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There was this piece of land north of Las Vegas that the client wanted golf course designer Tom Fazio to take a look at. Three hundred fifty acres, ripe for development. Soil a little alkaline—if you planted a tulip in it, the tulip would die, coughing and gasping, like Jimmy Cagney in The Roaring Twenties. But a great view. Heck, you could see all the way to Charleston Peak, 40 miles away, because the property was as flat as a coffee table and there wasn't anything growing on it.
"Not a twig," says Fazio. "It was boring, uninteresting, worthless, nothing, zero."
Fazio, an earnest guy with thick spectacles and a humble manner, told the client he wasn't impressed. He said, "This is probably the worst site for a golf course I've ever seen."
But the client was persistent. He envisioned a golf course on his land, and he didn't mind spending a few dollars for improvements.
So Fazio shrugged and went to work. Reportedly he spent $3 million to bring in water and electricity. He made 60-foot-deep cuts in the desert floor and bulldozed 3 million cubic yards of earth into mounds and ridges. He dug a half-mile-long creek bed and lined it with rocks and boulders trucked in from miles away. He built ponds and cascading waterfalls. He ordered 10,000 trees from the garden store and had them planted at a cost of $9 million. Finally, for $4 million more, he sodded the whole course to keep the topsoil from blowing away.
When Fazio was finished, a golf course that might have cost $3 to $5 million in Missouri or Tennessee wound up with a $37 million price tag. That includes tee markers and ball washers, of course.
Those who have played Shadow Creek say it's a wonderful course. You have to take their word for it. Fazio's client—Steve Wynn, chairman of Golden Nugget, Inc., which owns the Mirage Hotel and Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and other properties—doesn't let just anybody play it, only close friends and casino guests with seven-figure incomes. Even Fazio didn't realize how exclusive Shadow Creek was until he showed up one day to play a round with Wynn and found himself in a foursome with Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood. Pop star Michael Jackson followed them for a few holes on foot, but the course was otherwise deserted.
"A typical day at Shadow Creek," says another of Fazio's clients, "is two foursomes."
And some days, according to Fazio, nobody plays Shadow Creek at all.
Making deserts bloom is ordinary stuff in this, the Gilded Age of Golf Course Architecture. When developers hired Jack Nicklaus to design a golf course at Thousand Oaks, Calif., five years ago, they asked him to preserve the dramatic live oak trees on the property, many of them with trunks two to three feet in diameter. The course couldn't be routed around them, so Nicklaus had 30 of the trees transplanted at a cost of up to $100,000 each. Final tab at the Sherwood Country Club: $45 million (including clubhouse).