LAS VEGAS -- The more you visit Las Vegas, the more you realize there is no such thing as a dream itinerary in this neon fantasy land in the desert. There are hundreds of them.
Each casino hotel has plenty of strengths and perks. Dozens of restaurants can take your palate for a ride. And every show -- whether it is Cirque du Soleil, a magician or comedian -- is a blur of entertainment and music. But, as a golfer, my latest trip might have yielded the ultimate Las Vegas jackpot, three of the best courses near the Las Vegas Strip in consecutive sunny days: Southern Highlands Golf Club, Cascata and Shadow Creek.
I didn't mind missing out on the Wynn Golf Course, the other five-star track in Sin City. I was too busy eating, laughing, racing and enjoying the comforts of the Delano Las Vegas, the newly re-branded luxurious all-suites tower next to Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. I go to plenty of places with great golf. Las Vegas is the one of the rare golf destinations I go where everything else is great, too.
Day 1: Southern Highlands Golf Club
Dinner at Aureole in Mandalay Bay the night before set the stage for a three-day binge of eating and drinking. That's the blessing (and curse) of Las Vegas. Saying no just isn't possible.
Breakfast at Della's Kitchen in the Delano brought a smorgasbord of mega-sized muffins, pastries and other sinful choices. Getting the chance to see the Southern Highlands Golf Club turned out to be an even better treat.
Southern Highlands is a private club owned by Pacific Links, a Canadian company that sells memberships to a network of private clubs around the world. Southern Highlands, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and RTJ Jr., might be the most impressive club in its collection (and that includes the swank SouthShore Golf Club and DragonRidge Country Club in nearby Henderson). A day at Southern Highlands starts and ends at a 42,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style clubhouse considered among the most opulent in golf. The patio, a great place for lunch or drinks after the round, overlooks the difficult par-5 18th hole with views stretching to the Strip.
The 7,374-yard course feels very exclusive. Million-dollar homes (including Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s mansion) line the fairways. I could easily recount a half-dozen signature holes. The raging manmade waterfall left of the fairway on the par-5 ninth hole and the soul-stirring vista from the elevated 11th tee box will always stand out.
Although I didn't have time to explore the Spa Southern Highlands, I relaxed with a massage at Spa Mandalay instead. Spas at casinos on the Strip cater to guys better than most resorts. Their larger facilities are much more comfortable and inviting, housing a steam room, sauna and hot and cold soaking tubs.
Dinner at Michael Mina's STRIPSTEAK in Mandalay Bay that night proved why celebrity chefs remain so popular. How they turn everyday items like the French fries we had for appetizers and the S'mores creation we had for dessert into world-class food, I'll never know.
Day 2: Cascata
Maybe it was the sparkling weather. Maybe it was the herd of bighorn sheep grazing on the range. Maybe it was how loose I felt after the spa. Whatever it was, Cascata wowed me more the second time around than the first time I saw it four years ago.
Cascata, which means "waterfall" in Italian, lies in a remote rocky landscape in Boulder City 22 miles from the Strip. Rees Jones designed it for a reported $70 million in 2000. Its signature waterfall flows 418 feet through the course's best holes and driving range before pouring into the atrium of the 37,000-square-foot Tuscan-style clubhouse.
Cascata provides the best of the red-rock scenery of the famous Wolf Creek Golf Club and all the aura of Shadow Creek's exclusivity without the pitfalls of either club. Cascata plays much fairer than the difficult Wolf Creek, located in the canyons of nearby Mesquite, and is much more affordable than the $500 price tag of Shadow Creek. Dollar for dollar, Cascata might be the best elite golf experience in Las Vegas.
Players find a personalized nameplate in the locker room once they arrive. Caddies serve as excellent tour guides through rocky desert corridors that climb up and down 800 feet of elevation change.
The pace of play at Cascata is always good, but not as fast as my afternoon excursion. Only in Las Vegas can golfers go from the serenity of Cascata to the adrenaline rush of racing 125 mph around the Las Vegas Speedway at the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Even non-NASCAR fans like me will love the Ride-A-Long experience. Whizzing around the track three times goes by in a blur but still feels worth the $99 price tag. Serious gearheads can drive a high-powered car starting at $849 and up.
That night, Martorano's, a new Italian restaurant inside Paris Las Vegas, cooked up delicious plates of veal and pasta with sides served family style. We didn't have time to see the restaurant's transformation into a nightclub because we had ticket to the Aces of Comedy show at the Mirage Hotel & Casino to see Kevin James and Ray Romano. An unexpected guest, Adam Sandler, stole the show. The three ended the night on stage together, cracking jokes and poking fun at one another. I laughed so hard I wanted to cry.
Day 3: Shadow Creek
Anybody who balks at the $500 price tag to play Shadow Creek doesn't really understand what that buys. It's a day pass into the secret world of celebrities and dignitaries. The green fee includes a ride to and from the course in a limousine from any MGM Resorts International casino hotel where you must stay, a caddie, a round on an immaculately conditioned Tom Fazio course and the chance to feel like you own the place for the day. General Manager Mark Brenneman treats everybody like his personal guests, spinning yarns about the famous people he's played with during his tenure.
Fazio sculpted the 7,500-yard course from hardscrabble desert into a landscape of pines and streams with the mountains as a backdrop. A handful of the par 4s tend to be too long and demanding for my game, although they're all interesting and diverse. My favorite elements, the four par 3s play and look amazing, highlighted by the waterfall behind the 17th green.
My last supper finished at BLT Steak at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, followed by whiskey and cigars at Double Helix at Town Square, a cool townie hangout with a more low-key vibe than the Strip.
Looking back, I can't think of a better way to spend three days playing golf in Las Vegas. Then again, I can't wait to return. Could I possibly find something better?