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By Joel Beall
Las Vegas. Photo by Golffile
The slender man turned to the mountains and cursed loudly as his 15-footer stopped just short of its destination.
It was not the curse words that were unnerving; profanity is the parlance of our sport. It was the word cursed that resonated, punctuated by fierce mannerisms and gaze into the distance. It was a look that read, “I am the victim of an undeserved fate.” A look ubiquitous among the degenerates that roam these parts.
“I am cursed,” he muttered again, walking off the green. “This whole f***ing place is.”
Las Vegas is America’s playground, a bright-light Candy Land of entertainment. That is the billing, and its advertisements and lore rarely counter that notion. Go to Vegas, you are guaranteed a good time.
That was my initial thought when reading about the newly re-opened Wynn Golf Club, renovated by Tom Fazio, an oasis with incredible vistas of the Las Vegas Strip. Not unlike Shadow Creek on the north end of town, Wynn has obstacles to playing: The green fee is $500 and requires a night’s stay at the Wynn hotel plus a mandatory caddie. Fazio and his team moved 400,000 cubic yards of earth in re-routing the layout, which concludes with a 35-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide waterfall behind the 18th green. It’s precisely the experience Vegas touts. Take a look at the photos, and you’ll see what we mean.
But, as is often the case with Vegas, sometimes you fall short of being able to afford that opulence. And that’s OK, too. Real Vegas is for fantasies and bottoming out in the process. It is the displays of luxury and cheap thrills and the indiscernible line that divides them … or the question if there is a line at all. It is a resting stop for the risers and home to the has-beens and never-wases. It is getting a taste of the good life before it spits you out at a seafood buffet at 5 in the morning. The question is whether you enjoy the ride nevertheless.
Enticing as a Wynn visit was, we eschewed the Sin City ideal for the pursuit of its absolute. Which is how I ended up at Wildhorse Golf Club, a former PGA Tour stop that is now the cheapest tee time in town.
• • •
The best way to describe Wildhorse is to liken it to an ageing high-school quarterback, one perhaps tending bar at a local watering hole, with endless tales of the glory days.
The course has a proud history, hosting the tour’s Sahara Invitational (the club was then called Paradise Valley) in the 1960s and ’70s, and boasting winners like Jack Nicklaus (a four-time champ), Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Tony Lema. The course—one of the first built in Nevada—was constructed by legendary publisher and controversial figure Hank Greenspan in 1959, and for a short period in the ’60s, Howard Hughes was the owner. Unlike other desert tracks, its bones are more than a resort-style routing, a true thinking-man’s setup. Its ninth hole has been routinely voted as the toughest hole in the state, and celebrities like Andre Agassi and Celine Dion lived in houses off the back nine.
Of course, ageing quarterbacks are prone to romanticise, their physiques becoming less muscular and more plump.
Wildhorse has changed names six times in six decades—owning monikers such as Paradise Valley, Showboat Country Club, Los Verdes, Indian Wells, and Royal Kenfield—while swapping ownership too many instances to count. The tour left after tournament organizers ran out of money, although tournament organizers claimed certain deals by the tour were not kept.
It’s run now as a municipality by Henderson, Nev., which employs a friendly staff, but workers say funds are tight. Greens are slow and bumpy, and the areas between fairways and desert waste are a hybrid of hardpan and crabgrass. Unlike other Vegas golf courses, Wildhorse does not overseed its fairways, resulting in a brown-out.
“We get unfairly knocked for that,” says Robert Zoucha, who works at Wildhorse and has lived in the area since childhood, “but the grass isn’t gone, it’s just dormant. It is playable.”
“Brown is the new green” is easy for serious golfers to understand, not so much for visitors who are confused as to why the sand and short grass are the same colour. “At the British Open, brown gives a links character. Here it’s an eyesore,” says Ed Miller, a retiree and regular at Wildhorse. “Go figure.”
Conversely, when your greens fee hovers around $20—less than the minimum at most blackjack tables in Vegas—you might temper expectations. That would be inaccurate because the layout is really damn enjoyable.
Wildhorse is not particularly long, with the front stretching just shy of 3,000 yards. But the course does not call upon the same three or four clubs in your bag. That includes off the tee, with tight confines, doglegs and lakes making a fairway wood, hybrid or long iron the play on a majority of boxes. The par 3s are a good mix, from short to long, straightforward to dicey, and the par 5s are not gimme birdies.
Wildhorse will never be confused with Bethpage Black—if you are on your game and can handle slower greens, you can go low—but there is enough trouble to keep you honest. It can also be a tad gimmicky, as evidenced at the first (a drivable par 4) and the ninth (the infamous hole has a steep, steep bank guarding the green). In that same breath, there are a number of $300-plus courses in Vegas, and this is as much fun as any.
Zoucha understands out-of-towners do not visit Wildhorse, believing the lower price tag means low quality. It is aggravating for the staff, but a point of pride for the locals.
“Always ask where the people in town play, that’s how you know a golf course is decent,” Miller says. “No international titans here. Just neighbours.”
That’s not quite true. We chatted with a number of players who live elsewhere, citing tee-time reservation systems as their conduit to Wildhorse, the price lighting up like The Strip at night. A price that can be a panacea to those who have come out on the business end of their trip.
The cursing man at the beginning of our story does not want his real name published. When asked why, he shoots a glare that makes me wish I had not identified myself. Let us call him “Jim.”
Jim, in his late 30s and belied by an ever-graying fade, says the missed putt I witnessed was for more than “walking around money.” It also sounds like this was the latest in a string of Vegas defeats. In town for an aviation conference this week, Jim arrived early from Canada on Saturday for a mini-holiday. That hasn’t been the case, unless R&R stands for “ravaged and ruined.” Got wiped out in craps. Up in blackjack until he wasn’t. A low score in the Redskins-49ers game kept him from a six-team parlay. He lost track of how many hours he spent at roulette and said it in a way that didn’t sound prosperous.
All of which, Jim says, were tough breaks.
“Statistically speaking, it would be nearly impossible to replicate [the losses],” he asserts with the utmost conviction.
It is hard not to call B.S.—taking the over with one of the worst NFL offenses doesn’t seem mathematically sound (or no one told him that, unlike Canada, defense is involved in American football)—but he has suffered enough kicks in the ass. Besides, woe does not listen to reason.
Regarding the butt-whooping at Wildhorse, Jim claims two bogeys were caused by a bad yardage from his cart’s GPS. And that he didn’t know a lake was on the right side of the eighth hole (“I always fade, like the pros,” he says), and bumpy greens took away his putting advantage.
“I’m only here because someone didn’t come through on Bali [Hai],” he says.
Later I find one of Jim’s playing partners outside the clubhouse patio nursing a dark concoction, hoping to verify Jim’s story. Also wanting his name left out—what happens in Vegas really does stay in Vegas—this man, older, tanned and a bit sauced for a Monday afternoon, isn’t having Jim’s yarns of misfortune.
“You know why losers lose?” he offers, sounding like he’s said this a thousand times before. “Acceptance. They can’t do it. You take a beat, move on. If I know someone is complaining about an earlier loss, they are about to lose again. Their attention isn’t there.”
Pleased with his assessment, he returns to his drink, and I get the sense it is time for me to scram.
“Hey,” the older gentleman says, without looking up, “he did pay up.”
• • •
There is gambling at Wildhorse. This is Vegas, after all.
Zoucha says it’s nothing too crazy, mostly just weekend warriors. “You’ll have the Friday, Saturday games,” he says. “No one is breaking the bank.” It’s part of the city’s mythology, he says. Everyone talks about reaching for the sky, but few put the bucks down to fly.
Others, with lowered voices, disagree. One of my playing partners says thousands are routinely dropped here. Another says you know a game is afoot when suspicious figures are on the property.
“I once saw a man hand over his entire set, bag and all,” says Miller. “I would have loved to see how he explained that to the wife.” A woman on the driving range remembers a house title being transferred over a round years ago. Now that would be a tough one to explain to the Mrs.
I get in a low-stakes game with my second pairing of the day, down one entering the final hole. From 95 yards I spin a wedge to tap-in distance. Except, when I reach the green, it appears my ball has spun too much, and now sits in a bank against a pond. The ninth, the hardest hole that I ridiculed as gimmicky, has tripped me up.
Vegas, I think as I hand over $10 ... she always wins.
As for Jim, despite a strained, somewhat combative discussion, he lets me know he has complimentary hockey tickets, good ones, for a weekend tilt between the Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. I give him my number, and he says to expect confirmation within the hour.
But I know better, as he rolls out of the parking lot. He’ll forget or have second thoughts or is pulling my leg. The text never comes; there will be no free passes. Not in the city of big dreams, bad luck and broken promises.