Think you're a great putter? Try Rio Secco to find out

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

LAS VEGAS - Rio Secco may not be the ultimate Rees Jones experience - that would be the $60 million Cascata Golf Club in Boulder City, built for the highest of the Las Vegas high-rollers.

But for those of us who have to set limits on our gambling, Rio Secco is about the surest bet around. Built in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Rio Secco looks down upon the City of Las Vegas as well as any golfer who has thought of himself as a great putter.

OK, prove it. Architect Jones made the greens here fast and undulating, with subtle and not-so-subtle movement. A putt you think you nailed may end up 15 feet past the cup. A putt you think you just tapped goes rolling past like a freight train.

Reading putts here is like reading Ulysses: You can study it for a half hour and still not know what you're reading. These are mean greens.

"They're very unforgiving," said 22-handicapper Macy Walsh, a veteran Las Vegas golfer. "It's got to be true or it won't fall."

Do yourself a favor when you come here: skip the driving range and concentrate on the putting green, which mimics the harsh greens on the course.

Do yourself another favor. Don't hit your approach above the hole.

"We try to tell the average golfer to keep the ball below the hole," said Rio Secco head pro Ken Wright.

One last favor: don't tell anyone Rio Secco is a "typical desert golf course."

"From day one, we've told golfers, 'Yeah it's a desert course, but it's not typical,' " Wright said. "You'll see a lot of desert courses where, you miss the fairway, you won't find the ball."

You can certainly lose balls here, but Wright is correct in saying you shouldn't lose as many as in other desert course, like the Wolf course at the Paiute Resort, for example.

It isn't just the little strokes that make Rio Secco one of the top Las Vegas courses. The scenery is spectacular, and the views come from three different milieus: six of the holes are built on plateaus, six in a broad desert wash and six laid into steep canyons.

"I think he wanted to keep a lot of the natural setting intact," Wright said of Jones. "You'll see a lot of that on the front nine."

The only hole disturbed was No. 2, which was dynamited to form the 40-foot high canyon wall that frames the green. It's the kind of canyon Indians used to run buffaloes off of. Of course, with the homes crowded on the rim overlooking the hole, you won't be conjuring up images of Indians and buffaloes.

The course offers other challenges than putting.

It has four par-5s that will test even the longest hitters. The shortest is the 516 yards on No. 8, followed by the monster ninth, a 634-yard trek from the back tees.

No. 14 nearly reaches 600 yards, and No. 17, at 566 yards, is tight off the tee with an approach over a small canyon about 50 yards from the elevated green.

Jones uses the canyons and rock walls as frames of reference; it isn't like a flat, desert course that can be visually deceiving.

Also, it's a forgiving course other than the greens. Fairway mounding keeps your ball in play and - for the lucky few - hitting rocks out of bounds can sometimes knock you ball back onto the fairway.

The verdict

Rio Secco is a first-class experience, from the carts with their padded cloth seats and aluminum wheels, to the immaculate fairways, greens and tee boxes.

The problem is that it is a residential golf community and all that entails. The houses aren't that intrusive on the front nine, but they start to become irritating on the back nine. On the 10th hole in particular, you may feel like you're part of the family.

Construction is ongoing, with lots clearly marked lots for future homes. It's got the views, but you hardly feel like you're alone in the desert.

If you're willing to overlook that, or if you happen to like looking at expensive houses, you're in for a treat.

Because it's in the foothills, the course employs a lot of elevation changes, and the canyons that must be carried keep the movement dynamic.

Green fees range from $175 to $200, typical of Las Vegas.

Places to stay

Henderson is only about 15 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip; Vegas has lodging at every level, from first-class to no-class.

If you want to stay in Henderson, an upscale suburb, try the Sunset Station Hotel (214) 357-5522; Fiesta Henderson Station Casino Hotel (702) 558-7000 or the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Spa 40 acres of land (702) 617-7777.

Places to eat

Henderson has the usual chain eateries, but for something different, try Alley Gators Sportz Grille, the Black Mountain Grill or Coyote's Cantina.

Fast fact

Famed golf teacher Butch Harmon is based here and his star, estranged pupil, Tiger Woods, holds the course record with a 64.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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