Las Vegas, Nev. -- There are a couple of ways you can do a Las Vegas golf vacation. One is to find a cheap airfare, book a $50 room at a downtown casino hotel, score some golf deals online and head back downtown later for an inexpensive meal.
Nothing wrong with that, but Vegas, of course, is a great golf destination if you're not adhering to a budget. The latter is how you might describe my recent trip to Sin City, courtesy of the fabulous Caesars Palace. Not only did the trip include a couple of nights in the Forum Tower and some of the best food in Vegas, but I also got to play two premium Las Vegas golf properties, Cascata and Rio Secco golf clubs. As a bonus, I ended this quick trip at the new Summit Club , which takes private development golf to a whole new level, on getaway day.
Cascata flows with luxury
Cascata's purpose since it opened in 2000 was to create a premium golf experience like no other, and in that regard, mission accomplished on all levels.
With its inconspicuous entrance in Boulder City, just outsider of Vegas, Cascata, which has a standing relationship with Caesars as does Rio Secco) has always been a bucket-list type experience for golfers. While it caters to high rollers and celebrities, it's a fantasy escape for those who are willing to splurge on the premium fee.
As soon as you arrive, you're transported into another world. Staff put your name on a locker in your corresponding lounge in the Tuscan-style 37,000 square-foot clubhouse. Your golf cart is actually staged in the clubhouse, next to a man-made river that runs through the building from a 415-foot waterfall (which is what "Cascata" means in Italian) behind the practice range. And everything else, from the practice facilities to the golf shop to dining to the caddie services, is all first rate.
And now, if you want rental clubs, Cascata features the ultra-expensive PXGs that numerous professionals now endorse.
Member for the day at Cascata Golf
As for the Rees Jones-designed course, the holes climb the sides of mountains like the bighorn sheep you're likely to see, with no two holes next to each other. There are views everywhere of the Strip and of 3,600-foot Red Peak and the surrounding mountains. On most days, with tee times spaced apart generously, you're unlikely to run into another group on the golf course. It truly does feel like you've got the place to yourself.
Conditioning, of course, is as good as it gets, and the design is a terrific collection of fun holes. Does the course flow like a great, classic golf course? Hardly. But it's loads of fun, and I've always said that's my primary factor when judging a golf experience for the vast majority of golfers.
A fine test of golf at Rio Secco
Predating Cascata by three years, Rio Secco, while also a Rees Jones design, is a different experience (it doesn't cost upwards of $400, for one), but it's premium golf experience nonetheless.
This year, golfers will enjoy a freshly renovated layout, having reopened last October following a $2.1 million facelift that included the recontouring and resurfacing of all of its greens with Dominant X-treme bentgrass. The work also included new bunker work, practice facility improvements that include a new grass range and practice green. The end product is a stiff test with great views of Las Vegas below.
The design features several elevated tees. One of my favorites is the par-4 second, a prime candidate for best views of Vegas on the golf course. It also requires a great tee shot because the landing area narrows the farther you hit. A long approach awaits most players to a difficult green.
Rio Secco is also home to the Butch Harmon School of Golf, and Harmon, who, of course, rose to fame as Tiger Woods' longtime coach and has current no. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler among his high-profile stable of professional clients, paid a surprise visit at lunch. I've actually known Harmon since 1989, when he was in the Houston area, so it was good to catch up. Of course, one of the things we reveled in was the Houston Astros finally winning a World Series. Unlike me, Harmon was fortunate enough to attend two of the World Series games in Houston.
Las Vegas Strip dining highlighted by Hell's Kitchen
While golf certainly dominated these three days in Vegas, our culinary experiences certainly didn't take a back seat.
Foremost on display were the talents of world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay, who has his name on five establishments in the area.
We started with Gordon Ramsay's Pub & Grill in Caesars Palace, which bills itself as the only authentic English pub experience in Vegas (Ramsay is English, after all). Known for its shepherd's pie, fish and chips, bangers and Scottish salmon, it also sports a great atmosphere with its striking bar with an array of beer taps and a backdrop reminiscent of iconic British telephone booths.
Our last dinner would come at the Palms Restaurant, which is located in the Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, which include approximately 160 specialty stores and fine restaurants and attractions. The Palms, with locations throughout the United States, is known for its fine steaks, and it certainly didn't disappoint.
The new Hell's Kitchen at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas
The highlight of our dining excursions (I should also mention that breakfasts and lunches at Cascata and Rio Secco were exceptional) came during the second night at the relatively new Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, which is located in front of Caesars Palace.
Named for Gordon's cooking show of the same name, the restaurant has been a big hit since its soft opening in January. In fact, the restaurant has already received reservations for 25,000 guests.
The whole idea is for guests to feel like they're on the studio set of the popular Hell's Kitchen television cooking reality show. The inspiration from the show is evident from the signature fiery pitchfork – direct from the set – that marks the entryway, to the life-size video screen of Chef Ramsay that greets guests upon arrival, to the chef uniforms and menu items. In fact, the winner of current Season 17 of Hell's Kitchen All-Stars will be named head chef and have his or her portrait hung with the other previous champions on the winner's wall.
As for the food, it's exceptional. I had a beet salad and beef Wellington that will be hard to top anytime soon. Pair that with a great wine or cocktail (don't be surprised if that comes with "note" from Ramsay), and you've got a pretty memorable evening.
The Summit Club out to set new luxury standard
Just when you think you've seen it all when it comes to high-end golf developments, something new comes along that offers everything and then some.
That was certainly the case at the new Summit Club in Summerlin, which has a terrific Tom Fazio-designed golf course that offers view of Red Rock Canyon and mesas on one side, and the Las Vegas Strip on the other side.
Opened last year, The Summit Club, when it's all built out, is sure to become one of the nation's premier upscale private facilities and developments. As it is, even without a permanent clubhouse, it's a special experience.
The developer, Discovery Land, has left no detail to chance. In lieu of the clubhouse, there's a pretty nice temporary grill and golf shop, plus the facility renovated some Airstream trailers to be used for the locker room and restroom facilities. One of them is affectionately dubbed the "ShoeStream."
Other nice touches include fully-stocked comfort stations with complimentary refreshments, a halfway house staffed by chefs (the barley-beef soup and banana bacon sandwiches were amazing) hideaway Casaamigo tequila (courtesy of Discovery Land founder Mike Meldman's partnership with actor George Clooney) locations throughout the course for golfers who might need a little bit more inspiration to play this amazing course.
Comfort indeed at The Summit Club in Summerlin nesr Las Vegas
As for the course, with views of Red Rock Canyon on one side and Vegas below, there's probably nothing that surpasses the location Fazio had to lay out one fantastic hole after another. Fairways are generous, but glistening white bunkers and sloping, fast greens are aplenty, making this a premium, but enjoyable test.
It's also headed up by a great management team that includes Paul Marchand as director of golf. Marchand, who came over from Shadow Hawk CC in Houston, is Fred Couples' longtime coach and former teammate at the University of Houston. A better gentleman in our sport you'll never find. And he's quite the teacher as well, of course.
As we played together, he offered a couple of suggestions to improve my game. He did that for me once before, around 1992, if I remember correctly. The next day I broke par, and it's only happened for me a couple of times since. Maybe it will again this year (or at least I'll scare it), thanks to Marchand.