Painted Desert Golf Course: The Perfect Tonic for Your Game

By Doug Saunders, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- You may already know that Las Vegas is considered the gambling and entertainment capital of the world. What you may not know is that Sin City is also on an unabashed quest to become the golf capital of the world. With the addition of an impressive arsenal of top shelf courses over the past five years, and over 40 existing layouts strewn across the desert floor in all directions, the quest is drawing to an end.

A parade of lush new courses have popped up to tempt players with a golf trip to this stark, desert territory, but the older tracks in town still present a pretty good case for a visit. Case in point: the Painted Desert Golf Course just north of the vaunted Strip.

Painted Desert opened in 1987, and served as the Valley's introduction to the desert target style architecture that had become all the rage in Scottsdale and Phoenix during the mid 80's.

The course is a par-72 layout designed by Jay Moorish, the venerable golf course architect whose career has included stints as a designer with Jack Nicklaus, George Fazio, Desmond Muirhead, and a legendary, decade-long collaboration with former PGA-great Tom Weiskopf. Since parting with Weiskopf, Moorish has gone on to craft some of the southwestern deserts' most talked about golf courses.

At the time that it was built, Painted Desert marked the beginning of the blending of modern construction techniques, irrigation, and grasses that enabled golf courses to be built on almost any type of soil and setting. Golf courses could now exist in desert wastelands or on mountainsides, their lush green fairways juxtaposed against the barren surroundings.

Moorish used these tools to create Painted Desert - a course that was situated 10 miles north of the strip and well off the beaten path when it opened. Painted Desert's sudden appearance on the Las Vegas scene created quite a stir: This track was different golf from the wall-to-wall grass, Florida-esque layouts that were strewn across the valley floor. Moorish's course was penal, demanding, and intimidating for average players who couldn 't hit fairways and greens.

Fifteen years later, Painted Desert seems rather tame compared to some of the wild desert courses that have been constructed over the past decade. Adding to the softening of the track is the fact that all of the housing that was built around the course has been completed and all of the landscaping around these houses has matured. There are still some desert wastelands along the fairways and some subtle carries off of the tees, but the overwhelming feeling here is one of playability and even fairness.

"This golf course is a very friendly layout and you can score here without having a feeling of imminent doom on every hole," said PGA Director of Golf John Scappatura. "We are a bit off of the beaten path, which means that we almost always have availability for tee times. Everyone who does make the trip out here though appreciates our conditioning, the price, and the friendly atmosphere."

The course has three sets of tees, playing to only 2,904 yards from the ladies tees, a comfortable 6,323 yards from the middle tees, and 6,840 yards from the back tees. Painted Desert has endeared itself to women, as they aren't pushed into having to make heroic drives. There are no tricks and no gimmicks and everything is right there in front of you. However, Painted Desert does retain the narrowness that designer Moorish set into the original plan, and still requires that players hit thoughtful, well-executed shots.

As you play the first few holes you quickly grow accustomed to the Moorish frail for subtle shaping accents. He works to create some transitional mounding to frame the fairways but the slopes are small so that they don't look out of place. The opening holes are comfortable par 4s that help to get you into the round quickly, and then more mounding and slopes aid in toughening up the par 5 3rd hole.

The fourth hole is a mid-length par-3 at 166 yards and is the first of a great set of par 3's. The hole is slightly downhill from the well-landscaped tee box, and is protected by a lake to the left front and bunkers left and right. Two trees around the hole help to make the target look even smaller. Hitting this green will give you a great sense of accomplishment.

The 8th hole continues the string of strong par 3's. This one is 173 yards with all carry over a lush pond. The green has a double dip in it and is one of the largest on the course. This hole has so much water, wetlands, and waterfowl that you forget that this is the desert.

The finishing hole on this side is a 395 yard par-4 that again shows Moorish 's great touch with shaping. The left side of the fairway drops off and is littered with bunkers through the landing area so accuracy is everything.

The back nine continues the fluid feeling of this golf course as it winds through the homes. Moorish, though, makes sure that it sets up for a good finish as each hole strengthens from 13 on in. The 13th is a 515-yard par five that sweeps slightly right off of the tee. There are no fairway bunkers and the hole, when it was built, was considered a long one. By today's standards it is just a pedestrian par 5.

The par-4 14th hole is another clever design. The hole is only 300 yards long but it slips between a series of lakes that threaten from both sides. You have to carry the lakes and you find that the elevated green calls for a precise approach shot to obtain par.

The course finishes strong with the par 5 17th hole setting the stage. This hole sweeps to the right and the fairway bunkers add a serious threat. Cutting off some of the dogleg with a big drive can put you in position to go for this green in two. The 18th is a straightaway par-4 of 388 yards that has a well-bunkered green.

Through it all you will find a golf course that can only help to bring out your best rather than accentuating your worst. If you are looking for a course that is more user friendly than a lot of the Las Vegas courses, consider Painted Desert Golf Course as the perfect tonic for your game.

DIRECTIONS - From the Strip take Route 15 north to Route 95. Go 11 miles north to Ann Road (exit 90b). Go left to the first stoplight and turn left on Painted Mirage Road. The course will be the first right.

Doug Saunders, Contributor

Doug Saunders has covered more than 20 major championships and his unique perspectives on the game have appeared in numerous publications including Golf World, GolfWeek, Golf Course Management, Golf Course News, Golfdom, and the USGA Golf Journal. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, California Golf Writers, and the Sierra Nevada Golf Course Superintendents Association.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Painted Desert- A new tradition

    R M wrote on: Mar 4, 2008

    My friend brought me to Painted Desert for my first Vegas golf experience in May 2006. It has now become an annual tradition to fly down just to play a round or two. I am not even on an amature playing level but I play as often as I can. The course is beautiful, and provides enough oppourtunity for that 'one great shot' to make the day worth while.


  • Course Condition - Unplayable

    Carol Hanke wrote on: Sep 16, 2007

    We golfed at your course on thursday, September 6, 2007. We could how believe how bad the condition was. The ground was like concrete, and there was very little grass, albiet brown, on the course. How can you, in good conscience, charge $85 per person. The course was actually unplayable. Earlier in the week we had been golfing in Arizona and the courses were in beautiful condition and the green fees and cart were averaging $30 a person. This is another case of LasVegas trying to take advantage of the tourists. It used to be LasVegas was happy to make their money from the gambling, but now it seems they want to make money, at the expense of the tourists, on everything. What happens in Vegas, won't stay in Vegas. We intend to spread the word on what a rip off this was.


    • RE: Course Condition - Unplayable

      JAM wrote on: Apr 18, 2008

      You must be either a lousy hacker or an angry gambler who lost a lot of money, thank you very much for our no state income tax.
      I have played over 50 courses in Vegas over the last 15 years and Painted Desert is one of the most consistent well kept places with some of the best greens in the valley. You must have just caught the course just prior to the two week of closure to re-seed the winter rye grass. I like it in September just before the closure because it reminds me of the kind of golf I played in Scotland. Man I just hate HACKERS, don't you?


  • great golf

    sean s hogue wrote on: Dec 1, 2005

    Painted Desert is a wonderful course and I recommend it to EVERYONE,a truly beautiful desert/traditional layout.And the price is right.