It was during an interview with Steve Wynn in 1987 that he casually mentioned to me, “I’m going to build one of the best golf courses in the world here.”
I was caught off guard by the statement.
“Where are you going to do that?” I asked.
“In the middle of a wasteland in North Las Vegas,” he said. “I’ll let you play it when it opens in a couple years.”
While I was appreciative of the offer, I was highly suspicious of the claim. The area he had identified as the site was more likely to be a burial ground for wiseguys than a place to develop a championship course.
World-class courses are traditionally situated on or near breathtaking geography — scenic mountain ranges, oceans or rivers, or rolling pastoral meadows. As this is a betting journal, I would have wagered a solid 500-1 that the famous resort developer was making a claim more from ego than practicality. And yes, I would have lost my meager bankroll in the process. Because with Shadow Creek, he did precisely what he promised.
Two years after Wynn’s initial revelation, in late autumn 1989, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to play in a special opening day competition at the brand new, ultra-private club. I had heard many rumors that in Wynn’s collaboration with the great golf architect Tom Fazio, Shadow Creek had exceeded all expectations.
My foursome that day included the long-time Strip headliner Vic Damone, and two casino whales that were part of a VIP list flown in from around the country and beyond. There is little question I was the poorest guy in the field that day by two or three digits. But I had as much fun as anyone.
I was playing a lot of golf back then, and when I shot a four-under-par 68 from the middle tees, it didn’t please everyone. Steve Wynn congratulated me but told me he was disappointed that a rank amateur could break par on his masterpiece. I assured him that from the back tees I wouldn’t have a chance.
“We obviously need to toughen up the course,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” I replied. “It’s a miracle what you’ve accomplished here.”
With over 10,000 trees imported from Oregon, pine needles brought in from North Carolina and a meandering creek on which white and black swans floated tranquilly, Shadow Creek was visually beyond any course I’d ever played. And to think the land it was carved out of was pancake flat caliche. All of us who had the privilege that day were awestruck by the experience.
Over the course of the next few years, Shadow Creek made the Top Ten lists of both Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. The Robb Report even ranked it the “Best Course in the World,” ahead of St. Andrews and Augusta National.
To add to the mystery and wonder of the place, Wynn didn’t allow any publicity about it for the first couple years after it opened. When he did finally allow me to profile the course for some national magazines, my first phone call was to Fazio. Tom has designed more top-rated golf courses in the U.S. than any other architect.
He told me in our conversation that he turned down Wynn a few times before finally agreeing to take on the challenge of Shadow Creek.
“I asked him what the budget was for the project,” Fazio said. “Steve told me it was unlimited. So that got my interest.”
Fazio also affirmed my initial thought when he said that what makes most courses great is that the surrounding environment sets the tone for greatness.
“But on that barren plot of land in North Las Vegas, there was no environment,” he said.
With the prestigious, limited field CJ Cup on the PGA Tour schedule being played at Shadow Creek this week, a world television audience will be able to enjoy the beauty and majesty of this unique place. While Las Vegas has always specialized in promoting its most attractive features, it’s exciting to know that this previously hidden jewel will be shared with everyone for the first time.