LAS VEGAS -- Kevin Kallister and Scott Mathes looked entirely out of place dragging golf clubs through the casino of the Aria Resort & Casino.
The truth is the golfers from Peoria, Ill., were the smartest guys in the room at that moment. They had spent the day before at the lush and luxurious Shadow Creek, spending their money wisely, not giving it away amid the flashing lights of the casino floor.
They stayed at Aria for that reason. Only those who stay at MGM International Resorts-owned properties have access to Shadow Creek, a $500-a-round playground that continues to be the top splurge in Las Vegas golf.
Both Cascata, a luxury oasis in Boulder City owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., and the Wynn Golf Club, developed by casino mogul Steve Wynn right next to his two five-star casino hotels, compare favorably to Shadow Creek. They've got all the bells and whistles of a fancy private club: the slick greens, the caddies, the five-star service in the clubhouse and locker room, the secluded and scenic golf course designed by a big-name architect.
And somehow they can't quite replicate the essence of Las Vegas' original golf Shangri-La. Shadow Creek just feels different. It's got an exclusive vibe that just can't be replicated, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem. That might be why the Wynn and Cascata can be had for less money during off-peak times. Shadow Creek never wavers on its price tag, a cost that keeps its aura alive.
"It was utopia, definitely a bucket-list course," Kallister said. "It was a great experience."
Director of Golf Mark Brenneman has dined on the intimate patio and played golf with former presidents and celebrities. Michael Jordan moved his Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational to Shadow Creek, allowing the paying public spectators to get a glimpse of the course's eye-candy appeal. Shadow Creek stays sexy by revealing less, not more.
"We are about creating memories," Brenneman said. "See how understated everything is. Being in Vegas, you expect to see show girls and cleavage."
Shadow Creek: The golf course
That Tom Fazio, guided by the wisdom of Wynn (who is legally blind), transformed such a featureless site into a beautiful parkland course ranks among the top achievements of modern golf architecture.
Every detail of the reported $60 million price tag was meticulously planned out before the course opened in 1989. Maybe that's why every hole looks so pleasing to the eye. Every bush, every tree, every mound has a purpose. Wynn sold Shadow Creek to MGM in 2000.
Shadow Creek's best holes showcase man-made water features. The par-5 fourth hole sweeps left, hugging a pond the entire way. A babbling brook zigzags up the left side of the 15th fairway before crossing in front of a tough green. The tiny 17th green sits tucked behind a pond with a waterfall in back.
Judging the downhill drop makes club-selection a real challenge on the 154-yard hole. Risk-reward comes into play on every shot of the finishing par-5 18th hole. How much water do you want to carry off the tee? Can you carry the water to reach the green in two? Where should you layup if you can't? How cool is this place?
"Five of the last six holes are great for match play," Brenneman said.
Fazio returned about five years ago to lengthen Shadow Creek to 7,560 yards. Dustin Johnson holds the course record with a 66. It doesn't really matter what you shoot, though. The course does not have a slope or rating. No round can be submitted for handicap purposes. It's all about the experience that matters.
"We are not about volume. We try to get the right people out here," Brenneman said.