Image: Wynn Las Vegas
Wynn Las Vegas
there are many notable things about Wynn Country Club, including a stunning finish from fifteen to eighteen.
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updated 4/8/2009 9:26:19 AM ET 2009-04-08T13:26:19

If you think there is no such thing as a sure bet in a casino, you haven’t tried playing golf at one.

Despite troubled times, casinos have funded a golf boom unlike any ever seen. While the number of new public courses is barely growing, and more private courses are closing than opening, casino golf construction has exploded.

Fortunately for golf fans, this high quantity is also high quality, as casinos use their income streams to offer top designers dreamlike scenarios.

“The nice thing about clients like that is that they have an ample budget. They want something memorable, something that will bring people back or make them stay another day,” said Arthur Hills, past-president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, whose most recent gaming effort was the Journey at Pechanga Resort and Casino Pechanga in Southern California. “The other unique thing about these projects is that there is usually no [housing] real estate involved, so you really have the opportunity to use the best land and not have to worry about the home sites.”

These courses are often loss leaders for gambling, explained Bradley Klein, Architecture Editor for Golfweek magazine. “You get a pretty good value since the golf isn’t supposed to pay for itself. Casino courses tend to be extremely well done because the idea is to impress guests and encourage them to stay at the casino.”

Elsewhere, the golf industry’s model has quickly moved toward profits from real estate sales rather than greens fees, so the best land, views and lakefront properties are typically reserved for pricey home sites, leaving golf course architects whatever remains between lots.

Not so at casinos which, in addition to having so few homes, rarely spare any expense. Perhaps no top designers have benefitted from this trend as much as Tom Fazio and Rees Jones. Fazio started the current boom with Shadow Creek, perennially the top ranked casino course on earth, which he built for Steve Wynn’s then Mirage Resorts in Las Vegas.

Fazio was basically given a blank check, and his course was widely believed to be the most expensive ever built at the time, estimated at $37-$40 million in the early 1980s, or close to $90 million today.

By comparison, you can still build a very good course for $5-$10 million. Fazio’s work was so good that Wynn recently hired him for the casino course at Wynn Las Vegas.

“In the ’80s we saw a lot of projects that combined golf, a hotel and residences,” explained Tom Fazio, often called the greatest living designer. “Now we’re not getting a lot of new hotels, but many of the ones we are getting are associated with gaming. Without a lot of hotel rooms, these courses don’t make sense. It’s all hotel related, and right now, the gaming industry is driving the lodging sector. The casinos are the only ones still doing big grand hotels.”

Las Vegas competitors were concerned that Shadow Creek would attract deep pocketed gamblers, so Rees Jones was hired by a rival casino group to build Cascata, carved from a

Image: Lake of Isles
Lake of Isles
The Lake of Isles facility at Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Conn., is a 36-hole facility — one course is open to the public and one is very private.
Nevada mountain.

The enormous amount of blasting allowed Cascata to surpass Shadow Creek — not in terms of rankings but in cost. Jones’ experience with dynamite and heavy equipment led to a job for Foxwoods, the Connecticut casino resort that is both the world’s largest and most profitable.

Whereas most developers allocate as little as 150-acres, sandwiched between homes, Jones was given free reign to carve his 36-holes from over 2000-acres of untouched woodlands and lakes. The result at Foxwoods was two more excellent courses.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, the most glaring examples of the deep pocketed, quality-first approach casinos have taken with golf. The trend has been responsible for some of the highest ranked courses built in recent years: At least five casino courses have made Golf Magazine’s Top 100 You Can Play list, statistically quite disproportionate to the percentage of U.S. courses they represent.

While these include three Vegas courses tied for the nation’s highest greens fees ($500), Shadow Creek, Cascata and Wynn Country Club, it also includes some stunning bargains. There is truly something for every budget and taste, and if you love golf, you will love casino golf.

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