"Ching Ching Ca-CHING!"
Ah, there's nothing like the sound of cash money, and there's nowhere else it echoes with more enthusiasm than in Las Vegas, America's entertainment capital. Even if the reverberations of cash drawers and clanking coins aren't quite so deafening as a decade ago, Las Vegas remains a premier playground in the U.S., and that applies to golfers as well as slot jockeys.
In fact, Vegas has beaten the odds and joined the inner circle of outstanding desert golf destinations. It can't quite match Arizona or Palm Springs for sheer quantity, but where quality is concerned, Vegas golf can hold its head high. The last word comes from David Feherty, who sagely observes, "The value for your money in Vegas is extraordinary, because when you're on the golf course, you're only losing two, three hundred bucks in a six-hour period, which isn't bad."
Shadow Creek (shadowcreek.com, 702-399-7111, 866-260-0069, $500)
It no longer has the mystique it enjoyed when it was next-to-impossible to get onto, but the course -- ranked No. 17 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play -- is still one of the nation's best.
In 2008, original architect Tom Fazio installed bentgrass greens, trimmed trees back to open up long-lost vistas and added 321 yards to the tips. But nothing has changed since then. Shadow Creek, located 15 minutes north of the Strip, is open to guests of an MGM Resorts International destination (there are 15 in Las Vegas, including the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and New York, New York) Monday through Thursday. Weekends are reserved only for the big-money players.
Cascata (golfcascata.com, 702-294-2080, $250-$375)
Draped dramatically across stark mountain slopes at 3,200 feet above the desert valley, this Rees Jones design includes Tour-quality caddies, bighorn sheep sightings and a river that runs through the 37,000-square-foot clubhouse. Located 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, Cascata is ranked No. 58 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play.
Wynn Las Vegas (wynnlasvegas.com, 702-770-4653, $300-$500)
You don't have to be a guest at Steve Wynn's eponymous hotel on the Strip to take on Sin City's most convenient golf experience. But if you are, the commute is short since the first tee is just steps from the lobby.
The course, which debuted in 2005, is ranked No. 66 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play. Just how great the Tom Fazio design really is spurs debate, but what's undeniable is that its oasis-in-the-desert ambiance with its only-in-Vegas landscaping and water features make it a must-play. Green fees from June 15th through August are $300 on weekdays and $375 on weekends.
Coyote Springs (coyotesprings.com, 877-742-8455, $100-$144)
This Jack Nicklaus-design earned Golf Magazine's No. 4 ranking in the Top 10 New Courses You Can Play after opening in 2008. Getting here, an hour north of the Las Vegas, requires a lonely hour ride up U.S. 93 through barren, if eerily attractive desert. If you continue straight instead of turning right where 93 meets State Route 168, you're headed straight toward the U.S. Air Force's highly secretive Area 51.
Come to the course and you'll find a wonderfully low-key design, with fast, undulating greens, an army of strategically deployed tattered-edge bunkers and just enough bells and whistles in the form of lakes, waterfalls and mountain views.
Las Vegas Paiute, Wolf Course (lvpaiutegolf.com, 800-711-2833, $99-$169)
All three wind-blown Pete Dye designs -- located 22 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- are free of homes and invariably in superb condition, but the toughest and longest test is the Wolf, with multiple blind tee shots and the facility's largest, most undulating and fastest greens.
Forget your three-putts with a post-round beverage in the 50,000-square-foot clubhouse, where giant floor-to-ceiling picture windows let you gaze across the desert floor clear out to the mountains.
Best of the Rest
Rio Secco (riosecco.net, 702-777-2400, $99-$199)
This Rees Jones design 25 minutes south of downtown Las Vegas features perfect greens and a stunning back nine through desert canyons. Perfect and stunning also describes Vegas resident Natalie Gulbis, who you might see at Rio Secco from time to time on the practice tee at Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Butch Harmon's Golf School. Just take a right-hand turn after the first hole for a potential glimpse of paradise.
Rio Secco also offers package deals with sister course Cascata, approximately 40 minutes to the east.
Bear's Best (clubcorp.com/Clubs/Bear-s-Best-Las-Vegas, 702-605-0649, $149-$249)
Jack fans should find their way here, a 20-minute drive west of the Strip, to play holes from the 18-time major winner's extensive course design portfolio. The scenery is memorable, and carts provide video playing tips on each hole from the designer himself.
TPC Las Vegas (tpc.com/tpc-las-vegas, 702-256-2500, $79-$249)
This Bobby Weed and Raymond Floyd design opened in 1996 just 15 minutes west of the Strip. While the back nine is a bit more scenic with Red Rock Canyon views, you'll catch sight of the Vegas skyline on a number of holes throughout. That's valuable since most putts will break in the direction of the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel, visible in the distance on the northern end of the Strip.
Bali Hai (balihaigolfclub.com, 888-992-3115, $95-$265)
This 7,002-yard Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt design is a tropical golf paradise located right on the Strip. The layout includes a signature island green and more than 100,000 tropical plants and flowers. Transition zones are accented with Augusta white sand that is set off by black volcanic rock outcroppings. Lessons are available from Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Mike Davis, while dining options include the award-winning Cili Restaurant.
Royal Links (royallinksgolfclub.com, 888-992-3115, $59-$225)
Perhaps Las Vegas' most distinctive course is Royal Links, where architect Pete Dye fashioned 18 holes that pay homage to holes found on British Open courses, such as Troon's "Postage Stamp" and St. Andrews' Road Hole, with plaques on each tee box to educate as well as entertain.
The faux-castle clubhouse serves up that ubiquitous Scottish treat -- the hot dog -- that is not to be missed. It's big, it's grilled and it comes on a seasoned, buttered bun. Says Mr. Feherty, "You go out there and if you close your eyes and forget that you really came here for the slot machines -- you can really believe that on a cool day, maybe that you're floating around Scotland. I mean hell, they've got pirates, they've got the Eiffel Tower, they've got the pyramids ... Why the hell shouldn't you be in Scotland, and if you're in Scotland, you should be on a golf course."
Wildhorse Golf Club (golfwildhorse.com, 702-434-9000, $59-$79) opened in 1959 as the Paradise Valley Country Club, and it subsequently underwent several changes. Its heyday was as the Showboat Country Club during the go-go '60s, where it served as co-host for the PGA Tour's Sahara Invitational. When the Tour returned to Vegas in 1983, it was one of four courses used in Fuzzy Zoeller's victory.
Its most recent makeover took place in 2004, when architects Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt hacked yardage and improved playabilty. Today, the parkland course, with excellent mountain views, is operated by the City of Henderson, and it's a steal for locals at $35 during the week.
Tourists get change back from a Benjamin at any time, making it the rare Vegas-area championship course to make that claim. The standout hole is also the toughest, the 398-yard, par-4 ninth, where water practically encircles the green.
Worth the Money
If you really want to find a place to spend three, four or even five hundred bucks to play golf, it's easy to do in Las Vegas. Let's take it in another direction -- with Las Vegas National (866-695-1961, lasvegasnational.com, $59-$129). Las Vegas National isn't great, but it's great fun, thanks to its hip history, stellar near-the-Strip location and low-end (though not rock bottom) prices.
The Rat Pack -- Dino, Frank and Sammy -- used to roam these parts when it was known as the Sahara Country Club, key scenes in the movie "Casino" were filmed in a home off one of the fairways and it was part of the rota when Tiger Woods captured his first Tour win in 1996. A variety of price points keep everybody in the game.
Wynn Las Vegas (wynnlasvegas.com, 702-770-7000)
Built on land that was once home to the famed Desert Inn, this towering Golf Magazine Gold Medal Premier Resort opened in 2005 and has more than 2,700 rooms, 20 dining options and a Tom Fazio-designed golf course right outside the back door. Another 2,000 rooms are available at the adjacent Encore resort, which debuted in 2008.