LAS VEGAS - There's a lone walking bridge on the newly revamped Wynn Golf Club.
It isn't even used much anymore, and my foursome would have driven our carts right past it if our caddie hadn't pointed it out on the 16th hole. It, figuratively, bridges the gap between today and yesteryear, one of the few relics left over the days of the Desert Inn Golf Club.
"All the famous golfers have walked across that bridge," our caddie said.
Golf has always been a part of the lore of the Las Vegas Strip. The Desert Inn course opened in 1952, going on to host dozens of PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Senior Tour events. It was blown up in 2001 by Steve Wynn to make room for his two towers and Tom Fazio's original Wynn design. It was the only game in town until the 1960s. Dean Martin and other Vegas movers and shakers (and criminals) liked to hang out at the Las Vegas Country Club, where an FBI plane made an emergency landing while investigating the mob ties of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, portrayed in the movie "Casino" by Robert DeNiro. The filmed version of the landing occurred at the nearby Las Vegas National Golf Club, the closest public course to the strip other than the Wynn and the Bali Hai Golf Club at the southern end of the strip.
Golf may not be as glamorous as mobsters and million-dollar bets and the other shenanigans that happen daily on the Strip, but it remains part of the fabric of this town. The reopening of the Wynn Golf Club, coupled with the popularity of the Las Vegas Topgolf and reinvestment at Bali Hai, is a sure sign that the game is alive and well on the Las Vegas Strip. Things were bleak for a while with the Wynn course shuttered for two years and rumors that Bali Hai would be sold and possibly redeveloped.
The more I visit, the more I appreciate what a good golf destination it is. True, Las Vegas tee times tend to be overpriced. So is that cocktail you ordered and that burger you ate at lunch. You have to take into account that everything costs more in this place. Remember, too, it's not cheap watering grass in the desert. And if you don't like the $600 price tag of Shadow Creek or the $550 at the Wynn, go down the street to the Las Vegas Golf Center for the Happy Hour special daily after 3 p.m. - nine holes of par-3 golf with a cart, a bucket of range balls and two beers for $37. Golf on the Strip welcomes all players, whether it's penny slots or high-stakes poker you seek.
Bettering Bali Hai
Bali Hai has long been the crown jewel of the three area courses once owned by Walters, a legend in gambling circles. Architects Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley lined the 7,000-yard routing with seven acres of lagoons; 2,500 tower palms and 100,000 Balinese tropical plants to recreate a South Pacific vibe complemented by the very nice clubhouse.
Subtle elevation changes and windy afternoons are its biggest defense. Most of the water is easily avoidable except at the 18th, one of the most difficult finishing holes anywhere, a 486-yard par 4 that used to be a par 5 (hence the par of 71 on the card).
A new management company, Paradigm Golf Group, has pumped new energy into Bali Hai with an emphasis on a friendly staff. Bluetooth speakers and female caddies called ParMates can Vegas-ify your round.
More than $500,000 was reinvested back into the property this summer, rebuilding every greenside bunker and improving certain tee boxes. Bali Hai will no longer overseed every fall, either, a move Director of Golf Paul Michelato believes will enhance year-round conditions.
At dusk, I headed down the road to the Las Vegas Golf Center, formerly the TaylorMade Golf Experience and before that, the Callaway Golf Center. It was easy to see this was a facility in transition, its audience no doubt cannibalized by the arrival of Topgolf Las Vegas in May 2016. All the bones are there, but in need of some TLC. Half of the clubhouse was gated off and closed. Outside, several dozen golfers were practicing on the two-tiered range. On the upper tier, automatic power tees fed balls to golfers aiming at an SUV and Trump and Biden targets. Underneath, golfers enjoyed the benefit of some shade. Another section of the expansive range, players practiced on what little turf was still alive following a hot summer.
The nine-hole course - lit for night-time play - was in mediocre shape as well. I paired up with a local twosome who visit a couple times a year. "We want it to be better," one of them admitted. Driving the rest of the course, I did pass a mom who was teeing off on the final hole, while her young son was chopping the ball two feet at a time through a waste bunker. It was a good reminder that every facility, no matter how rough around the edges, helps grow the game in some way. I hope this one regains its mojo.
A Hall of Fame day at Las Vegas National
The following day, I turned back the clock to the 1970s. Everything about Las Vegas National exudes old-school Vegas, from the low-slung clubhouse to the homes lining the fairway and the whole feel of the 1961 routing by Bert Stamps. The 6,871-yard course is a mere 3 miles (and less than a $10 Uber) from the Wynn where I was staying. Tiger Woods shot his highest score of the week (70) at 'The National' while winning the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, his first Tour win.
My twosome encountered a fivesome in the second fairway - a bachelor party - but once we played through, it was smooth sailing. Breezy and cooler weather (low 60s) cleared the tee sheet for us. Although the land is relatively benign, the course itself was surprisingly good. The back nine cranked up the charm with more interesting holes. Back inside the clubhouse, be sure to spend some time perusing the Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame, a collection of artifacts and plaques celebrating the history of golf in Sin City. It's as good as any golf memorabilia/hall of fame collection I've come across in my travels.
The wonders of Wynn
Considering golf has been played on the site for seven decades, it's almost as if the reopening of the Wynn Golf Club brought back balance to the Strip. Even non-golfers should appreciate all that green space among all that neon and concrete.
I like Fazio's redesigned Wynn better for so many reasons: Less bunkers (37), shorter routing (6,722 yards), one more par 3 (six total), one more par 5 (four total), larger greens (an average of 300 square feet) and friendlier, reshaped surrounds that kick balls onto greens, instead of repelling them.
The new finisher symbolizes the upgrades best: A 249-yard par 3, instead of a mammoth par 4 that took two perfect shots to reach. It's an intimidating shot - but doable from the 200-yard member tees - over a pond and front bunker to the green famously framed by the 35-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide waterfall.
"Arguably, it maybe one of the most dramatic par 3s I've ever had the opportunity to be involved with. It's just a fabulous, great environment," Fazio said on a conference call.
To some golfers, the Wynn's extravagant green fee is the story, not the return of the course. Not for me. It doesn't have the views of Pebble Beach or the history of Pinehurst No. 2, but I challenge anyone to play it and not feel lucky in life. Would you feel the same way after four hours at the tables inside?