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Round at Cascata the ultimate stocking-stuffer

Three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Really? Those hardly seem like fitting gifts from one’s "true love." The problem with shopping for avid golfers is that there is rarely anything one can give them that they don’t already have.

A new set of irons? Got ’em last fall. The latest generation of a variable-weight driver? In the bag. So what’s left? A round of golf at one of the country’s most elite golf courses would certainly slip easily into a stocking.

When it comes to swinging the sticks, Southern Nevadans have an abundance of attractive options; if one adds the qualifier "world-class," however, the field narrows considerably.

Cascata, designed by famed golf course architect Rees Jones, definitely merits a spot near the top of that short list. Built a decade ago to accommodate the needs of Caesars Palace high-rollers, Cascata was acquired by Harrah’s a few years back and became more democratic, opening up play to the rest of us.

Like most top-shelf golf destinations, Cascata’s greens fees are noteworthy, making a round there a financial indulgence. However, unadvertised locals rates make this gift far more attainable. Considering that Cascata has consistently made the first page of the leaderboard of Zagat Survey’s "America’s Top Golf Courses" in a field featuring more than 1,000 entries, it is fair to say most golfers would prefer it to a new watch or pair of golf ball-shaped cufflinks.

Cascata makes a strong impression even before one steps foot on the manicured course. Winding up a tree-lined road toward the massive, Italian-style clubhouse, reality quickly fades to the background. Inside, the high atrium is bisected by a cascading creek that enters beneath one glass wall and exits through another.

Despite its grandeur, both the facility and staff exude an understated elegance, treating each guest as though he was the only one. The opulent locker room embellishes the ambiance, with each player’s name engraved on the door of his locker. Even the spacious driving range is set up with only a handful of stalls to convey a private, intimate feel. Ample spacing between groups, combined with the course’s links-style design, enhances the feeling of privacy.

The course itself is pure bliss, snaking its way up and down the mountains that separate Las Vegas from the neighboring Eldorado Valley. While not overwhelming in its length at just over 7,100 yards from the tips and a reasonable 6,664 from the most frequently played set of tees, Cascata presents constant challenges. For that reason, as well as to ensure that players are well-attended, a forecaddie accompanies all players. While a bit disconcerting at first, the forecaddie soon becomes invaluable to those with the humility to heed his advice and the skill to act upon it.

Cascata opens with a 367-yard par 4 that plays uphill. A creek runs the entire length of the hole along the left side, while a large bunker awaits any drives aimed too cautiously.

Of greater concern, however, is the approach to an elevated green with a false front. Even a hint of backspin on the short approach can pull the ball off the putting surface and down onto the fairway, while putts from above the flag require a surgeon’s touch. From the opening hole, the difficulty of Cascata’s greens is readily apparent.

Two holes later, players find themselves standing on a cliff, preparing to launch a drive into the valley below. This 561-yard par 5 is reachable by prodigious drivers, but the tight landing zone — wedged between a string of bunkers on one side and a rocky slope on the other — requires precision as well. While the green is defended by only one trap, it is difficult to read because it slopes severely from the back but plays up toward the mountain.

Although one of the easiest holes on the course, the par-3 seventh is nothing short of majestic. Playing across a canyon into a stone amphitheater, the 157-yard hole is artistically framed by sand, water and stone. If one can concentrate long enough to put on a smooth iron swing, this is a birdie opportunity.

The back nine opens with a long, downhill par 4. Stretching 466 yards from the back, it features a wide landing zone that allows players to cut loose with the driver. The distant left greenside bunker offers the perfect line to set up an open look at the green, which is defended by a trio of bunkers. As with so many of Cascata’s greens, speed is a function of slope and terrain competing for influence.

While No. 13 — a long par 4 that turns a full 90 degrees left around a hill–is a memorable hole, the next offering is perhaps Cascata’s most beautiful. Playing 434 yards through a narrow valley, this lush, isolated hole is bordered along the right edge by a creek that eventually empties into a large greenside lake. Two large bunkers hang like eyebrows over the back of the green, making distance control critical. A left-edge drive provides the least daunting angle of approach.

After a long but downhill par 4, Cascata closes with a breathtaking 559-yard par 5 that zigzags back toward the clubhouse. The narrow landing area is flanked on the left by a stream that eventually crosses the fairway and continues along the right. The putting surface is tucked behind a lake, making attempts to reach the green in two foolhardy by any but the most accomplished players.

For anyone who has ever splurged on a golfing expedition to the Carolinas or even a weekend trip to Palm Springs, a day at Cascata is the perfect holiday gift. Because while golf shoes wear out and clubs lose their sheen, the memory of a day spent on one of the world’s best golf courses will last a lifetime.

Cascata Golf Club is at 1 Cascata Drive in Boulder City. For information or to reserve a tee time, call 294-2000 or visit www.cascatagolf.com.

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