at casino resorts. Adrenalin junkies can get their kicks on roller coasters (there is even one at the top of the Stratosphere Tower), fire live-round machine guns, take to the skies for a duel in combat aircraft, drive a high-speed NASCAR racing car or dive with sharks at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium. Helicopter tours are a great way to see Las Vegas, especially lit up at night, as well as the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. I got grandstand views of them all on an overnight package with Heli USA, landing close to the canyon rim for a stay in a rustic cabin at its Grand Canyon Ranch after firing pistols at zombie targets on a gun range (I blasted their faces with my Sig Sauer), a horse ride to a desert overlook to watch the setting sun and see the ranch’s resident bison, dinner and a cowboy singalong under the stars round a roaring camp fire. Rent a car or take a tour to explore scenic areas including Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park and Lake Mead.
NIGHTLIFE. Vegas really comes alive at night. Once you have sated yourself at one of the many celebrity chef-owned eateries, catch a show. Besides the star performers, you can see lavish productions including eight permanent Cirque du Soleil shows, among them the water-based O at Bellagio, the Beatles’ LOVE at The Mirage, and the new Michael Jackson ONE, which I saw a preview of before it opened at Mandalay Bay. Afterwards, sip cocktails at an ultra-lounge, the chic late-night clubs that are now de rigueur in Vegas. My favourites include Encore’s Surrender, where guests spill out into the adjoining open-air Encore Beach Club in a poolside setting with cosy cabanas, pole dancers and a DJ in a glass booth, the multi-floor Marquee club at the Cosmopolitan, and the long-established PURE at Caesars Palace, where the rooftop terrace gives superb views over the Strip. With the clubs staying open until 5.30am, you might as well stay up for breakfast before teeing off.
Direct flights to Las Vegas are operated from Manchester and London Gatwick by Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) and from London Heathrow by British Airways (www.britishairways.com). You can also fly via other US gateways.
Bali Hai Golf Club
Green fee: $179-$349; buggy included
Wynn Golf Course
Green fee: $500; buggy, rental clubs and shoes included
MandalayBay Resort & Casino
Wynn Las Vegas
ARIA Resort & Casino
HELICOPTER TOURS & GRAND CANYON OVERNIGHT
Heli USA’s fleet of red AgustaWestland helicopters offers sightseeing tours of the Las Vegas Strip and the Grand Canyon as well as overnight stays at its Grand Canyon Ranch.