Las Vegas National Golf Club in Las Vegas, NV
Tee Time: April 19, 2013, 12:40, 76 F, Light wind
Designer: Bert Stamps (1961)
Playing Partners: Mike and Garrett
Tees: Professional, Par 71 (73.5 rating/137 slope/6,721 yards)
Course Handicap: 15 (12.2 index)
Stats: 87 (48-39); 27 putts; 4/13 fairways; 2/18 greens; 2 penalty strokes
I’ll just start this by saying that Las Vegas National Golf Club is awesome. Not only are the grounds steeped in over a half-century of Las Vegas history, but to this day the atmosphere still feels like it’s stuck in the 1960s. It probably would have been better to have an old Kodak film camera to log this round and maybe some persimmon woods to knock around. But at more than 6,700 yards for this par 71, I’ll take advantage of today’s NASA-engineered, 460cc titanium drivers and ultra-forgiving cavity-back irons, because half of the par 3’s come in at more than 200 yards and I’m no Lee Trevino with a 1-iron. In many ways it feels that time has passed this place by, but it takes nothing away from the experience. This is the site of Tiger Woods’ first career PGA Tour victory, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational (one can only guess what he did with those showgirls afterward…) It’s even crazier to think that it is because of Tiger Woods that the PGA Tour will probably never return here. Within six months of that first victory, Tiger put up his landmark performance at the 1997 Masters. The carnage was so great that the hallowed course in Augusta underwent massive changes to toughen the place up, giving rise to the era of “Tiger-proofing.” Golf soared in popularity. When Tiger won that ’96 Invitational he took home $297,000. The event’s winner in 2012, Ryan Moore, pocketed $810,000. New courses (most of them cookie-cutter) sprouted up like weeds after a spring rain and the equipment industry put so many springboard drivers and rocket golf balls on the market that classics like Las Vegas National got left behind. Just 16 years later, a tour pro would tear this place up, but it is still a great challenge and very refreshing when compared to all the modern course styles in golf today.
Vegas is much different in 2013 than it was in the heyday of the Rat Pack in the 1960s. Just look at the stark contrast in architecture viewable from the fairways. Lining the course are hundreds of homes from the sixties. A tiny pool, sectioned housing and lots of whites and pastels. I would bet half of these homes still have that lovely brown and yellow shag carpeting, popcorn ceilings and either a ’59 pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville or a ’65 Buick Lasabre painted bamboo cream in the carport. Towering above these dwellings, just a couple miles away, are today’s homages to excess shimmering in the bright sun like the Wynn, Venetian and Cosmopolitan. The Las Vegas Invitational is now the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and held at TPC Summerlin, a private club in a town where tee times already run up to $500. Frank Sinatra has been replaced with Criss Angel. Moe Green was shot in the eye and replaced by Steve Wynn. Heck, even Graig Mantle has been substituted in for Mickey Mantle. Times certainly have changed.
Well, off to the course. Las Vegas National Golf Club opens with a 533-yard dogleg right par 5 to a green sandwiched by large sand traps to the front and back. In fact, you will spend time in at least one greenside bunker here – it’s a guarantee. The tee shot plays narrower than it looks, with fairway bunkers to the right and trees lining the left side. The pine and palm trees here are mature, fully grown specimens and get in the way a lot. Those are probably the two hardest types of tree to play around, over or through because they can be so thick and meaty. Best just to avoid them. The par-4 2nd is a dogleg right that offers a chance to cut off a big chunk of the hole and leave a short approach with the risk of ending up in those trees. Bailing out left leaves a long second shot over sand. The first of the par 3s, the 202-yard 3rd, is designed so that really only half of the green is reachable from the tee. You’ll have to hit a mid- to long-iron to reach, and going over the front trap will most likely just run off into the sand in the back. The par-5 4th snakes right to left along 529 yards before the shorter 364-yard 5th, which continues the dogleg right trend of the front nine. The longest par 4 waits at No. 6, at 440 yards and the longest par 4 on the course. The eighth is the easiest of the front side. The par 3 is still 190 yards with water and sand to the front and right, but there is plenty of room out left to stay safe, and chipping from that area is a simple up-and-down. The 9th is only hard if you smoke one off the golf course as it plays straightaway with the only sand easily carried. A 4-shot par is a likely outcome on the way off to the snack shack.
The 10th at Las Vegas National is a sign of things to come with the remaining par 4s. A slight dogleg with a bit of sand and playing a bit uphill, there is a tall pine tree along the right rough that actually leans out over the fairway. This happens on a few holes here and can turn a 50-yard wide landing area into effectively a 35- to 40-yard area. And more often than not, a fairway bunker waits on the opposite side for those who steer too far away from the trees. Enjoy the shortest par 3 on the course – the 179-yard 11th – before getting to the uphill, 426-yard par-4 12th with a two-level green. From the shortest to the longest, the next par 3 is the 14th at a whopping 233 yards. Mercifully there is plenty of grass to run a ball up onto the green here, making this hole play easier than if it were a forced carry of 233. The 15th boomerangs way out to the left as a 546-yard par 5. This is the best chance for an eagle because if you’re bold enough to cut the corner over the houses, you’ll have just over 200 yards left to a large green that is an easy two-putt from any location. The 16th is long and almost a mirror of the 3rd, playing over 200 yards but this time with bunkers cutting off the right half of the green instead of the left. The 17th may be the prettiest golf hole on the course, with a pleasing view from the tee of tall palm trees and colorful green pine trees. It does play short, at only 351 yards, but has a tough green to work around if you miss with that 80-yard half-wedge. The par-5 18th is a three-shot hole thanks to the water jutting in from the right side about 120 yards from the front of the green. There are sand traps at awkward distances between the water and the putting surface, so missing any attempt with a fairway wood brings bogey or worse into play.
While advances in the game’s technology may have eased some of Las Vegas National Golf Club’s distance-related difficulty, the true test remains around the greens. The sand traps are relatively deep and soft. They can present a tough challenge just getting out, let alone close (except for that shot I holed out for par, but I’m just good…) Many of the greens are elevated or feature run-off spots that leave delicate chips back onto the dance floor. Not only that – they all have a lot of break in them, with a few roller coaster putts that could go anywhere. I do really love this course because unlike other golf courses in the Vegas area, there isn’t anything here that feels gimmicky. No blind shots, no artificial island greens, no holes made just for the brochure picture instead of being something playable and everyone on the staff is real. It’s refreshing, especially after having spent four days on the Strip dealing with patronizing dealers, flirty waitresses and all the men in suits begging you to get in their limo to see naked ladies. The employees here like to talk golf and have years of knowledge and stories at their disposal. I’ll have to come back just to hear some more of those entertaining tales.
#13, Par 4, 329 yards, 16-handicap, My Score: 4
The shortest par-4 on the golf course is also the prettiest. Fortunately the hole is short enough to make taking the safe, accurate option of hitting an iron off the tee okay. I hit a 5-wood up the chute to the left of the tall pines and left about 80-yards in to a two-tiered, oval green. My favorite part about the 13th is the front sand trap. It’s more beach than bunker, with no guard between the water and sand. So on any given day this hole could have three sand traps and a water hazard, or two sand traps and a larger water hazard, depending on whether any rain breezed through earlier. It does make a huge difference. That front-side trap is a pretty straightforward sand shot while obviously the extra water is a penalty stroke. Also, depending on the waves and motion of the lake, parts of that sand trap could be dry and fluffy or wet and packed. Of course, I only have so much to say about this bunker because I ended up in it. And then I hit a picturesque out that rolled softly into the left side of the cup. The only improvement I would make here is to create a small area from which to run a drive onto the green. If that option was available, even the slightest chance, I bet a lot of people would give it a go and that sand and water would come into play much more frequently.
Layout: B+; there are a few ways to get around Las Vegas National, but those trees can come into play in a hurry. And don’t just aim for the center of the green unless you want tough 40-foot putts all day long. There is a premium on accuracy here and being in the wrong spots is punishing.
Amenities: A-; standard practice facilities. The Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame between the pro shop and the restaurant is really cool to check out, and the steak sandwich is amazing.
Staff: A; the employees at the snack bar and restaurant are all very nice and chatty. And the starter, in his late 70s now, used to caddy for my uncle Mickey Mantle during the pro-ams here years ago – that’s pretty cool. And I know this isn’t really staff-related, but I did have a good time with my playing partners. I’ve been lucky, I’ve played alone 4 times since starting this blog and always seem to run into cool people on the course. They kept it loose and fun. It was like being back at home with friends, really awesome and made everything that much more memorable.
Difficulty: B; the course doesn’t present any real challenges; it’s content to sit back and let you beat yourself. The place will test your short game though, so be ready with that wedge.
Scenery: B-; I could complain about the lack of views of the Strip (though the Stratosphere seems to be visible from everywhere), but then again, there was no strip as we know it today when this place was opened. I enjoyed looking around at all the old homes and trees.
Value: A-; at $119, this is a fair rate for a good course just minutes from the the casinos. Other courses claim to be “just minutes” from the Strip when in reality they mean 30+ minutes. And with Spring rates averaging over $180 in the area this is a bargain – especially for any who might want to save their money for the poker room.
Overall GPA: 3.4 (B+); take in a quick round here (the pace of play is very brisk) and be back in time to go out at night, already in a good mood from a fun day in the fresh air.