“DESERT GREENS - Los Angeles to Las Vegas"

Story by: Andrew Marshall
Photos by: Paul Marshall

 

Andy Marshall

Paul Marshall


The tougher the environment, it seems, the more spectacular are the golf courses built in it.

ANDREW MARSHALL & PAUL MARSHALL hit the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in search of some of the best places to swing a club in the States.

 

Road trips in the United States don’t come more quintessential than Los Angeles to Las Vegas via Death Valley. All the classic imagery is there in abundance; film locations, roller-blading Californian blondes, lone roadside motels, highways stretching to infinity, buzzards circling cloudless skies and diner breakfasts. And for serious golfers, this is a true place of pilgrimage.

From Trump National Golf Course at $264 million, the most expensive golf course ever built - to the world’s lowest level golf course and some of the best desert layouts on the planet - the sheer quantity and variety of golf courses in California and Nevada is astonishing.

After loading our clubs at LAX, my brother Paul and I cruise north along palm-fringed Pacific Highway 1, passing through Santa Monica, Malibu and Ventura en route to the picturesque beachside town of Santa Barbara, dubbed the American Riviera thanks to its low-slung red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings and gorgeous sunsets.

Santa Barbara makes a good base for our first tee off at the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, about a 30- minute scenic drive northeast up Highway 154. Set in a gorge in the Santa Ynez Mountains among century-old oaks on land where cattle once grazed the historic San Marcos Ranch, this heavily bunkered Robert Trent Jones Jr. course features slick putting surfaces, blind tee shots and two contrasting nines. The hole names - Eagle’s Nest, Old Headquarters, Stagecoach and Davy’s Stables - reflect the history of the ranch.

ZEN GOLF

The 18th green and clubhouse at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa's golf course, California.

From Santa Barbara we follow Highway 33 into the golden hills of the Los Padres National Forest and the Ojai Valley where we have an appointment at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa’s historic 1923 course designed by master golf architect George C. Thomas. Standing outside the Spanish Colonial-style clubhouse wearing a Zen-golf baseball cap is Dr Joseph Parent, the author of best-selling book Zen Golf. With a PhD in psychology, a background in stress management, Buddhism and meditation, he’s amply qualified to instruct the mental side of the game.

Old wagon wheel and the 170-yard Par-3 5th green at Rancho San Marcus Golf Course.

We ignore his topped drive with a rescue club, putting it down to first-tee nerves. “Zen Golf is the expression of insights I’ve developed through my teachings combined with the Buddhist state of mind,” says Dr Joe, as we stroll the course’s eucalyptus-lined fairways. “I sent out advance copies of the book to several pros and Vijay Singh really liked it. We worked intensively for a couple of years between 2002 and 2004, and then Vijay won a handful of tournaments and didn’t need me anymore. What do you say to a guy like that, apart from keep up the good work?”

Old wooden bridges lead over gurgling brooks, ancient oaks and sprawling pepper trees stand sentinel along fairways and greens as Dr Joe continues. “I basically teach golfers how to get the most out of their game that they have developed so far. During golf, the mind tends to wander into the past and future, its all about staying in the present,” he says. “Plus, the closer you get to the hole, the more the mental game kicks in."

DESERT DRIVE

Saturday morning, and there's golf to be played at Pete Dye's Lost Canyons before the long desert drive to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. Widely regarded as one of the best golf experiences in California, Lost Canyons features two distinctly different 18-hole, par-72 championship courses routed through canyons and along ridges in the pristine Santa Susana Mountains north of the Simi Valley.

A golfer lines up a putt at Furnace Creek Golf Course, Death Valley.

The course's renowned architect, Pete Dye, called the area “the best-suited and the most naturally-beautiful land that I have ever had the opportunity to design upon.” With its majestic terrain, The Sky Course features holes that meander across rolling hills, along dramatic ridgelines and the floor of a hidden valley. The Shadow Course follows Dry Creek Canyon and affords breathtaking views of White Face Mountain.

Leaving Lost Canyons behind, we head north to Mojave along roads flanked by distinctive Joshua trees. When we reach the desolate outpost of Randsburg, low on gas, it’s like entering a Wild West movie set, with tumbleweed blowing down the main street. It’s late afternoon and the sun still beats down like a hammer on Highway 178. Heat waves peel off the sweeping line of asphalt that stretches forever towards distant snow-capped mountains and Death Valley shimmers far below in a haze.

Furnace Creek Golf Course, Death Valley- the lowest on earth.

Breakfast time inside the Forty-Niner Cafe/Diner at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley.

Death Valley is one of one of the hottest and lowest-level places on earth. As we near it, the names on our crumpled road map take on an ominous tone: Furnace Creek, Desolation Canyon, Starvation Point, Hell’s Gate and Stovepipe Wells. Death Valley National Park’s headquarters are situated within the welcoming oasis of Furnace Creek where a plantation of 1,800 date palms was planted in the 1920s, creating a scene that wouldn't look out of place in the African Sahara. From Furnace Creek's verdant 18-hole golf course, a network of well-maintained roads lead to the so-called Devils Golf Course, in reality a vast and surreal expanse of gnarled and jagged crystalline spires - not somewhere we or any other golfer with sense would think of teeing off.

THE ROAD TO LAS VEGAS

Our 59' Red Cadillac on the Strip, Las Vegas

It's twilight along Highway 160 when the infamous Las Vegas Strip looms into view, four miles of pulsating neon signs and a surreal skyline made up of the Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian pyramid, a Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty and an exploding volcano. Love it, loathe it, or both, Vegas is cheesy, artificial and completely over the top. It’s changed direction and reinvented itself more times than David Bowie crossed with a chameleon, and each time it emerges with a better and classier product, becoming one of the world’s luxury resort destinations.

Over the past ten years, the number of immaculately-conditioned golf courses within a two hour drive of the city has increased to more than 60 and many of these, such as Reflection Bay and the forthcoming Rainbow Canyon, are top-flight tracks designed by some of the biggest names in golf including Nicklaus, Palmer, Dye and Fazio. The desert landscape has offered them an amazing canvas from which to create their works of art - swathes of emerald green fairways in a sea of red rock.

Admittedly, golf doesn't come cheap here and you will be hard pressed to find green fees under $100, although there are some public access courses, too, including Bear’s Best, Bali Hai Golf Club, Primm Valley, Rio Secco, Paiute Golf Resort and Badlands. Seventeen miles from the Las Vegas strip, two great golf courses await: The Falls designed by Tom Weiskopf and the Golden Bear’s Reflection Bay.

Our bagman at The Falls is Mike Schreck; one of 75 caddies who ensure every player’s round here is a memorable experience. The caddie program was unveiled in February and head pro Greg Brockelman has been happy with the response so far. “About 85 percent of players take a caddie and the guest comment cards have shown people really enjoy it,” he says. The caddies are part psychologist (“It’s 185 yards to the pin, probably a smooth 5-iron the way you’re swinging), part groundskeeper (“I’ll get that divot”), and part morale-booster (“You’ve nailed that shot”).

ABOVE: Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite is Nevada's ultimate golfing experience.
BELOW: The par 5, 18th at Reflection Bay, Lake Las Vegas Resort.

After our tee shots on the first, Schreck, dressed in white overalls that make him look like a painter and decorator sprints down the fairway to our golf balls, faster than a cheetah on caffeine. Although the front nine is good, it’s the back nine where seeing is believing. The 12th, 13th and 14th holes could easily become one of the most talked about stretches of golf in ‘Glitter Gulch.’ The 553-yard par-5 12th ascends to the highest point on the back nine, via a blind second shot through a narrow pass. On the other side awaits a two-tiered green perched on the side of a cliff and one of the best views of downtown Las Vegas, especially at dusk with a sea of flickering lights in the background.

At the 388-yard, par 4 13th, a drive from an elevated tee box has to find the left side of the fairway, otherwise you are looking at a behemoth rock outcrop that takes the green totally out of play. Weiskopf typically includes one drivable par-4 in his layouts, and the 336-yard par 4 14th plays the part in dramatic fashion. From the member tees, the green sits just 279 yards away from a tee box that is over 150 feet above the fairway.

After our encounter with the Falls, our golfing egos have taken a real beating, with more snowmen (8’s) to be found on our scorecards than in British back gardens on Christmas Day. There is still the inspiring Reflection Bay to look forward to, however. When it opened in 1998, it was the first public resort course in Nevada to be designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus. Sculpted from the desert’s natural contours and surrounded by stunning lake and mountain vistas, highlights include five eye-candy holes that run along a mile and a half of shoreline.

The following morning we find ourselves inside the office of Dream Car Rentals on the Strip, surveying the list of exotic vehicles for hire. We want to add a little “vintage” to our US golf tour and plump for a 1959 Cadillac Convertible, whose specifications make interesting reading: length, football field; width, boat; engine, V8; horsepower, 300; max speed, who cares? 0-60, you’re kidding! We rumble onto the main drag. Even in 'anything goes' Vegas, the birthplace of bikini bull riding, the car still manages to attracts a fair bit of attention from pedestrians.

Ah, this is the life - two high-handicap golfers in a fire engine red convertible with fins, driving down the Strip towards eighteen glorious holes at one of the most amazing newcomers on the Nevada block, Wolf Creek Golf Club.

The signature hole at the Falls Golf Club, Lake Las Vegas Resort - the par 5, 12th, which offers players a 360-degree of the Vegas valley.
There are some overused words when it comes to describing a golf course - spectacular, dramatic and golf on a grand scale - which makes it difficult to describe Wolf Creek in an original way as it's all of these things and more. Set high above the desert floor among red-rock canyons, teeming waterfalls and glistening creeks, it looks as though strips of green velvet have been laid out on a lunar-landscape. There are precious few courses that can generate a genuine sense of awe for several holes at a stretch. Exceedingly rare is the layout that can sustain the feeling for an entire round; Wolf Creek Golf Club is such a place.

Developer Doug Clemetson was determined to leave the distinctive natural landscape in place, accepting that a number of non-traditional golf holes would be the result. On the 2nd tee box, for example, 90 granite steps lead up to the driving area, which is located some 11 storeys high. The 215-yard par 3 3rd hole plays uphill to one of the highest points on the course with 70-mile views and the 5th is a short par-5 that makes a rather abrupt turn left through the rocks before heading up to the green.

Another classic is the par 3, 11th, an island in a sea of red rock and typical of Wolf Creek’s dazzling visual appeal. As we prepare to hit our drives from the elevated tee block of the17th hole, the sun casts long shadows across canyon walls, gullies and surreal dried-earth formations, which glow red, pink, and gold in the late afternoon light. Leaning on our drivers we take a moment to take in this classic desert scene - one that provides a fitting finale to our American golfing odyssey.

WHERE TO PLAY

Rancho San Marcus: www.rsm1804.com

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: www.ojairesort.com

Furnace Creek Golf Course: www.furnacecreekresort.com

The Falls & Reflection Bay: www.lakelasvegas.com

Wolf Creek Golf Club: www.golfwolfcreek.com

Badlands Golf Club: www.badlandsgc.com


WHERE TO STAY

Sheraton Gateway (LA Airport): www.sheratonlosangeles.com

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: www.ojairesort.com

Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort: www.furnacecreekresort.com

Lake Las Vegas Resort: www.lakelasvegas.hyatt.com


OFF-COURSE ATTRACTIONS & ACTIVITIES

* Get the lowdown on Los Angeles on a city tour, see where the movie stars live in Beverly Hills, and then put yourself inside big movie action at Universal Studios Hollywood. www.viator.com/tours/Los-Angeles

* The Sunset Strip, a section of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, may have lost some of its charm these days, but there's so much of Hollywood's history along this section of road that it's not to be missed. It’s a great place for celebrity sightings, and nearby are such locations as the House of Blues, The Viper Room and the Walk of Fame to name a few of the notable landmarks. The Strip is a little run-down looking now, but that doesn't prevent it from being a lively nightspot full of restaurants, clubs and interesting shops.

* Visit opulent and perfect Beverly Hills - the world’s most famous postal code, where to simple walk down the street is to experience intricately manicured yards, massive multi-storey houses and utter suburban perfection. The shopping district around Beverley Hills is something to be seen as well, if Prada, Gucci and Dolce Gabbana are one's thing.

* Another L.A. cliché is the sun, sand and surf of the coastal regions that run alongside the city. One of the city's more famous beaches, Santa Monica, is a great place to visit when the weather's right, with golden shore and sapphire sea just two of the sights worth viewing.

* Check out some of the best views over Death Valley from Dante's View. From an elevation of 5475 feet in the Amargosa Ranges, the shimmering saltpans and sweeping sand dunes span out in a long corridor hemmed in by the bare bones of the mountains.

* When in Las Vegas, self-drive or take a bus or helicopter tour to the world famous Grand Canyon and experience the new Skywalk- a unique glass-bottomed cantilever observation deck that spans 70 feet over the canyon’s rim. www.grandcanyonskywalk.com
www.grandcanyontourcompany.com

* If you are planning on gambling while in Vegas, check out the free 30-minute classes held at the Las Vegas Hilton that can be fun and educational. www.lvhilton.com

* Park your cars right next to Las Vegas' 50-year-old iconic sign “Welcome to Las Vegas” to take some memorable snaps.
* Every evening in Las Vegas, a water and music show plays again and again in the spectacular fountains filling the quarter-mile-long lake in front of the Bellagio.


USEFUL CONTACTS & WEBSITES

California Travel & Tourism Commission
www.visitcalifornia.com

Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority:
www.visitlasvegas.co.uk

Las Vegas Golf: www.lasvegasgolf.com