From the very beginning back in 1990, Las Vegas’ Shadow Creek Golf Course had something special. "Mystique" is probably the best word to describe the intangibles that have made this Tom Fazio design, and the ultra-private experience that surrounds it, one of the game’s most sought-after tee times.
Even though Shadow Creek, now owned by MGM Resorts International, has always been accessible for casino guests with enough money and cache, it has always oozed exclusivity. So much so that it even inspired its own urban legends. Over the past two decades, I’ve heard stories (more times than I can count) about how Gary Primm, former chairman of Primm Valley Resorts, had to build his two Fazio-designed courses just over the border in California because of a non-compete agreement the architect had signed with Wynn to make Shadow Creek the only Fazio-designed course in the state of Nevada. Of course, that’s not true at all, as Tom Fazio himself told me a number of years ago. But it’s a great story.
What’s true is that it’s not so much elitism that drives the Shadow Creek mystique. As with most things in Las Vegas, it’s all about money. High rollers you’ve never heard of exchange hundreds of thousands of dollars on matches among these desert-transplanted pines just as celebrities try to hole putts on these immaculately manicured greens. And occasionally you get true icons of pop culture like the high-rolling-celebrity-athlete trifecta of Michael Jordan, who has hosted his celebrity tournament at Shadow Creek, giving golf fans the rare chance to walk the fairways from which most of them will never get to take a divot.
This megamoney mystique is why I can’t think of a better course anywhere in the world to host a $9 million golf match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Not only does Shadow Creek rank highly in nearly all top 100 lists, but it’s also a course where Tiger and Phil can attack. Both know Shadow Creek quite well. Back in the early 1990s, Phil shot the course record with a 61, and then, as has almost always been the case in Mickelson’s career, Tiger came along a few years later and carded a 60.
But there’s more to Shadow Creek than just who has played it over the years — it’s a beautifully secluded wonderland smack in the middle of North Las Vegas urbanity, and that’s what makes it even more magical. Shadow Creek is a true oasis in the desert. An amazing escape from the city just outside the gates.
“I think it's one the most unique places if all of golf,” Woods said Tuesday in Vegas. “To go from a flat piece of property in a flat desert to creating something that you would find in the Carolinas, out in the mountains, I think it's just phenomenal. To be able to create something so utopian like this is a testament to the ownership and what their vision was for this property, and what they've done is just incredible.”
So which holes might generate magical moments between Woods and Mickelson during this trash-talking, cash-swapping, pay-per-view match on which fans can wager in real time? Here are a few, in order of potential importance:
- Hole 18 (Par 5, 529 yards) — The question is whether “The Match” will even make it to the final hole. But if Tiger and Phil arrive on the 18th tee with the big money still hanging in the balance, this could be the most strategic hole all day. Water comes into play all down the right, and missing left can also be dead (and let’s be honest, we’re not always dealing with the straightest drivers of the golf ball in this twosome). The guy who finds the fairway can give the green a go in two (over water, one of Fazio’s favorite hazards). Will they play it smart and safe or will ego-driven risk create the drama we all crave?
- Hole 17 (Par 3, 154 yards) — During the HBO’s “24/7 The Match: Tiger vs. Phil” documentary special, Mickelson said he expects to end the match on the 17th, which just happens to be one of my favorite par 3s anywhere in the West. It’s a straightforward downhill shot over water, with the green in its own little tree-shrouded garden of sorts. For average players, trouble lurks around the green, which feels a bit like an island. Even the Shadow Creek website uses NHL legend Wayne Gretzky’s classic quote about this golf-design gem: “My favorite hole — even if you’re a good player, you can make a 2 or an 8.”
- Hole 4 (Par 5, 581 yards) — Although the opening par 4 will get a lot of attention because of the now-infamous $200,000 prop bet on whether Mickelson will make birdie, I think No. 4 could be a significant turning point on the front nine. A cape-style par 5 with water running all along the left, this sublime routing (one of the most beautiful on the property) offers a variety of strategic options. The tees will likely be up slightly to create a true go-for-it decision for the players. However, one bad swing on No. 4 and we might see a quick concession and be on to the next hole.
- Hole 5 (Par 3, 202 yards) — That “next hole” is what I consider to be the toughest iron shot on the property for mere mortals but a relatively straightforward shot for the best players in the world. There’s a lot going on visually, including a forced carry, to get in an average player’s head (it’s also the toughest walk from tee to green because both the tee and green are elevated). However, No. 5 was highlighted during Phil’s practice round on the HBO special, so we can expect to see a high-stakes closest-to-the-pin side wager for charity on this hole, the first one-shotter they’ll encounter, and in my opinion the second-best 3-par on the property (although No. 13 is definitely prettier).
- Hole 9 (Par 4, 460 yards) — No. 9 is another signature Shadow Creek hole (and emblematic of much of Fazio’s desert work) in that it again includes a ribbon of water running alongside the fairway (in this case down the left side) that comes into play just enough to get a player’s attention. So much of Shadow Creek is about driving the ball into proper position to attack pins, so I expect holes like this will most likely take the driver out of the competitors’ hands to eliminate the risk of missing the fairway.
- Hole 11 (Par 4, 324 yards) — On the flip side of playing it safe at No. 9, everyone watching should ask for their pay-per-view $20 back if both Woods and Mickelson don’t go for the green on the short par-4 11th. The green-fronting bunker is about the only hurdle to reaching the flag, and shots skipping long might make for some fun up-and-down side wagers.
- Hole 15 (Par 4, 482 yards) — Look for someone to make a mistake at No. 15. I mean, we watch golf as much for the blowups as the birdies, don’t we? It’s just human nature. Another Fazio creek comes into play down the left side (where balls can funnel toward it) and then crosses in front of the green. If this hole plays to full yardage, we might look back at No. 15 being the hole that dealt the deadliest blow as the match winds down to the finish. Personally, I’m hoping the pin is front-right for maximum sucker-pin potential on that green.
“What [Tom Fazio has] done on this property is spectacular,” Mickelson said in Tuesday’s pre-match press conference. “This course has always rated one of the highest in the world. It's a perfect spot for us. We were able to bring this event to Las Vegas and play it on a world-class golf course. The score will be relevant to conditions and wind and temperature, but I think we both have it in mind that this is a sprint and not a marathon. We're not playing four days; we're playing one. We've got to come out and fire. There is a lot of risk-reward here, a lot of water, a lot of trouble, but there are also a lot of birdie opportunities.”
And it’s that mix of birdie potential and trauma-inducing trouble that should make “The Match” exciting and unpredictable. So as we wait to see if Phil can beat Tiger, it’s also worth remembering that Shadow Creek might be the true winner come Friday afternoon.