Larry Olmsted has covered both golf and gaming as a journalist for more than 15 years. He set the Guinness World Record for marathon casino poker playing at 72 hours, 2 minutes and writes the annual golf chapter for the Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas.
There's no sure thing inside casinos except that in the long run, the house always wins. But for visitors, the best bet often lies outside of the gaming floor -- on the golf course.
Casinos have been on a golf boom for the past 20 years, and the quality is usually well above the national average and often better priced, like the free cocktails on the casino floor.
In California, casino golf is especially prolific. Here are some of the best bets:
(It's worth noting that California has very odd gaming regulations, especially when it comes to dealers, so many casinos here offer automated roulette wheels under clear domes and craps played by flipping cards instead of rolling dice. Because of this, automated craps and roulette with virtual dealers are popular.)
San Diego: Barona Creek, Pechanga and Sycuan
By just about everyone's standards the top casino/golf combo in California is the Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego.
The AAA Four-Diamond hotel has more than 400 rooms with plenty of amenities, and the casino is unusually gambler friendly. It's been rated the loosest slots and video poker in San Diego and No. 1 in the nation for blackjack by Card Player magazine.
Barona Resort features a full Vegas-style assortment of table games (including baccarat), has impressive poker rooms with 15 tables and even an off-track betting parlor. There are eight restaurants for all price points plus a food court, but the weak link here is nightlife and entertainment. Alcohol is also extremely limited, served only in four eateries.
Barona Creek Golf Club is always ranked the best casino course in California. The appeal is not a brute force challenge but rather a walk in the park with no forced carries. It has straightforward routing and is extremely well groomed with carpet-like fairways, fluffy light bunkers and bentgrass greens, a superior putting surface unusual in such hot climates. The back nine offers more visual drama, climbing and dropping over a series of exposed rock ridges.
Barona's chief southern California rival is the full-service Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, with a 517-room Four-Diamond hotel. Standard rooms are quite large with lavish bathrooms and walk-in showers, while suites add wet bars and hot tubs.
Pechanga has a great food scene, with three fine-dining eateries, six casual restaurants and six fast food choices. Nightlife is far better here, with frequent major live touring acts, a cabaret, top-floor DJ nightclub, dance club and comedy club. At 200,000 square feet, the casino is the largest in the state and includes a 54-table poker room with regular tournaments.
Golf here means the schizophrenic Journey at Pechanga, designed by Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates. The land is rugged and severe. As a result, the front plays through stands of old oak trees and across rolling hills, with enormous elevation changes, up to 300 vertical feet on one hole. The back nine switches gears and plays through a desert-like setting -- except not in the desert -- with forced carries over so many dry washes they need 13 wooden bridges. There are lakes, canyons, and even a virtual "island" par 3 flanked by canyons and inescapable native shrubs.
Both are strong, classic parkland-style designs that regularly make the lists of the nation's top casino courses. They are longtime local favorites with steep discounts for San Diego country residents and also bargains for hotel guests. There is also an 18-hole par-3 course, Pine Glen.
Sycuan is a bit of a different set-up from the others. It is a standalone golf and tennis resort with just 100 rooms. The first course was built in 1956, and the resort is now owned by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, which also operates the Sycuan Casino five minutes away. The casino has no rooms but it does have an impressive gaming area with just about every table game, a bingo hall, huge poker room with frequent tournaments and off-track betting. Because it's not a hotel, nightlife is limited, though it does have scheduled live music and a standout sports bar.
Northern California: Cache Creek and Rolling Hills
In northern California, Cache Creek Casino Resort is the most impressive. It's a Four-Diamond hotel and quite intimate by casino standards with just 200 rooms and niceties like 300-thread count linens and Keurig K-Cup coffee machines. It has the full gamut of table games and a new poker room, unusual for a casino this size. Even more impressive is the dining, with eight choices from buffet to Pacific Rim to prime steaks. Cache Creek is weak on the nightlife front, with a sports bar and not much more.
The draw is the Troon Golf-operated Yocha Dehe Golf Club, a Brad Bell design stretching to 7,300 yards and typically the highest-rated casino course in this part of the state.
Rolling Hills has no craps, roulette or poker. It's mostly blackjack, Pai Gow and slots. There's also no lodging, limited dining and little nightlife.
The reason to visit? Sevillano Links. Who wouldn't want to try a casino course by golf's most infamous gambler, John Daly? This flattish design -- with firm fairways separated by broad expanses of deep rough and open approaches welcoming running shots -- is surprisingly good. Then again, Daly did win the British Open.
In Palm Springs, the golf course options run deep while there are just a handful of casinos. The best bet is Fantasy Springs Resort in Indio. It is quite upscale for a small independent casino, has well-appointed modern rooms, a large escapist pool complex, a 24-lane contemporary cocktail chic bowling alley and regular live music. It's one of the liveliest of the rather staid area casinos, with LIT, an ultra-lounge, plus a more sedate 12th-floor coattail lounge and wine bar.
Architect Clive Clark turned a desert setting next door into a tropical lush fantasyland, complete with greenside waterfall and numerous aquatic features and rock lined creeks. The Eagle Falls Golf Course is heavily mounded and features wispy brown rough evoking the Old Sod. At 6,715 from the tips it is welcoming to the resort player.