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Rio Secco takes golfers to school

When one of the world’s most acclaimed golf instructors decided to create a learning center in Southern Nevada, he wanted a course that was long enough to make players air out their drivers, technical enough to demand shot-shaping ability and exacting around the greens. So Butch Harmon — whose pupils have included Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Adam Scott — partnered with renowned architect Rees Jones to make Rio Secco Golf Club, home to the Butch Harmon School of Golf.

If there’s a course that will make you yearn for more instruction, it’s Rio Secco. Like many modern courses, it’s long, playing more than 7,300 yards from the tips, but that’s of little consequence to recreational players, who generally tee it up a little farther forward.

What should alarm most mid-handicappers is the course’s 149 rating from the 6,927-yard blue tees. Bogey golfers be warned: Playing from anywhere other than the white tees will likely make for a long round. The reason isn’t simply distance; rather, it is the pressure that Rio Secco’s artfully sculpted holes exert on each and every shot.

After a short and relatively benign opening foray, the course sends a strong message with a straightaway par 4 whose 489 yards and numerous bunkers earn it the No. 1 handicap. While it plays downhill toward the Las Vegas Strip, that is little consolation to anyone who catches any of the three serpentine bunkers bracketing its narrow fairway. The second shot must be equally precise, requiring a long iron or fairway wood to split the deep traps that guard both front edges of the putting surface.

After a deadly par 3 and a short, vulnerable par 4 arrives the 595-yard fifth, an undulating dogleg left par 5 that looks from the tee box like a piece of abstract art. The ideal driving line is just inside the bunker that guards the fairway’s left edge. From there, the prudent play is to carry an iron to ideal lay-up distance. Reaching in two is extremely unlikely for any except the most accomplished players, and the green’s narrow throat is lodged between sand and stone.

This challenge is followed two holes later by one of the more intimidating par 3s most amateurs will ever face. While it only stretches 208 yards from the back, all but the last eight steps involve walking on water.

What’s more, Harmon himself described the putting surface as "excessively contoured," which may be euphemistic. It is possible to land on the green only to watch the ball roll off the edge and into the water, an occurrence whose cruelty defies description. The only reasonably safe bailout zone is short and right; aiming that way and playing for the up-and-down isn’t a bad strategy.

After a long par 4 to close out the front side, Rio Secco’s second nine opens with an opportunity for redemption. The ideal drive on this 378-yard par 4 will skirt just inside the fairway’s right edge, which, depending upon pin placement, may take the massive front greenside bunker out of play. With a wedge in hand, No. 10 represents one of the course’s best scoring opportunities.

The elation of a birdie is short-lived, however, as the subsequent hole ranks as Rio Secco’s second-toughest for good reason. Stretching 478 yards, this par 4 doglegs to the right and dares players to bite off the corner — an often-disastrous error. The ideal drive will land just short of the final fairway bunker along the left side. From good position, the second shot is long but open, with a trio of bunkers deep but no forced carry with which to contend.

For those who give away a stroke or two on this difficult hole, the next pair — a long par 3 and short par 4 — provide an opportunity to earn them back. Both play downhill, the latter more severely, and offer a level of forgiveness that is downright magnanimous by Rio Secco’s standards.

However, those two pushovers are followed by a vexing par 4 that stretches only 432 yards but doglegs more than 90 degrees around the edge of a canyon. The corner is protected by a large, question mark-shaped bunker. While deep and right is the safe choice off the tee, laying back near the fairway bunker provides a better angle to the green and should take the two sandboxes along the front right edge out of play.

Rio Secco ends on an unusual note, with back-to-back par 5s challenging players to finish strong. While the first is reachable in two for long hitters, the 634-yard 18th hole is far less inviting. Playing slightly downhill toward the valley, this beast demands a straight tee shot that splits strategically placed bunkers. The second shot is less taxing, with only a sprawling complex of traps along the left edge to avoid.

A large bunker guards the green’s front right edge, while a small pot bunker lurks off the back left. Fortunately, with two well-struck full shots, the last swing should be little more than a wedge or, if conditions are windy, a knock-down iron.

To be sure, Rio Secco is a course that should be approached with caution. Between its slick, undulating greens and ever-present dangers, this is a track that demands golfers’ "A-games." Those who bring their best form will find it among the year’s most rewarding rounds. Those who don’t? Well, the Butch Harmon School of Golf is right on the property.

Rio Secco Golf Club is located at 2851 Grand Hills Drive in Henderson. For more information or to reserve a tee time, call 777-2400 or visit www.riosecco.net.

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