The Falls: Top of the world pleasure puts on Vegas worthy show
HENDERSON, Nev. - Looking down and down from the 13th tee, it is easy for even a tall roller coaster enthusiast or a skyscraper viewing platform devotee to suddenly experience a twinge of Acrophobia. It is not just high up it feels like you are, and it feels you're on top of the world (minus Leo, Kate and the cheesy Celine Dion tune). No, it's more than the height.
It's how vulnerable you feel.
The tee boxes on the 13th are about as wide as a junior high gym mat. You'd have trouble fitting a Mini Cooper on the size of this grass surface. And the bulldozer-carved tee surface just hangs there, straight up in the air, nothing but sky right off those quickly coming grass edges. The effect is something like teeing off from a mountain's ledge. Swing too hard and you can imagine toppling straight off the steep cliff, right onto all those golf-ball collecting rocks below.
It's ridiculous of course. It's really not that high. Only about 300 feet to those rocks. There's really plenty of swing space. Most players could unleash their full swings in a decent-sized closet. It's an effect...but oh what an effect it is. Tom Weiskopf's The Falls is the Las Vegas golf equivalent of the Stratosphere or Cirque du Soleil. You know it's for show, but it's thoroughly enthralling nevertheless.
The drive from the tees, one that must clear over 200 yards of a rocky desert canyon crater from the back blacks, is only the opening act of the 13's theatrics. Once you shoot down to the world, and hopefully reach the grass, the obstacle course truly begins. The fairway of this 388-yard, par-4 snakes through the canyon past a tall rock wall on a sharp dogleg right. Huge bunkers/beachfronts guard the narrow opening to the turn on the right. Navigate that and it is natural to start breathing easy. It looks like a short straight uphill shot to the green is all that remains.
Come up short at all, miss clearing the ridge in the green by even an inch, and you're just getting started however. Balls roll back down this green, picking up speed as they go screaming back towards the golfer. You are over the ridge or you're looking at a longer return shot than the one you just hit. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Get in a bad groove and this approach can turn into a haywire game of Skeet Ball.
Just when you thought all was safe in your golf world.
"It's very dramatic," Falls head pro Greg Brockelman said in the understatement of the year.
Dramatic? The Falls is Sean Penn in full ham-it-up, Oscar-seeking I-Am-Sam form. It is so over the top it practically clonks you over the head with its grand ambitions. And you know what? It works. It delivers on its farfetched, reach-for-the-sky (literally) promise. It is hard to recommend a greens fee course that starts off as slow as the monorail at Disney World. Harder still when that course shares the Lake Las Vegas high roller golf community with Reflection Bay, perhaps the most overpriced, under whelming track in Sin City.
Yet somehow the sheer majestic reach of Weiskopf's design overcomes all those obstacles. It even topples the annoying fact that warming up for your round on this nearly-three-hundred-dollar course means hitting irons off a mat into a net two feet away (still no practice range).
The Falls delivers one of those rare, rare rounds you'll still be talking about five years later. The grand elevation change stretch of No. 12, 13 and 14 grabs you from that first high tee perch and doesn't let go until you are putting out in the long 14th valley. This stretch is not just visually arresting, it's shot-making forcing. It takes more than mammoth drives from the tees, into the thin air straight ahead and over the deep gorges below to post decent numbers on this trio. Selecting the right irons on the approach shots are key as you shoot around tall rock walls on the edges of the fairways.
All this, while you're still trying to get over those views.
"It's this picture that you've never seen before," Falls first-timer Randy Shuck said. "There's the tee and there's the drop off."
"It's just amazing," Shuck's buddy Ty Tvedten broke in.
These aren't two golf hicks from the sticks talking here. Shuck and Tvedten are used to playing the highest of the high-end courses, from Cascata to Shadow Creek and the other select few that make Vegas visitors swoon. They have money. They have game. They are no easy wows.
Yet one trip around The Falls and they are practically stammering and searching for words like lovesick teenagers.
"Getting to see the Vegas skyline in the background is pretty cool," Tvedten said.
That view comes into play on No. 12, where from the ridge it appears like you are practically eye-to-eye with the towering Stratosphere. It is another jaw-dropping draw and this one's no illusion. With everything in the Vegas area slanting down to The Strip, the top of the Stratosphere and the 12th hole at The Falls almost match up exactly. (They measured it building the course.)
Just another unexpected touch thought up by Weiskopf.
"This course is very imaginative," Shuck said.
That comes through in the way Weiskopf lets the round build in tempo. This is not the work of an insecure, glory-hound designer desperate to make the golfers notice Him, Him, Him from start to finish. In fact, Weiskopf almost uses the first four or five holes to drum up your anticipation. These are not holes that demand notice. Rather they are honest tests that allow you to settle into a round and gather some momentum.
It is a rather risky, bold approach in today's Grab-Me-Now world of course design. Which is shown in some of the Lake Las Vegas golf staff's seemingly compulsive need to make excuses for this beginning.
"(The Falls) starts out a little slow like a roller coaster," Reflection Bay head pro Dan Romstead said. "It's a little different."
In this case, different is good. Weiskopf knew what he was doing. His approach produces an evolving round rather than a mishmash of competing would-be signature holes. This is a day of golf with a beginning, a middle and an end, exhilarating and satisfying at the same time.
"Its bite is not as big as its bark," Brockelman said.
That's because The Falls is not a course that's trying to prove anything. Its aim seems to be to provide an unforgettable, enjoyable day of golf rather than to collect magazine tributes. Come to think of it, there's nothing to look down on here.
The Nos. 12, 13 and 14 stretch could almost make this a must play by itself. These are truly original holes combining plenty of strategy and the too-often forgotten fun factor with the take-a-step-back views. Weiskopf's course is more than the best of its greatest parts though. For all the fretting over the start, the 415-yard, par-4 No. 1 with its huge desert area running alongside the entire right side of the fairway and another desert stretch dissecting the fairway down the middle just before the green is a worthy test in its own right.
The biggest quibble comes with a few unnecessarily long par 5s (the 602-yard second and the 581-yard 18th) that are more mind-numbing endurance tests than anything. Well, that and the inappropriate name. The Falls has about as much to do with falls, or even water in general, as Elton John's Strip novelty store has to do with reserved attire. There are two man-made waterfalls on the course, but they were not even running on this December day and no one noticed or cared. They are not in play. They have nothing to do with the course. You could fall from a great height here, but that's about it.
Still, when you are standing on the 13th tee, any minor problems slip away. At this is obviously not a course you are going to play every week. But like a truly great high-priced, high-quality restaurant, it is definitely a worthwhile splurge. And it might even draw you back sooner than you think. This is the first course reviewed in three months which made me want to almost immediately play it again. Once you've shook off the scenery, you start thinking about how you'd like to play this shot or that shot differently. That's the mark of a real find, wallet deflation and all.
Places to eat
Japengo ((702) 567-1234) in the nearby Hyatt Regency offers Pacific Rim-inspired cuisine and a full sushi bar, with some items flown in daily. There is an A&W up the road in the town of Henderson, right near the Wal-Mart that seems to be the center of this area. Otherwise, if you're looking for something special, taking the 25 to 30 minute drive to The Strip is your best bet. Mon Ami Gabi ((702) 944-4224), a reasonable French bistro in the Paris hotel that somehow manages to avoid falling into the touristy stereotype, offers better food than many of the egocentric chef playpens.
Places to stay
The Hyatt Regency ((702) 567-1234) provides a movie set-like setting on a lake (the hotel was a movie set once in the John Cusack and Julia Robert's vehicle America's Sweethearts. Even the standard rooms are large and almost all offer views. Throw in a staff that loves to please and this is one of the best escapes from the hustle and bustle of The Strip. A spa in the resort offers a variety of relaxation-geared packages. The nearby manufactured village provides a few high-end and a few just highly-interesting shops to browse. There is also the recent addition of an ice skating rink.
All these are daytime activities however. It gets pretty quiet here at night. If you want the Vegas craziness, expect to make a few drives to The Strip.
December 24, 2004