BOULDER CITY, Nev. -- When it opened in 2000, Cascata golf course was the most private of playgrounds.
Architect Rees Jones didn't want to talk about his $70-million creation during interviews. Golfers rarely got to step on the property, much less secure a tee time, unless you were among a select few who spent big at the MGM Grand Las Vegas.
Those heady days are long gone. Cascata, which in Italian translates to waterfall, has returned to earth, like the 418-foot waterfall winding through the course -- and the clubhouse. Joe Public has access to it, just like any other public golf course in America -- except that it is not like every other public golf course. Jones considers Cascata the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
The same Cascata built for casino whales -- with its caddies and stunning scenery and pristine conditions -- now caters to all comers. The once-$500 green fee has relaxed to $375 during peak season ($325 early in the morning and late afternoon) and $250-$300 during shoulder season. The price adjustment has attracted more business than ever. Cascata, ranked No. 49 among the top 100 public courses in the country by Golf Digest in 2010, hosted nearly 17,000 rounds in 2011. Thankfully that exclusive experience remains.
"When you are on property, you feel like miles from anything. You don't see other holes or other groups," said General Manager Charles Packard.
Cascata: The experience
The club sits hidden 22 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Golfers check in at a lavish 37,000-square-foot Tuscan clubhouse, met at the front door by their caddie for a day (caddies are mandatory). This tour guide, a certified Class A PGA professional, escorts players to a locker with their name on it. Outside, the range introduces the rocky, mountainous terrain that dominates the day.
Groups tee off 12 minutes apart to provide intimate bonding with Mother Nature. The only galleries are the bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners and large lizards called chuckwallas that golfers might encounter.
The routing of the 7,137-yard Cascata is simple. It climbs up and swoops back down again with 800 feet of elevations in between with the 3,600-foot peak at Red Mountain in full view.
"There are no hidden features," said Mark Blais, the director of golf sales & marketing at Caesars Golf Las Vegas, which now owns and operates the course. "People like Rees Jones. They appreciate his straightforward style."
Many elevated tees overlook a desert valley 3,200 feet below. Desert scrub lines every hole, so players who spray the ball need not apply. Its fairways sweep left and right, leading to slick, demanding greens.
"It's difficult to read the greens when you are in the mountains. The caddies help a lot," said Lenny Payne from Houston. "The key is to keep the ball in play. It could be called a target course, especially off the tee."
The best holes are also the most scenic. The par-3 seventh features a large green surrounded by a creek tucked in a cozy canyon. Tiger Woods posed for a Golf Digest cover on the downhill 14th, a par 4 dogleg right, where a creek up the right side of the fairway pools into a bigger hazard on the approach. If Wolf Creek Golf Club wasn't in Mesquite, Nev., two hours away, Cascata would be praised as the most gorgeous course in the entire Southwest.
"I like the elevations. I like the greens," said Johnny Helpenstill, of Pearland, Texas. "There are a lot of calendar (photo) views off the tee."
Cascata: The verdict
Cascata has found its niche in the Las Vegas golf scene. The course offers a change of pace from its high-end competitors on the Strip, The Wynn Golf Club and Shadow Creek. Cascata costs less and is more beautiful than both the Wynn and Shadow Creek, yet with the same level of service. Some consider the drive a deterrent, but it's the only way to find such a remote paradise.