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In Las Vegas, Nev. this week, 24 professional golfers, every one of them the winner of at least one major tournament in the past year (see box), will tee off in the fourth annual Tournament of Champions. They will be playing for a lot of money—at least $37,500 and possibly $40,000—over the most improbable golf course in North America. Five years ago the Desert Inn course was a gritty-gray wasteland of sand and sagebrush, land-marked only by windswept boulders and rusty beer cans—the flattest, dingiest, most colorless corner of the great American desert.
The sporting men who run the Desert Inn, the most gorgeous of the overblown gambling palaces which line Highway 91 out of Vegas, studied their forlorn backyard and in 1951 decided it was just the place for a golf course. They took a little too much time figuring out the angles, and while they were figuring the news got around and the price of the wilderness went up to $2,000 an acre. They peeled off a few days' receipts from the blackjack tables and bought $320,000 worth. It was only the first of the outsize statistics in what was to prove as complex an engineering job as had ever been undertaken for motives of pleasure since a Persian princess, nostalgic for her mountain home, persuaded King Nebuchadnezzar to build the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
You may wonder why anyone in Las Vegas should feel nostalgia for the out of doors. People don't go there for golf or scenery—they are headed for the vast, low-domed, Aladdin-style caverns where to cries of "Yo-leven!" "Double-trey!" "Insurance!" they push $5 and $25 chips (stamped, at the Desert Inn, with the face and signature of Impresario Wilbur Clark) back and forth across green baize tables till dawn or noon; and if they visit the Health Club later, it is to have the resident chiropractor tone up their playing arm. Still, a golf course does add class to a place. And people come there to play from all corners of the country, including the Las Vegas High School, where upperclassmen are given free lessons by the hotel. And even if the $3 green fees don't begin to meet expenses, the course can be considered a prudent investment.
Mr. Clark allows his broad, hard gambler's face, which his admirers compare to Hopalong Cassidy's, to crack into an innocent smile as he says, "You should see the rows and rows of nice new shiny clubs hanging up in the clubhouse—never been used—but what an excuse for the wife when you want to come to Las Vegas."
The players make their contribution too. There are some Oklahoma oilmen who don't enjoy playing unless they are betting $1,000 a hole. It stands to reason that that kind of money will, by law of averages, have found its way into Mr. Clark's pockets before the oilmen leave town.
The course was begun in November, 1951. Larry Hughes, one of the West Coast's leading golf architects, was called in. He took a day's look around and was appalled. He had already built a handsome and successful course in the desert—Thunderbird at Palm Springs—but that desert was paradise compared to this. It had a few rolling contours, magnificent scenery, more than three inches of rain a year, a soil silted up by flash floods and at least partially sympathetic to vegetation.
The Desert Inn soil was nothing but a flat stretch of blow sand, the scourings and scrapings of the desert. It was so rich in alkali that only the toughest kinds of sagebrush and greasewood would grow in it. State agronomists came down to test it and reported that it had no phosphates or nitrates whatever; while simple observation showed that water ran through it like a sieve.
However, Hughes went ahead, made a reasonable estimate and laid out his 18 holes, ingeniously designed both to trick the champions and to please the duffers. He left a capable young man named Kenny Bricknell, now the green-keeper, in charge, with a staff of 72 laborers, plus tractors, cats and a couple of crews of welders to go to work.
They dug ditches for a temporary water system, leached down the soil with gypsum to counteract the alkali, bulldozed the sand into the proper contours for greens and traps, laid down tons of humus and peat moss, scoured the caves of Arizona for the accumulated dung of millions of bats. In the blow sand enriched with all these materials, grass seed sprouted beautifully.
Then a great wind came up and blew away all the seeds, and for a month or so distant patches of desert were covered with forlorn throw rugs of green. The workers put in fresh seeds, and a new wind came up and this time blew away not just the seeds but the greens and the bunkers and returned the course to a state of desolation.