Shadow Creek: A secret golfing wonderland
This week’s host course for THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK has a history that’s pure Vegas
October 13, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- A look at the seventh hole at Shadow Creek. (Courtesy of Shadow Creek)
LAS VEGAS – Imagine being allowed to create your own massive golf playground with anything you want in it, money no option. Hard to fathom what you might come up with, right?
It wasn’t a hypothetical for Tom Fazio.
“I’ve already done it. That’s Shadow Creek,” he says.
Back in the late 1980s, the legendary golf architect was tasked by casino magnate Steve Wynn to create a golf wonderland without restrictions near his hotels in Las Vegas. It would basically be a personal golf course for Wynn and his high-roller friends. Fazio’s creation was, and remains, staggering. And this week that creation – once closed off to just the select few – will be opened up to millions of viewers as the PGA TOUR gets a one-off run at THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK.
You may remember the course from the original Capital One THE MATCH in which Phil Mickelson edged Tiger Woods in late 2018. For those who didn’t see it, now’s the chance, and with a field of 78 of the best golfers on the planet, no less.
“Shadow Creek just shocks everybody when they go because they don't expect that kind of environment,” Fazio says some 30 years later. “Because you come from the harshness of the desert, but when you go there you see dense vegetation, lush greens and it looks like something in North Carolina. It's one of a kind. It’s something to see.”
As with Vegas itself, Fazio started with nothing but a slab of dry dirt. Suffice it to say everything was done for a reason. The course’s tree-lined, sunken fairways? They were for privacy. And as legend has it, the greens were designed partly to keep the sun out of the players’ eyes.
“In one sense it was a very easy golf course to design because you started with a clean slate and could do whatever you wanted,” Fazio says. “You could change the elevations of the land and you could place the vegetation. So it was simply: What kind of golf holes do you like? I mean talk about a dream golf course for a person who designs golf courses, or a golf enthusiast.
“You could dig and dig and not get water,” he continues. “It's just a bigger job, so you think out of the box. You don't think about what you can't do, you think about what you can do. I think about it all the time. Was that a dream? Did that really happen? It’s that kind of special.”
In the early days, the course was completely exclusive, tee times beyond rare. Not needing or wanting publicity, Shadow Creek is said to have turned down a spread in Sports Illustrated.
Things have opened up a little since 2000, when the property was acquired by MGM. You can play there at charity events like Tiger Woods’ annual Tiger Jam, if you are so inclined. But it still remains pretty exclusive on weekends. Stay at an MGM property and you can try to play during the week. It will cost you around $600, but you’ll feel every bit like celebrity.
Your ride to the course? A limo. Want champagne and caviar mid round? It’s available. Want a hotdog or hamburger instead? Sure. Every part of the experience is as extravagant as you want it to be. Want your food cut into small pieces and bagged up? Not an issue.
Michael Jordan occasionally plays Shadow Creek, as have Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Sylvester Stallone and George Clooney. No. 43 George W. Bush used to keep a fishing rod in a locker and would chuck a line in some of the waterways.
“The first time I played it, I met Elizabeth Taylor on the 17th tee,” Tiger Woods told Steve DiMeglio of Golfweek before his match with Mickelson in 2018. “And that kind of stuck out because, well, you don’t meet people like that when you are a kid.”
You’re not really supposed to bump into anyone on the tee, actually. Tee times are spread out and limited to enable folks the chance to take their time. Still, Rickie Fowler, who is in the field this week, caught another group on one of the two occasions he’s had to play Shadow Creek.The 14th hole at Shadow Creek. (Courtesy of Shadow Creek)
“I played through Doc Rivers (NBA legend and coach) and he was awesome,” Fowler says, laughing at the memory. “He just loved being out there playing golf. He's like, ‘Man, I'm a big fan.’ I was kind of shocked in a way. I was like, ‘I'm a fan as well.’
“It was just cool to see someone who is big in another sport, and who obviously is a lot taller and bigger than me, complimenting me about my game.”
Sometimes it’s only the tallest celebrities who stand out at Shadow Creek.
“Each hole is tree-lined and is sort of domed down so you don't ever see any other hole from where you are,” says four-time PGA TOUR winner and former Shadow Creek caddie Charley Hoffman. “Steve Wynn and Tom Fazio designed it that way so that if Michael Jordan was on a hole over here and you or someone was on one over here, no one would know.”
Hoffman caddied during his college years at UNLV for $15 an hour. It was the 1990s, and Wynn was adamant that tipping wasn’t allowed at Shadow Creek. There were stiff penalties for those who broke the rule and accepted a gratuity, Hoffman says. And his face still lights up as he recalls looping for players marking their golf balls “with chips in colors I’d never seen before.”
Fazio reckons maybe a quarter of what you hear about Shadow Creek’s money games is true, but Hoffman guesses six-figure sums hung in the balance when he worked there.
“Guys are gambling for $10,000 a hole,” he says, “and back in the day you weren’t allowed to take tips, so you’re reading putts for $10,000 and here I don't have two nickels to rub together. That’s a lot of pressure.” Still, he tried to keep it light as a caddie.
“I’d say things like, ‘Are you going to pull this one like you did the last one? Because my read will be different,’” Hoffman says. “And they always seemed to like that sort of stuff. It was a fun place to work while in college to make a couple extra bucks and buy a few dinners.”
As for how it will hold up, the course record is 7-under 65 since its most recent rejuvenation in 2008. Dustin Johnson set it while playing with father-in-law Gretzky in 2015, when, legend has it, he declared on the 16th tee that he was going to finish birdie, birdie, eagle. He did.
As with Vegas itself, temptation is everywhere; Shadow Creek is full of risk/reward holes.
“Some days you were happy to break 80, especially if it was blowing 20-30 miles per hour, which it can do out there,” Hoffman says. “But if it is calm you can score because of the risk and reward nature of it. It should be really exciting.”
Aggressive? Conservative? Either method could prevail. The tricky greens mean any style of player could come out on top. And the par-5-3-5 finishing holes could lead to a wild conclusion.
“Anything under par is a good score,” says Las Vegas resident Maverick McNealy. “It’s very challenging. You’re tested everywhere. There's not many gimme birdie holes that's for sure. It's a pretty long golf course, and I've never seen a blade of grass out of place out there.”
Speaking to DiMeglio in 2018, Jordan Spieth said, “The par-3 17th is just a 9-iron, but it’s to a tiny green surrounded by water. And the par-5 18th has water in play, so, yes, you can make an eagle, but you can easily make bogey. It’s quite a finish.”
Chances are it will be an exciting one, which in true Vegas fashion will likely be embellished as the years pass. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that.