Driving through a drab industrial area in North Las Vegas, it’s hard to believe that golf paradise awaits literally around the corner.
Even harder for me to fathom is the fact that I — a hacker/high roller wannabe in the mold of Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s character in “Caddyshack” — am about to be granted access to the exclusive, mysterious Shadow Creek, long regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful golf courses.
Built by casino mogul Steve Wynn in 1989 for his wealthiest “whales,” or high rollers, only those receiving a personal invitation from Wynn could play the Tom Fazio-designed course. That changed in 2000 — when MGM Resorts International acquired the course and restricted access to MGM Resorts’ registered hotel guests, who must pay $500 greens fees, including round-trip limo, for the privilege of playing there.
As the saying from “Caddyshack” goes, “Some people just don’t belong,” and that included this reporter until I was invited to play Shadow Creek — ranked the fifth-best course you can play by Golf Digest — on media day in advance of the 12th annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational.
The course is hosting the tournament for the third straight year today through Sunday.
After giving my name at a humble white guard hut, I follow a meandering half-mile drive through some surreal woods — the nondesert style course in the desert features more than 20,000 trees of 200 varieties — and park in a lot near a subtle white colonial clubhouse similar to the one at Augusta National.
Upon arrival, I’m introduced to my caddie, “CP,” who graciously takes my golf bag and shoes.
I enter a side door to the modest men’s locker room, where wooden lockers bearing gold nameplates read like a who’s who list from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment: President Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush, Steve Wynn, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger, The Bear, Sylvester Stallone and others.
I’m introduced to general manager Mark Brenneman, who tells me over breakfast about his first day on the job in 2000.
The first people he saw in the clubhouse were Jordan and Charles Barkley.
“I come through that side door, and there’s nobody around, and they’re sitting on the couch with their feet up,” he says. “I kind of walk past thinking, ‘Don’t trip and make a goofball of yourself.’
“You just never know who you’ll run into. I’ve had four presidents over 13 years, played with three and met the first lady.”
A fishing pole rests above Bush’s locker, because he likes to play nine holes and then go fish in the lake on the fourth hole — where I shanked one of six balls I’d lose during my round into the water.
Despite its high-profile clientele, Shadow Creek is simple and understated, something that struck Brenneman on his first visit there.
“I expected showgirls and fountains. I didn’t expect this,” he said. “It’s very much ‘less is more’ around here. It’s quaint.
“It’s a very natural course in a place (Las Vegas) that’s known for anything but natural.”
Fazio sculpted his masterpiece out of a 350-acre piece of desert wasteland, digging up more than 3 million cubic yards of earth and piling it up along the edges to create rolling hillsides and 50 feet of elevation changes.
There are no hole signs on the lush, green course — which features towering waterfalls, rock-lined creeks and lakes, pheasants, white swans and blue herons — and no signage marking the property, which is surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence.
The holes run north and south so the sun won’t be in your eyes, and one hole isn’t visible from another, adding another element of privacy.
“We average about 30 players a day, although you never see them because of the design of the course,” Brenneman said.
One of the myriad charms of Shadow Creek is there are few distractions. Tee times are typically spaced an hour apart and there are just two homes on the course — only one of which, originally owned by Wynn, is visible — leaving players to bask in its beauty.
“The course wasn’t made to be very difficult. It’s meant to be more of a sensory experience — and you’ll see it,” Brenneman said. “You’ll stand on a tee and feel like you’re walking into a painting.”
I return to the clubhouse to find my shoes in front of Oscar De La Hoya’s locker.
“There was some ladies’ stuff in there, but we took it out,” someone jokes.
At least I think he’s joking.
ON THE FIRST TEE
I hop in the most comfortable golf cart I’ve ever been in — its thick padded chair feels like a plush recliner — and head to the driving range.
The balls, Titleist, are better than the ones in my bag: two dozen Tommy Armour for $11.97. High roller.
I think of “Tin Cup,” when Roy McAvoy’s caddie, Romeo, marvels at the balls being used on the U.S. Open range.
“Every one of them, brand-new Titleist,” he says.
“Sneak a few in the bag,” replies McAvoy.
I head to the first tee box, which is nicer than the greens at most places.
I strike the ball well. Into a bunker. It’s a sign of things to come as I take this whole “Al Czervik goes to Shadow Creek” premise too far, playing terribly.
On the second hole, I shank one into some bushes near the green and — feigning Tiger Woods in his heyday — blame our photographer for clicking during my backswing.
He’s only allowed to take pictures on three holes, so I accommodate him by taking as many shots as humanly possible.
I wish I can blame my poor play on the planes from nearby Nellis Air Force Base, but Wynn made sure I can’t.
When he owned the course, he reportedly let generals play it for free in exchange for making it a no-fly zone, and Brenneman said most of the course is still considered restricted air space.
An exception was made once for the Thunderbirds, who soared over the 482-yard 15th hole while the first President Bush was playing it.
After their third flyover, Bush snapped off a salute, turned to his group, which included Wynn, and said, “Just one of the perks of the job.”
The only birdies I’ll see on this day are the multicolored pheasants that wander the pristine grounds.
I learn the true meaning of Shadow Creek as several of my balls land in shadows directly under trees and others end up in creeks.
Trying to loosen me up, C.P. tells a story of the day he caddied for Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang in the morning and Tiger Woods in the afternoon in a group that included Jordan.
“I didn’t say a word, then he asked me to read a putt on No. 4,” C.P. said of Woods. “I said, ‘Are you (bleeping) serious, dude? You’re Tiger Woods.’ He just looked at me and laughed.”
In recounting the tale, C.P. said, “THAT was a fun day.” As opposed to this day, when you’re stuck with me? Your words are hurtful, C.P.
THE COURSE RECORD
Theoretically, I could break the course record — if I leave after nine holes.
Woods and Fred Couples share the original course record of 60, and Dustin Johnson and Chien-Soon Lu share the new record of 66 — after a 2008 renovation lengthened the links to 7,560 yards.
After playing only for the past 20 years, I can usually break 100, notching a couple of pars and the occasional birdie along the way. But not on this day.
I should have taken C.P.’s advice and changed into a cape in the red English telephone booth on the ninth hole.
The back nine wasn’t much better on my scorecard, but like Ty Webb in “Caddyshack,” I don’t actually keep score.
Brenneman joined us on the par-3 17th hole — they’re all picturesque — in one of Jordan’s three personal carts. They’re painted in Carolina blue with the Air Jordan logo and come complete with a stereo system.
The only thing missing is a keg. And I could use one at this point.
Hoping to impress with a perfect tee shot onto the island green fronted by a lake and backed by a waterfall, I take a practice swing — and a huge divot along with it.
Some people definitely don’t belong.
I manage to make it over but take a double bogey as my quest for an elusive par comes down to the 529-yard 18th hole.
After hitting driver and 3-wood — I nutted that thing — to 112 yards out, I picture myself hitting a 9-iron to the green for an easy par before walking off to cheers from the gallery.
Instead, I hit a violent slice that somehow makes it over the water and lands on the green, 100 feet from the hole.
This one calls for the old Billy Baroo, but I don’t have it. A dreaded three-putt for a bogey.
I can’t complain, though. They say your worst day on the golf course is better than your best day at work. Somehow, mine was one and the same.
We’re treated to lunch — and a card trick by Brenneman — on the terrace. I think of the ace of spades and he promptly pulls it out of the deck.
If only he could magically transform my game.
Despite being open to the public for the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational the past two years, Shadow Creek has retained its mystique.
“Not that we’re Augusta, but they play The Masters, then on Sunday night they shut the gates and that’s that,” Brenneman said. “It’s kind of the same here.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.