The nationwide explosion of casino gambling has fueled an interesting side effect -- a nationwide explosion of casino golf courses, often of better quality and at lower prices than their non-casino peers.
When it comes to casino golf courses, Vegas is still king with Shadow Creek, Cascata, Wynn and Rio Secco.
But the rest of the Southwest is no slouch, especially Arizona and New Mexico, packed with world-class golf courses -- most of them dramatic desert layouts -- and urban appeal.
Casino golf in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area
The Phoenix/Scottsdale "Valley of the Sun" is home to three superlative casino golf complexes – each with 36-holes. That is a week’s worth of excellent golf in one location.
For pure golf, the top of the line is We-Ko-Pa, operated by the Fort McDowell Indian nation, which features two brilliant strategic designs, the Cholla and Saguaro Courses.
When the Scott Miller-designed Cholla opened in 2002, it immediately set new standards for public course quality in the region and is ranked in Golf Magazine's Top 50.
Five years later came Saguaro -- the work of the legendary design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who created a desert course but an unusual one in that it is quite walkable with a more traditional design, following natural contours. In casino golf tradition, neither has any homes. Both courses are so good it is hard to choose between them, and the variety of risk/reward holes is staggering -- you might hit half a dozen different clubs off the tee, not counting par 3s.
Rates at We-Ko-Pa run just $75-$105 year round, which is excellent in a city where courses this good often cost more than twice as much, and they offer a 36-hole package letting you play both for just $115-$155. There are also stay-and-play packages with the on-site AAA 4-Diamond Radisson resort (there is also an RV park). The adjacent casino is modest, and if you do stay here, you are a bit isolated, but there are enough dining and gaming choices to fill in a post-36 evening. There is one good bar, the Lucky 7 Saloon, pretty hopping with live music daily and a good poker room, but table games are limited to Blackjack -- which offers a $.25 bonus option.
The main competitor is the Troon Golf-managed Talking Stick Resort, also with a AAA 4-Diamond hotel casino, owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community and just a few miles away. Here are two more courses by Coore and Crenshaw, but these are much different.
There is no desert target ambiance, and both Talking Stick North and Talking Stick South feature wall-to-wall grass on each hole, with almost no trees and desert only beyond the fairways. What you see is what you get, and what you see is very good golf. The risk/reward options are subtler but real, and almost every hole offers a tighter driving line that pays off with a much easier approach shot.
The edge in golf goes to We-Ko-Pa, but Talking Stick has a better location and better casino hotel -- there are pool parties, bars and clubs, good dining, a large 47-table poker room, the full gamut of table games, spa, and a vast shopping arcade. If you join the frequent players club, there is even free shuttle service into downtown Scottsdale. Talking Stick is much more of a destination resort beyond the golf courses. Prices are very similar and stay and play packages are offered.
The Whirlwind Golf Club, also managed by Troon, sits south of Phoenix on the Gila River Indian Community. The two plays, Cattail Course and Devil's Claw Course , are the most contemporary of the bunch, and pack it all in -- long range views of the Superstition mountains, water, dramatic exposed rock, Sonoran desert moonscape and lots of plush green grass.
Both courses are very good and were designed by Gary Panks, who excels at desert settings, and both are blissfully home-free.
They are also the cheapest of these half-dozen, first-rate Arizona casino courses, never breaking $90 even in peak season, and the full-featured resort offers both a 242-room casino hotel and the more upscale 500-room Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa, so you can do a casino or non-casino golf vacation.
This is a true resort and boasts a large spa, equestrian center to free your inner cowboy, a racetrack with Bondurant driving school and even an entire recreated Old West town, complete with saloon, steakhouse and gunfights in the streets. The casino itself is fairly limited with blackjack as the only table game, lots of slots and a modest poker room, but the overall resort offers lots of dining and evening choices.
Golf and gaming in Albuquerque
Panks also designed the excellent Twin Warriors Golf Club over in Albuquerque, part of the Hyatt Regency Tamaya resort. Twin Warriors is a monster that stretches nearly 7,800-yards from the tips, but from all the tees it showcases the incredible natural setting straight out of a John Ford western, pumped full of dramatic eye-candy holes: the signature, par-3 fourth plays downhill over a lake fed by a two-tiered waterfall, while the course is famous for holes 12-16, running through rocky desert canyons along Snakehead Mountain.
Twin Warriors is right at the surprisingly deluxe Hyatt resort, owned by the Santa Ana Pueblo. Across the street is the older 27-hole Santa Ana Golf Club, also owned by the Pueblo, but much less polished, like a municipal course in comparison. The Pueblo has taken great pains to keep the Hyatt and Twin Warriors separated from the nearby Santa Ana Star casino -- it's not even listed on the hotel's Web site. But it is here -- part of the whole 45-hole resort and fairly low key, offering the full complement of table games, one live entertainment venue, poker and a couple of restaurants. But the entertainment and food is better back at the Hyatt, which also has a world-class spa, horseback riding, deluxe accommodations and a laundry list of daily events and outdoor activities, from fly fishing to Native American cultural practices. Twin Warriors is one of the more expensive casino golf options in the nation, and rates at the Hyatt also skew towards the high end.
Also in Albuquerque is the Sandia Resort & Casino, owned by the Sandia Pueblo and home to the state's other top casino course, a Scott Miller design. (Miller did We-Ko-Pa's Cholla in Arizona.) Sandia is a much more traditional, full-service casino resort with a lively pool bar, DJ lounge, sports bar, several restaurants, a full slate of table games and poker, all under one roof.
Sandia Golf Club stretches more than 7,700-yards from the back and is managed by OB Sports. It's more like the courses at Scottsdale's Talking Stick than nearby Twin Warriors, with immaculate wall-to-wall grass bounded by desert and sweeping mountain views, plus an impressive clubhouse with bar and grill.
Sandia is one of the great bargains in casino golf with rates that top out at $71 -- including GPS, and offering stay and play packages from $122 that include breakfast and a free replay round. You can bet on that.