TPC at the Canyons

By Michael Hegarty, Contributor

LAS VEGAS - At first glance, it doesn't appear that much work was put into the Tournament Player's Club at the Canyons in Las Vegas.

But once you look around the manicured fairways and soft greens, you realize it's the majority of the golf course, the native desert landscape, that wasn't touched, that offers the real challenge.

The canyons, endless surroundings of rugged, desert rocks and vegetation, the numerous forced carries, and elevation changes put a premium on shot-making on the 7,063-yard public course set between the towering casinos of the Strip and the peaceful mountains to the west.

And then there's the wind.

"You never know when it's coming, but it always seems to be there," said Head Pro Brian Esposito.

The wind can blow so hard at times, it literally knocked the Senior PGA Tour off the course. With gusts blowing up to 40 m.p.h. during the windy, spring months when the Las Vegas Senior Classic came to town, the players struggled (and complained) enough to have the tour replace the Canyons with its private, sister course, TPC at Summerlin.

The course plays extremely difficult during those blustering times since running the ball up short of the green is not an option on a majority of the holes due to its rocky borders.

"The seniors had mixed emotions," Esposito said. "They liked the course, but they had brutal winds when they played (in April). "It's hard to do anything with the ball in that."

Now, thanks in part to the Desert Inn Country Club being replaced by a hotel, the young guns on the PGA Tour are going to give the Canyons a try October 10-14 when the Canyons joins Summerlin and the private Southern Highlands as co-hosts of the PGA's $4.5 million Invensys Classic (where Tiger won his first pro tournament in 1996). Summerlin is the main course for the 5-day, 90-hole event with Highlands and the Canyons hosting the players for a round each.

In an effort to keep the pros swinging again and again (year after year, not tee shot after tee shot), the Canyons made some improvements to more than a half dozen holes to make it more playable.

Greens were changed to hold more approach shots, large bail-out areas were added around the putting surfaces and tee boxes were moved to alter the flight paths over the gorges and desert rocks that encompass the majority of the course designed in 1996 by Bobby Weed, with assistance from Raymond Floyd.

"We gave the holes a different look and made some of them more playable," Esposito said.

The word is still out on how the professionals feel about the new test, but Esposito is confident they are going to enjoy it. Many pros visit the course, which, like the other 22 TPCs (only eight are public though), offer top of the line practice facilities.

The Canyons' driving range is expansive with plenty of room to always find fresh grass to hit from, a chipping green with three bunkers to practice everything from shallow to deep to fairway sand shots, and a putting green that rolls true - and fast - just like the course.

"You could spend all day there," Esposito said. "We have quite a bit of regulars who practice here every day."

So make sure and arrive with plenty of time to warm-up, especially since every advantage is helpful, and the entire staff are courteous and professional and ready to make your round enjoyable and memorable.

The pro shop and starter's station both offer a flood of information on the playing conditions: Temperature, wind, pin placement, stimpmeter, and even sunburn factor.

The most valuable tip, besides the generic (yet especially true here) cliché to "hit it straight and long," is that all the putts break away from the mountains and toward the Stratosphere Casino, whose needle is visible from just about anyone on the course. No matter how straight it looks, always favor the Stratosphere side (in Vegas, you can never escape the casino's pull, even though they're 30 minutes away).

The other important factor is choosing the right tee box, something that can be difficult for a lot of people to accept, Esposito said. Since it's a PGA course, many want to play it to the same conditions as the top golfers in the world - from as far back as possible, whether they belong back there or not.

"It's tough to play it the way the pros do and it can make for a long round and lots of lost golf balls," Esposito said. "As long as you play the right tees, you should do allright."

And with 60 tee boxes, the course has plenty of options for changing the course with little effort. While driving is important, the key is to keep the ball in the fairways, which are wider than they appear. Danger lurks on every shot as many greens are surrounded on multiple sides by gorges that send balls bouncing far away to their demise.

Transition areas (with vegetation and long, yellow grass) are found on all the holes, except the par-3s. The first hole lets you "Ease-in" to your round, a par-4 of 349 yards (from the blue tees with a total yardage of 6,772 yards) that has one of the course's 85 well-placed bunkers on the right side of the fairway, that is easily reachable from the tee.

No. 2, an ill-placed par-3 of 184 yards that backs up easily, offers little room for error: Rocks and deep desert surround all but the right side of the green, one of the putting surfaces that was rebuilt to keep more shots from rolling off. Still, the drop area gets almost as much play as the tee box.

The first par-5, No. 4, is reachable in two at 518 yards, downhill and usually downwind; the other two par-5s on the course are three-shots at minimum, measuring nearly 600 yards apiece.

The back side is best known for the cavernous desert gorge - 30-feet deep in places and home to all sorts of wildlife - and comes into play on most of the holes. No. 13, a 381-yard par-4, lets you decide on how much of the "Death Valley" arroyo to play over on the fairway that curves right.

The canyon factors in most of the remaining holes, with water making it's only real appearance on No. 18, a downhill par-4 measuring 439 yards with the "Oasis" name coming from the lake surrounding the left side of the green that's surrounded by bunkers.

For the professional or amateur, TPC at the Canyons has plenty to challenge everyone with its abundant canyons, the ever-changing wind, extensive warm-up and practice facilities, and top notch staff and ground crews. And the end of the round, and the day, the view ain't too bad either.

"It's beautiful, especially at night when we leave the clubhouse," Esposito said. "The lights of the strips are lit up and usually the moon is illuminating the mountains. It's a great place to be."

Par 71 TPC tees, 7,063 yards; rating: 73.0 / slope: 131 Blue, 6,772 yards; 70.9 / 128 White, 6,110 yards; 67.7 / 118 Red, 5,039; 67.0 / 109

Michael Hegarty, Contributor

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