“Hole 11, and this is the first dogleg right on the back nine, a 417-yard par-4 with dramatic elevation change. Your target is just right of that kidney-shaped bunker, 237 yards.” Meghan fires out advice before each hole with the speed and assurance of an ER doctor. By night, Meghan is a professional dancer. But by day, she’s a “T-Mate”, a comely and highly knowledgeable caddy who’ll scamper after your balls and advise you on the best iron. Welcome to golf, Vegas-style.
The T-Mates are far from being the only beauty of the Rio Secco course. It’s ringed by snow-capped mountains, with the man-made peaks of Las Vegas soaring like a mirage from the middle of the Nevada Desert. Thirteen years ago this was lunar emptiness. First came the golf course, then the fanciful mansions that line its edges, so that your best swings are watched by actors, millionaires and basketball stars from their picture windows. The largest house, all 59,000 sq ft of it, belongs to the founder of eBay. Locals joke that he could install a mistress there and she and his wife would never meet.
The course attracts a few beginners, gamblers wanting to escape Vegas for a day, but it’s mostly serious golfers here. And Harrah’s has launched a new service called Total Experiences that makes it even easier to play: groups of five or more staying in any Harrah’s hotel (including Caesar’s Palace, the Rio and Paris Las Vegas) get a free concierge service that can wangle you the best seats to shows, or create a whole package of entertainment. Golfing days are a speciality. They can get you better tee times, and beat the price down from $250 a day to half that.
Designed by Rees Jones, Rio Secco offers challenging play, including the third hole where you have to drive your ball 139 yards over a canyon, as well as some more unpredictable hazards – we came across a coyote at the 12th. As you play, measure yourself against the record holder, whose 64 strokes on the par-72 course are printed on the scorecard: one Tiger Woods.
Tiger was a Rio Secco regular, back when he was taught by Butch Harmon. Butch is still very much here, teaching pros and amateurs alike – in fact he’s just been voted the world’s best golf instructor for the tenth year in a row – but Tiger moved on in 2002.
“We’d already changed Tiger’s swing in 1998,” said Harmon of their break-up after a ten-year partnership. “I wanted to do it in pieces, he wanted to do it all at once, so we did it, but it took 18 months for him to feel comfortable.
“Then, for me, Tiger in 2000 played the best golf I have ever seen. And if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But Tiger’s a perfectionist. He wanted to change again; I didn’t agree. So he moved on.”
Harmon still attracts the world’s best. Ernie Els defected to his camp in 2008 and Stewart Cink dropped by during the afternoon I was there to brush up on his swing. It’s quite something to take lessons here. They film you from several angles, stick the footage on the computer, and then draw coloured lines and angles on to your body so you can see where you’re going wrong. They have a huge database of pros, too, so you can compare your action with theirs.
On the driving range, I’m shown how to stick the club down my back to straighten out; why my knees are too bent; how to roll the wrists to correct my slice. Within 30 minutes, my swing has improved dramatically. Another student has an epiphany. He had given up golf after playing for a year and a half without apparent progress, but after today’s lesson he vows to take it up again.
It’s not cheap: packages start at $2,000, rising to $5,900 for the three-day VIP package that includes lessons with Harmon himself and a day at sister golf course Cascata. But then how much could you make in side-bets before your friends cotton on to how far you’ve raised your game?
And Cascata, another 15 minutes further out of Vegas in the foothills of Boulder City, really is something else. Where Rio Secco is Spanish for “dry river”, Cascata means “waterfall”. And yup, there it is, a 418-foot waterfall gushing down the hill and right through the atrium of the elegant Tuscan-style clubhouse. Almost every hole has some sort of water feature, and the greens are immaculately manicured. It’s a surreal oasis of tranquility in the great grey desert, where snakes hide in the hills, chipmunks steal your snacks, and big-horn sheep come to bleat at your efforts to chip out of the bunker.
Last year Cascata was ranked American’s number one golf facility in a Zagat survey. It’s easy to see why. Every little detail has been thought of, from the locker plaque with your name on it to the green sand used to fill divots. A day here will set you back $500 – though Harrah’s Total Experiences team can get your group a special deal.
The par-72 course, again designed by Jones, is tricky enough that a forecaddy ($50 per person) is mandatory. With little flat terrain, it makes cunning use of the undulating topography in elevation changes of up to 600 feet to create some delightfully quirky play. Cascata hosts several tournaments, most notably Woods’s Tiger Jam – or at least it did until recently. May’s event will not, in the circumstances, be taking place, but they are hoping to resurrect it for next year.
All in all, between Rio Secco, the Butch Harmon School and Cascata, this is some of the most enjoyable play you could have. Who would have thought that Sin City and golfing could go so well together? You might come here for the greenbacks, but you’ll be back for the greens.
For Harrah’s Total Experiences golf packages, see harrahs.com/TotalExperiences/GolfGetaways